nostalgia, reflecting, remembering

Up North

In the Midwest, we talk about going “up north.” When I was growing up in Milwaukee, I came to understand that “up north” for me was not the same place as “up north” for many of my friends. But I loved – and still love – going “up north” to that place in Northern Wisconsin that was “up north” for my family.

Dad took two weeks of vacation from the steel mill in the summer time. One of the weeks we spent at home as a family, crabbing on the Milwaukee River, taking day trips to parks and sites within an hour or two drive from Milwaukee. But one week of Dad’s vacation was spent in Door County, 4 hours north of Milwaukee. We’d drive up along the Lake Michigan Shore, Suzie and me goading Dad to drive faster: “fifty, fifty, go on fifty!” anxious to get to this place where we were loved and knew love. In the village of Alaska along the way, Mom would crank her window shut and say: “We’re in Alaska, brrrrrr, it’s cold!” – every time. We laughed. I think now that Mom must have been excited too, to be away from the city for a few days, to be in that beautiful place. She and Dad had been married there, in the parsonage of the Moravian Church in Sister Bay, where I go to Church when I’m there on a Sunday.

We made our way to Sister Bay where we rented a cottage, walked all the way through town on the one street, ate – once during the week – at Al Johnson’s Swedish Restaurant in Sister Bay, and visited cousins, aunts and uncles. We’d enjoy a fish boil – a delicacy of fresh boiled fish, onions, potatoes – covered with a huge doze of butter – and the meal not complete without a piece of Cherry Pie.

Aunts and Uncles were my father’s sisters and brothers – my beloved Auntie Irene and Auntie Edna, Uncle Ray and Uncle Fritz, Uncle Clarence. Sometimes we stayed with Uncle Fritz and his family, my Aunt Goldie, and cousin Bobbie and her older sister, Susan. We called her “big Susie,” and my sister, “little Suzie.” Big Susie was tall and towered over us all; little Suzie was petite then, and she’s petite now. Over the years, Uncle Fritz changed his work; for a time we stayed in the big farmhouse east of Sister Bay, and for several years we stayed in the big apartment over the Bahlert Store, next to the Baptist Church.

Although I’ve lived in Northern California now for over half of my life, Door County is still Up North to me, and whenever I can, I make the trip from Milwaukee north through the Fox River Valley, along Lake Michigan, to stay in Door County again. When I do, I am fulfilling a promise I made to myself many years ago, when I was still living in Wisconsin – that I’d return to Door County whenever I could, throughout my life. Part of my pilgrimage is to go to the graves of my ancestors – great grandparents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, gone now. I miss them all.

There was the regular visit to Uncle Ray’s house, where my Dad and his older brother stood in the yard and talked. I felt a bit sad that the two brothers, who had spent many times together in young adulthood, had this short time together for a visit. One of Dad’s memories of being young was the time he and Ray had driven down the Sister Bay Hill in a Model T. As they came over the hill, shouting the slang of the day: “Betsy Ross!” the steering wheel of the car lifted out of its casing and Ray had to push it back down to stay in control of the car! I listened to the story many times over the years, working in my mind to conjure up these two men as young men, wild and full of life, rowdy – together.

After awhile, we’d walk around to the raspberry bushes in the back of the house. My cousin Terry grew up in the house there, and my cousin Roger, Terry’s older brother, who was away from home by the time I have memories.

One day during vacation we fished for perch off the pier at Gills Rock. Throw in a line from my fishing pole, pull in a fish. Just like that! Later that day, Dad would clean the fish on the wooden block outside the back door, and we’d have fresh fish for supper. Nothing better than that! Now I place an order on the phone for 6 jars of Door County cherries a couple of times a year, and in honor of my memories, I bake cherry pie. With every slice of pie I serve there is a story.

