I lived on the other side of the tracks. In Junior High, I walked with a couple of friends northwest on Fond du Lac Avenue from 27 Street, under the train tracks where the Master Lock Company stood, and up the street about 3 blocks to the commanding school building, Peckham Junior High School, at 37 and Keefe in Milwaukee. I walked with kids from my neighborhood, in warm weather and in cold weather, with a few days off during the winter for snow days.
The neighborhood I walked from was distinctly different than the neighborhood I walked to when I emerged from the street under that tracks.
I’m always grateful for the education I received in the Milwaukee Public Schools, and I’m troubled by how schools in the United States are begin gutted – literally – by lawmakers who value the prejudices of their electorate over the needs of the communities they are called to serve.
Lately, I’ve discovered that one of the buildings I passed every day had been the home of the original factory of the mattress company owned by my husband’s great grandfather. The walk I took under the viaduct at 32 and Fond du Lac Avenue was a walk into a different life for me.
Peckham Junior High School has now been converted into Senior Apartments, large and beautiful apartments that have the same big windows overlooking the bungalows that line the streets in that part of Milwaukee.
In my memory, I see clearly that I had a certain consciousness about the path I was taking, that I was walking under that viaduct into a different life. It’s as if some part of me, deeper than words, and perhaps even deeper than thoughts, knew that I was walking into a way of living that my modest ancestors could not have imagined. I couldn’t imagine it, either, but there it was, “deep inside,” always.
Their dreams for me were being brought to life under the viaduct that led to the other side of the tracks.
2023 marks fifty years since Joanne sat down across from me at my desk in the Social Security office in Green Bay, Wisconsin, smiled warmly at me, and said: “Do you golf?”
I answered: “I haven’t, but I could try.” I have never tried, in 50 years. But Joanne is still a good friend, to me, and to my husband, Jeff.
We were both Claims Representatives at the Social Security office in Green Bay, Wisconsin. I’d arrived at the office in June of 1973, after three months of training in the Minneapolis office. In March, I’d driven my red VW bug to Minneapolis while I received training, and now I was permanently assigned to Green Bay. When I came to the office, I was the first woman to work as a Claims Representative in that District, helping folks who were about to retire to complete their claim for benefits. Joanne would follow, a couple of months later. She’d been promoted from her job as a Service Representative. As a Service Representative, she’d helped folks with issues they had after they had begun to receive benefits: Retirement, Disability, Child’s Benefits. In the time I worked at Social Security, in the Green Bay office, at the office on the South Side of Milwaukee, and later, as a Field Representative out of the Waukesha office, I never ran into a person who performed the job better than Joanne. She read each of the papers that came across our desk each week, filing them in the proper place in her copy of the Social Security Manuel, the working details of implementing the Social Security Law. She was smart and competent, the hardest worker I knew.
We traveled together, driving to the Northeast, to Florida, to Washington, D.C., to Montreal and Quebec on our vacation times. We met one another’s friends. We lamented our lack of dates. We shared recipes. We took rides together on warm summer nights, ending up on the Eastern Shore of Green Bay, watching the sun set over the Bay. When I was able, I moved back to Milwaukee, and Joanne followed, not long after. She bought a little house and she spent her weekends and evenings working hard on that house. Joanne can do anything, in my estimation.
The contractor that helped her with one of her house projects told her that there was a nice, young, divorced man who lived in a house around the corner. He wanted them to meet. Sure enough, Rich and Joanne began to date, and after a couple of years, they married, in the spring of 1983. They moved into his little house in the neighborhood, and later, a larger house. In 2014, they moved into a home they’d built on a small lake in the county to the west of Milwaukee County. Joanne had accomplished her life long dream to live on the water.
I was in seminary when Joanne and Rich were married, and she stood up with me in my wedding to Jeff in Milwaukee in March of 1984. In later years, after I’d moved to California, she and my mother became good friends, baking and cooking together, enjoying one another. When my mother’s memory became bad and she needed help, Joanne visited her and answered her frantic phone calls, until we knew she had to move to be closer to me in California.
A few years ago – 2016 – I answered the phone in the kitchen on Labor Day, in the evening, when Jeff and I were about to go to bed. I heard Joanne’s voice then, and I heard something in it I hadn’t heard before. “Joanne?” I asked. And then again: “Joanne?” She told me that she and Rich had spent the day in Emergency at a local hospital. Rich had been diagnosed with Glioblastoma, an aggressive cancer that originates in the brain. By October 15 of that year, Rich was gone. Jeff and I made sure we cleared our calendars and made the trip to be at his Memorial. There, Joanne was surrounded by so many friends that she and Rich had made over the years, both Rich and Joanne folks who were important to the community in which they lived.
Joanne came to visit us in Oakland this past winter. She’d arrived from Wisconsin, hoping for some nice, sunny weather. Winter can be long and gray in the Midwest, and sadly, winter here was long and gray, also, one rain storm following another for days. But the conversation that started so long ago in Green Bay continued, and since Joanne was visiting, we explored some interesting places in the Bay Area.
