nostalgia

War in Ukraine

Only a few weeks ago, the news was not filled with story after story of the War in Ukraine. Only a few weeks ago, we were focused on what the next surge of the COVID virus would bring, what it would mean to this pandemic that has affected the world. Only a few weeks ago, we all waited for the next report: what countries were open to travel? How would life be different after these two years of the global COVID pandemic? Although these were not easy questions, we did not know how quickly and completely the news, our attention, the attention of the world would shift to Ukraine. Like so many of you, I cry every day now.

My mother’s first language was Ukrainian. Mary was born in 1918 to Alex and Frances Markowski – Vlas Markov Srebny and Feodosia Machsuda Srebna – in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Mary was the third living child of my grandparents, after her brother, John, and her brother, Michael. She was the second child to be born in the United States of America. After her would come Anne – Hannah – and Peter.

Like immigrants of all times and places, my grandfather and grandmother must have had their dreams, their hopes, for their new life in their new land. Or maybe it was my grandfather’s hope, and my grandmother, dependent on him, left her home and all she knew in the “Old Country” to come to a land she would not know as her own, as his spouse, without a dream of her own. They brought their first born – Ivan – and their memories of the land they knew, the people and customs of the land they knew, to this unknown place, where life would surely always be a struggle, as it is now, to the poor and the immigrants among us. Maybe my grandfather had a dream, a hope, some sort of light in himself that would surely come to shine in this new land. It did not. All of these thoughts now are speculation, because the poor and the uneducated among us are only numbers, so seldom is their story told.

The memory of my grandparents and how they came to be here is only memory, now. My grandfather died when I was one, and my grandmother, who only spoke Ukrainian in my memory, died when I was 19. Many times in the life I’ve crafted for myself, I’ve wondered about them. And I wonder who else now, in my generation, wonders about them, thinks about what their lives must have been like, what they held in them and with them as they came to this new place. Only questions arise, not many answers. As I think about my family in this country, I think that pieces of the story must exist somewhere, in someone. Who knows?

*

I’ve always had questions, I’ve always wondered, from the time I was young, about what lives my grandparents had. People who struggle to survive seldom leave deep marks on the path of their lives. Their children and their children’s children – and so on – are all that remain of them. I expect they had a dream, or a hope for this new place. I keep looking for that dream, that hope. I’ve been looking my whole life.

Alex and Frances Markowski, Johnny Markowski, about 1914

Were they content? Why leave their homeland, then? Why go to somewhere unknown, into an unknown future, with only hopes for something better, and nothing else? Whatever their dreams, they were not fulfilled. “Ukrainians have not done well in the United States,” I once heard a commentator say.

*

In my search for who they were – who I am – I have turned to DNA research. Several years ago, I connected online with a distant cousin who came from Ukraine, and who now lives in Canada. Through our connection, he had hoped to find a way for me to go to the place of my grandparents’ birth, their home. These days, instead, my cousin speaks daily to his family in Ukraine, helping them decide where to go for safety.

And this same story is being told for millions, millions of people, today.

Now, of course, another dream is lost. The dreams of millions in Ukraine have been smashed to death in just these past couple of weeks. As I write, people who could not think of leaving their home only a few days ago are leaving their homes, hoping to find safe passage to – to where? As I write, a war that started in the mind of one man is dismantling lives and livelihoods, forcing human beings to look for safety somewhere far from home. It’s an old story, older than the scriptures.

“Once I was happily content to be
As I was, where I was,
Close to the people who are close to me…”
– “Far From the Home I Love,” Fiddler on the Roof

Now, as the world watches, the Ukrainian people on the move again, people who were living their lives like the rest of us, just a few weeks ago. We are stunned as we watch, but our discomfort, our tears, our fears are only that. Today, we sit in our comfortable places, lamenting for these other human beings. Their history – their long history, has been full of violence, of turmoil, of poverty, all these things often at the hand of their leaders.

God save us all.

beauty, nostalgia, poetry

Longing

Days before she died, 
Mom sat, legs over the side of her bed, 
gazing out the window onto the sunny street: 
"I wish it would snow once - just for me," she said.
I think that, too, sometimes.
There is a longing in this dry place:
when life is dry, empty.
I'd love to see the snow then,
flakes falling, silent, to the ground,
the heavens shaking their down pillows.
I'd like to be in that quiet place for a few moments,
surrender my busy mind to it,
welcome the holy silence, the emptiness -
                     all that space. 
          
Mary Elyn Bahlert, February 27, 2022




Full Moon – Moments Before Sunrise, 10:00 AM, Sunday, December 27, 2016
Unalaska, AK – photo taken by meb

 





 
nostalgia

“Your dad died.”

Dad was diagnosed with colon cancer in 1975, the year after he retired as an inspector at the A.O. Smith Company in Milwaukee. At that time, the treatment he received for the cancer was treated by outfitting him with a colostomy. For a time, he felt restricted in his life, but Dad loved life, loved having fun, and in a couple of years he was able to travel with Mom, to California, to see Mom’s brothers, Johnny and Pete, and to Hawaii, to see their grandson, Colin (and his parents, of course!). When I look through the pictures of that time, I see what fun they had, visiting the sites in Northern California, and playing with their grandson in Pearl City. He and Mom had fun together – maybe the time in their lives when they were most free to enjoy retirement.

