community, reflecting, remembering

On the Journey

I was searching, it felt as if I was always searching, had been searching for a long time. Searching implies an object – what was I searching for? I had the idea that I could go into the ministry – but I had no church experience of a community of faith. I had only a history that included a family distrust of “Church,” and three years of study in a fundamentalist denomination. After confirmation, I had abruptly left what I knew as “Church.” I thought the social movements of the 70’s were more about Jesus and what he taught than what I had known of Church. In particular, I had noticed and admired the work of Father James Groppi in Milwaukee, a Civil Rights leader in my hometown and adjoining ‘hood.

After college, I embarked on a career with the Social Security Administration, and after three months of intense training as a Claims Representative in Minneapolis, I was assigned to the District Office in Green Bay, Wisconsin. At the time, I was happy to have been assigned to Green Bay, which was a couple of hours north of Milwaukee. I didn’t know at the time how lonely I would be, how lost as I began my professional life as an adult.

And part of me was still searching. I was always searching. For what? For love? For meaning? For connection? For depth? For community? All of these were to be answered, although I didn’t know it when I was searching. And part of me is searching, even now, which has given my life and faith a depth and richness I would not have had otherwise. I’ve always been open to new understandings, to new learnings. I’m grateful for that.

After a couple of years, as the Social Security Administration took on the administration of SSI – Supplemental Security Income – the staff in the SSA office at Green Bay grew. From my first days, when I was the first woman CR, staff numbers grew. My first colleagues – who ruled the roost as only white men in power can do – were challenged to accept women who were at least as good at what they did than the men had been.

I was still searching. One of my colleagues was a woman named Joan, who was a bit overwhelmed by the work as a Claims Representative, but whose life I noticed. She was a white woman from Wisconsin, married to a disabled African American man from the South. Joan always wanted to go deeper, and I sensed a depth in how she wanted to relate to others. She didn’t engage in the politics of the office, often spending her breaks reading a Holy Book – the Holy Book of those people who are called Ba’hai, the teachings of their prophet. In a way, Joan was difficult to relate to, but I liked her depth, the way she looked at others as she spoke to them. Joan and Nat invited me to dinner at their house, and there, after the meal, we talked.

Joan and Nat were the first people I knew who took the faith they professed seriously. They allowed my questions. They didn’t expect rigid answers, the answers of a “right faith.” They wanted to talk, to learn where I was going with my questions. They took me seriously, as well as the faith they professed. When I asked about becoming a Bahai’, they didn’t surround me with evangelical fervor – they encouraged me to explore my journey, to see how my journey unfolded.

And my journey unfolded in another direction – in a way. I’ve written about returning to Milwaukee, still working for the Social Security Administration, and following my heart and questions to the people called Methodists, to my friend and guide Harvey Stower, and into the ministry.

I’m grateful for the journey, and for the questions, which still arise, will continue to arise. I’m grateful for all those whose path has lit my way. I’m grateful for the ongoing quest of faith, of trust in life as life offers itself. And I’m always grateful for the beacons of light who have lit my way – for Jesus, for Joan, for Nat, for Harvey – for all the others.

The Blue Mosque, Istanbul - View by Mary Elyn Bahlert, 5/2023
community, nostalgia, remembering, Uncategorized

Meeting Joanne

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.

reflecting, remembering

New York City

My husband likes to call me a “City Girl,” and when we travel, I like to add another city to my mental list of cities where I have walked, where I’ve stopped at a cafe for a cup of coffee, where I’ve seen the places that others recollect about having traveled to a particular place. Over the years, I’ve been happiest as a traveler when I’ve had time to simply walk a city; when Jeff and I stayed for several weeks in London as part of a “house exchange,” my happiest moments were the times we took the Tube into the city and walked slowly from one street to the next, noting the differences of that place, comparing what we were seeing to other places we’d been.

In my Junior Year of college, the University offered a trip to New York City to students during spring break. I wanted to go, that’s for sure. But how was I going to swing it? The $ 250.00 was more than I could see myself saving from my part time work at the carwash on weekends. One day, as the weeks to spring break quickly passed, my mother walked up to me in the kitchen of our flat, and from her hand, she handed me $250.00.

Where did she get the money to gift me the trip she knew I wanted? My parents’ habits around money were simple, working class habits. Dad brought his paycheck home every week, and Mom cashed the check at the grocery store, waiting in the line to the office booth at the front of the store, the booth where Green Stamps were redeemed, the booth where she paid the utility bills once a month. Later, at home, she carefully budgeted the cash in a folding paper folder made for that purpose; she and dad got an allowance, there was the money allowed for food, for utilities, and there was the money saved for Dad’s vacation in the summer, when we’d go to Door County for a week. She kept the budgeted cash in the bottom drawer of their dresser.

I’ll never know where Mom got the $250.00 she handed me that day, or whether it put her back a bit in the family’s budget. I don’t think so. I think she had carefully considered giving me the money, that she knew where it would come from, and I doubt it affected their budget.

I can see Mom’s face as she handed me the gift. I can see that she was opening a door for me, a door to a life she hadn’t had for herself, a door to some vision or dream she had for me, her only child to go to college. In her world, that $250.00 was an extravagant gift, certainly more than I had seen before. I’m still grateful for that extravagance, that gift with dreams and hopes – not spoken, but conscious dreams and hopes – attached.

I traveled to New York that spring on a bus with my friend, Vickie. There, we took in the Broadway show, “Hair,” we ate our meals in restaurants, at a New York deli, we walked and walked, and we lifted our hands into the street to get a taxi from here to there.