Next week, Jeff and I will be flying to O’Hare Field in Chicago, where we’ll rent a car and drive to spend the first night of our trip with Joanne in her house on the water. We won’t run out of things to talk about, the three of us, and together, we’ll make sure we remember Rich, how he made us laugh, how he made Joanne laugh.
I am known to cut the silence in a room by reciting a poem. I can recite so many poems by heart, and I love to recite them!
This past week, Jeff and I had traveled to the Carrizo Plain to witness the grand Super Bloom of the wildflowers this spring. In my last blog post, I wrote about the Super Bloom. So many times during the days we traveled, the whole poem, “Afternoon on a Hill,” by Edna St. Vincent Millay, came into my mind, “whole,” I like to say. I recited the poem to Jeff and our friends as we drove among the hills, all wearing wildflowers in vivid colors.
Thank you, Miss Ross – my English teacher for grades 7, 8, and 9 at Peckham Junior High School in Milwaukee. Every week, the assignment was given to memorize a poem. One of us was called without warning to recite the poem to the class on Friday. In my memory, I see myself standing before the class, saying out loud a poem I had memorized in my small bedroom of our upper flat on the North Side of Milwaukee. As shy as I was, I was never too nervous to stand in front of a group, to speak. I’m surprised, as I remember so many times I was called to do so.
We studied the writers, too, and each one of us put together books with the words to poems copied, and pictures which we’d cut out of magazines to go with the poems. I carefully pasted photos from Ladies’ Home Journal and McCalls to go with the poems I’d memorized.
Later, after I’d left Junior High and moved on to high school, I memorized another poem, longer this time: “The Night Before Christmas.” Every December, I try to find an audience to let me recite the poem. Some things in my life I don’t remember anymore, but the poems I committed to memory still live inside of me. I like that. And I’m grateful, always, to Miss Ross, in her navy blue polka dotted dress, black shoes and carefully set hair, who gave me the gift of these poems.
Thank you, Miss Ross!
Superbloom, Carrizo Plain, 4/11/2023, photo by Mary Elyn Bahlert
I will be the gladdest thing Under the sun! I will touch a hundred flowers And not pick one. — “Afternoon on a Hill,” Edna St. Vincent Millay
For a couple of days – for a few hours this week – my husband and I and two good friends were, indeed, “the gladdest thing under the sun!” We drove and we hiked up hills and we walked among the hills at Carrizo Plain National Monument in South Central California. The long drive was worth it!
Enjoy this tiny sliver of the beauty that was ours to savor, to enjoy, just for a time:
Carrizo Plain National Monument, photo by Mary Elyn Bahlert, April 11, 2023
When the “shelter in place” began in California in 2020, I expect that most of us thought that if we just closed down for a few weeks, we’d be able to get back to our real lives. And so we sheltered. Here in Northern California, the winters are often mild, and many winters, there is not even much rain – until this year, of course, a record-setting year for rain. So in the late winter and the spring of 2020, we stayed close to home, enjoying our yard in the city. In the evenings, before sunset, Jeff and I would often drive through Oakland, seeing neighborhoods we rarely saw, enjoying the one freedom we had. We ordered our groceries delivered to us. We felt privileged – which we are – with a studio in the back of the garage for Jeff, and the room I call “my little study” down a flight of stairs from the kitchen.
Still – how to pass the hours, multiplying into weeks and months? We didn’t take to going to worship online, and so we began to leave our house early on Sunday mornings to find places to walk. Both being retired, a Sunday morning to spend as we wished was a luxury. And we counted: over the course of many months, we walked at least 15 neighborhoods in San Francisco. We walked up hills. We walked down hills. We walked through streets that were mostly empty of other people. We walked and we talked.
We walked, again and again, on the paths that line the Martinez Slough, high tide and low tide. We walked and we talked.
As time went on, we invited friends over to enjoy our yard with us. We brought dinners out to them on paper plates, and we often sat, dressed in sweaters and even coats, until the light of the day was passing away.
I had a large plastic box of decades of photos from my lifetime – and from the decades before my lifetime – on a high shelf in the garage. Jeff brought the box out to me in the yard, and I sat in the sun and sorted almost a centuries’ worth of photos, some black and white, some formal, some taken on a whim. I looked closely at each one, the time stretching before me into some unknown future, and then, the past stretching behind me. Some of the photos I mailed to my sister in Hawaii, others I sorted again into large folders that now fill a drawer of the wooden file cabinet in my study.
Like so many others, we think back on three years of the world’s living with COVID-19, and it’s hard to believe we did it. We learned to live with the virus, and we are grateful that we didn’t contract the virus until it was less severe than news reports talked about in the beginning, when health care across the world struggled. And our own world grew in a way, as we discovered places in our own community.
It’s a relief that the world has moved on to a different place, with COVID-19 a regular resident of the planet, along with the rest of us.
Walking through the Pandemic: San Francisco 11/2022