That time of enjoyment ended in 1985, when the cancer returned. He suffered with chemotherapy for a few months, but by the beginning of 1986, he let go of trying to fix the disease. He spent the last two months of his life in St. Joseph’s Hospital in Milwaukee, holding on. His grandson (and his Mom) visited him. I made a trip from Northern CA, at least once. Pete and Johnny came, and some friends from the steel mill. A couple of folks from church came to see him, to visit and to pray. During that time, my dear friend Joanne visited Dad often in the hospital, and gave support to Mom in the rest of her life.

At the end of my last visit, I stood with the doctor at the end of Dad’s bed, and the doctor said: “I don’t know about your father.” I wish he’d been more honest – I always like to hear the truth, even if it’s hard. We both knew that Dad wouldn’t last much longer.

As with Mom, the end of Dad’s life was held in the hands of some greater Spirit, which became apparent on the night he died. About 11:30 pm on that night, my husband and I were already in bed at our home in Northern California. When the phone rang, I answered right away. Joanne was on the line. She said: “Your Dad died.” Then, she said, “the hospital has tried to call your Mom several times, but she doesn’t answer.” That seemed strange; never a good sleeper, Mom would jump up from anywhere in the apartment to get the phone on the wall in the kitchen. I tried to call her; she answered after the first ring. I said: “Mom, Dad died.” A moan came from her, then she said: “What should I do?” I told her to call Joanne, who would come to take her to the hospital.

My sister Suzie was the last of us to be with Dad the evening before he died. She stood by his bed, adjusting the intravenous tube that brought liquid to his failing body. He’d lamented to me on a visit that he had once been so strong, worked so hard, and now…” As Suzie stood next to his bed, she said a prayer: “God, please don’t let him suffer any more.” Suzie had not prayed the prayer of letting go before that night. Then she went to stay the night at her in-laws.

Several hours later, after I had called Mom, I called Suzie, sound asleep. She told me she’d been dreaming, a dream of her looking down into the casket in which Dad lay. Then she told me, “maybe this could wait until morning.”

As I’ve reflected before, life can be a mystery, more often than we know, I’d guess. At the time of Dad’s death, and at the time of Mom’s death, many years later, some greater Spirit paved the way for us, and walked us through the passage of time, those holy moments of letting go, of surrendering even one we love so dearly to death. We all stood in our places, unknowing, as the Spirit moved.

Dad in better times, in San Franciso.

Remembering now, sadness comes, of course. But I breath deeply in remembering how we were all held by an invisible grace. Sometimes, we forget. I know I do.

beauty, nostalgia

Mid-winter

Were I still living in the Upper Midwest, I’d be in the thick of winter: navigating weather from snow storm to snow storm, carefully descending steps in case a bit of ice clings to the edge of a step, dressing in layers – lots of layers – before going out for the day, idling the car in a store parking lot to get it warmed up for a short drive, driving carefully on city streets to avoid patches of ice, sometimes swerving, having not avoided unseen ice,and sitting in a cozy house, watching flakes fall, early in a storm.

While winter is long, dark, cold, cold, cold, and wet (or icy) -there’s nothing like it.

But I’m not in the Upper Midwest. I live in Northern California, the Bay Area, where I get to enjoy a mild winter, and where I long for a storm in these days – years – of drought all over the West, where I both cherish the mild climate and long for snow and the coziness that arrives along with the winter storms. Although I expected “sunny California” when I moved here, it didn’t take me long to learn that we have a Mediterranean climate in the Bay Area, with lots of fog, fog which often burns off by late afternoon (because of climate change, we do get a lot more sunshine these past few years, and earlier in the day).

In a way, I’ll always be a Midwesterner, although I’ve lived in the Bay Area over half of my life. Every couple of years, I have a longing in me that will not be satisfied until I make it “home” again, to the place that marked my early years, to the places that gave me a start in life. For many years after I moved to Northern California, I would catch a feeling of nostalgia when I went outdoors. I’d be homesick, not knowing why. It came on suddenly, had me remembering places, people, often thinking about the people I loved, many now gone a long time. Later that day, I’d discover that there was a bit of humidity in the air. The humidity had brought on the nostalgia.

My brother-in-law, Randy Kunkel, wrote a Haiku for me, many years ago. I discovered it in some old files the other day:

She draws a deep breath

Unexpected humid air

Nostalgia aroused.

We’ve still got weeks of winter here, longing for rain, hoping, watching the skies: “Is rain coming, or will the gray skies give way to another beautiful day?” At the same time, some trees have already begun to blossom. Today, I took a look at my Korean Lilac – planted by my husband Jeff for me – to see that it is beginning to bud, and February not even here!

In the Midwest, I loved, loved the lilac trees full of fragrant blossoms which graced front lawns in May for several weeks. When I had a tree in my own front yard, I’d cut an armful of blossoms and put them in water to grace my kitchen table before the blossoms went a way. If I didn’t have a tree, I’d have to beg from the neighbors. Nothing like a blossoming lilac tree, gracing lawns in the city or bestowing its fragrance in the house in early spring, coming through open windows, a luxury.

My Korean lilac will blossom this spring, too. It’s getting ready to blossom. This lilac does not need the freeze like the variety in the Midwest, and its blossoms are not as abundant, but the blossoms give the same fragrance as the lilacs I knew as a child and young adult.

I’m grateful.