Later in her life, after my father passed and she had built a new life for herself, volunteering at St. Joseph’s Hospital, making new friends, my mother and her friend Mary took the bus trip offered by a local Senior Center to Washington, D.C. Later in her life, her world opened for her, and I’m grateful. After Mom passed, her friend Mary told me about the fun they’d had, traveling together, two elders, free women. Just like I had traveled to the big City with a good friend, many years before.

I’m grateful not only for the extravagant gift, but for the dream, the hope that was in and with that gift. Just as she’d passed the bills to me that day, she’d passed on that hope and that dream. In many, many ways, I’ve lived a life that my mother could not hope or imagine for herself. She dreamed it – for me.

Mom and Dad, October, 2022, New Berlin, Wisconsin

nostalgia, reflectin, reflecting, remembering

Dinners with the Bug

In my late teens, after the Bug and I had graduated from high school and I started college at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, she and I often met to go out on weekend nights. Bug and I had been friends in high school, and we worked together at a movie theater on the north side of Milwaukee, where I was a “vendette” – selling popcorn and sweet treats to the movie patrons – and where the Bug was the cashier who sold tickets at the front window. Several of the kids who worked there were also friends of ours from high school – Pat, who I still talk to on the phone from time to time, now that we’re in our seventies – her brother, Bobby, who died from complications of Crohn’s Disease, a few years ago, and my cousin, Mark. That was my first job, which apparently led to my adult addiction to popcorn (which continues today). Bobby and the Bug dated a few times; he was the one who gave her the name: the Bug.

The Bug and I had many adventures together during my last year of high school and my college years, which ended when she married in her early 20’s. Bug’s wedding and marriage and motherhood were the fulfillment of her dreams, which included her and her husband building a house exactly like her parents’ beautiful home. As far as I know, they still live in that house, outside of Milwaukee. Bug was hysterically funny. I can’t remember anything that she said that was funny, but I do remember one time, when I was driving, with her in the passenger seat, that I had to pull over to the side of the street because she had me laughing so hard.

After we started college – the Bug stayed a year or two, then left school to go to work – she and I had a routine that I remember today as an opening to a way of life that I hadn’t experienced in my working class family. I had my own money then, the money left over after paying tuition and books and transportation to school on a city bus. About once a month, Bug would come over to pick me up at my house. She was always welcome there – all of my friends were welcome there – and my folks loved to see the Bug. When she arrived, we wrote the names of several of Milwaukee’s fine restaurants on slips of paper, and gave them to my Dad, who sat in his chair across from the television, put the slips of paper into his cap, and chose one. Dad would read aloud the name of a restaurant. Then, the Bug and I set out for the evening to the place he’d picked out of the hat.

At first, I felt awkward. My life experience had not included places like these. I had grown up with supper at five in working class flats and small, crowded kitchens, had been raised on home cooked meals, often Ukrainian peasant food. I carefully observed the other patrons on our evenings out, chose something I hadn’t eaten before, and the Bug and I enjoyed the ambiance and our friendship. I know we laughed, and talked about things as only young women do. Over the years, I’ve eaten in many fine restaurants, and I’m comfortable. At first, I wasn’t comfortable, as these evenings out with a dear friend had opened a door in me and outside of me – to another world. The Bug’s father owned a small company of his own where he made toys for carnivals, and her home was very different than mine, which I observed, carefully. Her parents honored the weekend by going out to dinner, the two of them, on Friday nights. My awareness of class, to this day, shapes my world, and it shaped my world then.

Thank you, Bug.

Borscht, photo and soup by Mary Elyn Bahlert, 11/2022

nostalgia, reflecting, remembering, Uncategorized

Like a Thief in the Night

I don’t remember when Dad began to talk about it, but he said many times in the years before he died: “I hope the Lord comes like a thief in the night.” I expect he thought about it more after his diagnosis of colon cancer at 65. At the time, he had a colonoscopy, and he was always grateful for the next ten years of his life, before he died at 75.

He’d learned to live with the colonoscopy, he and Mom able to enjoy many years of retirement together, years that were the gift at the end of all those years in the steel mill. Dad had a union job and a retirement income as a result of that union job. I expect he thought he was living on borrowed time. In the years after he retired, there were trips to Hawaii to see his grandson, Colin. In those years, there were trips to North Carolina to see the older grandchildren. And there were trips to California to see Uncle Johnny and Uncle Pete, my mother’s brothers, and to see my husband and me. Using maps charted out via AAA, they traveled together, Dad the driver and Mom reading from the guide books, pointing out the sites.

Now, I’m grateful that they had those years together, to be able to travel together, to enjoy. They had fun. When Dad had symptoms of cancer again, the traveling stopped abruptly. He suffered again under another regime of chemotherapy, his illness made worse by the effects of the drugs. He spent his last days in St. Joseph’s Hospital in Milwaukee, never leaving the bed, the room often filled with friends he’d known from his days at A.O. Smith, union friends, and family from various parts of the country. My sister, pregnant with her youngest, and Colin were there every day. A few days before he passed, his sister Edna traveled from Gills Rock on the Door Peninsula of Wisconsin to see him once again, and for the last time.

On my last visit, as I sat in a chair next to the bed, I asked Dad to talk. He said he was tired; I should talk, instead. I sat silent, not sure what I wanted to say. Dad had always been in the talker in our house, my sister, and I quiet, “like their mother,” Dad had told their pastor. I was sitting in that chair when Dad looked at me and told me – the night before, when he’d had an episode and the hospital staff rushed to bring him back – he had seen Christ, and he was not afraid.

Thankfully, the Lord came like a thief in the night, not many nights after.

Sunset over the Pacific, 1/24/2023, Mary Elyn Bahlert