I love my family. The Bahlerts were full of love. Auntie Irene, extroverted like my dad, was a favorite. Before she died in 1996, I’d written a note to be delivered to her in the nursing home. At the end I wrote: “ wait for me.” I wanted to see her One More Time. I expect she did wait for me, because Jeff and my mother and I arrived in Door County just in time to be present at her funeral in the Lutheran Church on Highway 57 just south of Baileys Harbor. I stood outside the old church building where, years before, I’d seen my beloved aunt kneel after receiving communion, a humble woman humbling herself before God. As I left the sanctuary the day of her funeral, I looked over the heads of my Bahlert cousins, crowded on the steps of the church.

I miss the Old Door County, because over the past 40 years, Door County has become the vacation spot of choice for people who come to see this beautiful place they have read about in travel books and online. I still know the quiet roads that tourists don’t often take, and on each trip, I make sure I drive to the places we stopped each time my family visited, Dad at the wheel. When I’m alone, I visit the graves of my ancestors, staying awhile, talking to some, and I look out over the place they are buried, taking in the quiet, the feel of the air, remembering them. I go slow, then: I like to take my time. And I always feel sad as I walk away. I don’t know when I’ll visit again.

I see now that my family in Door County were Old World people, people whose lives were lived on that land. They had a different feel to me than my family in Milwaukee. Both families were the children of immigrant families. But the Door County folks – rural people – had a kind of quiet about them that I didn’t know in my own life in the city. I felt that, and I expect I longed for it, in a way. I have lived a life different in many ways, and yet they are me, mine, my ancestry; they are part of me. Some of them spoke in a dialect familiar to that part of Wisconsin, like my Dad. I’m grateful for them because part of them runs through me, is in me. I love that part of me.

I miss them.

reflecting, remembering, Uncategorized

First memory

I like to ask people what their first memory in life is. I was touched by the first memory of Georgia O’Keeffe as she sat on a blanket on the grass in her childhood place, Sun Prairie, Wisconsin – the vividness of her sight, the colors, the shapes, the sky, the grass. Her first memory shaped – or was shaped by the artist she was/would become. I imagine it is so for each of us.

Mom was not with me. That would have made an impression on me. Instead, I was talking to Mom on the telephone, under the watchful presence of Agnes Hundreiser, my mother’s friend who had come to take care of me during the day when Ron was in school and Dad left for work at the steel mill. Mom told me I had a baby sister. And then she asked me: “what should we name her?” I answered “Ann,” giving the name of my mother’s own sister, my Auntie Anne. That must have been the name of a sister, in my mind. And my own mother’s name was Mary, so my thinking followed!

“How about Susan?” Mom asked. And so it was: I had a baby sister named Susan.

I expect siblings shape our lives in so many ways, conscious and unconscious ways. Was I jealous? I expect I was, my role as the “littlest one” suddenly changed to Big Sister. And I suppose that jealousy has played out in conscious and unconscious ways in my life. I was often protective of Suzie, a role given to me by my place in the family and a role taken up by me by temperament.

The trajectory of Suzie’s life has been much different than mine. We have so little in common. Still, when something goes wrong in our lives, sister is the first to know, after partner, of course. When Suzie was diagnosed with colon cancer at 65 – the same age our father had been diagnosed with colon cancer – I was the first person she called. And when I could not be with her at the doctor’s appointment, she taped the meeting so that I would know, and understand what she was facing.

I sat for a bit: should I name this post, “Little Sister,” or should I name this post, “First Memory.” For some reason – I don’t know the reason – “First Memory” won out. It’s hard to separate ourselves from the influence and the power of a sibling, that I know.

Little sister, big sister: Susan Lynne and Mary Elyn, photo, circa 1956, Milwaukee, Wisconsin

remembering, Uncategorized

The Center Street Library

The Center Street Library was close to the flat my family rented on Medford Avenue. To get there meant crossing two very busy streets: 27th Street, that cut from North to South, one of the busiest streets on the North Side of Milwaukee before the freeways went in, and Fond du Lac Avenue, which angled to the Northwest, like Medford Avenue, one street to the West. As a girl, my little sister and I walked to the Center Street Library with Mom once a week, in the late spring, summer, and fall, before the snow and freezing temperatures came.

Like so many things Mom did for us, the walk to the library with Mom was one of those things she had not experienced as a child herself. She wanted things for us she had not had. Both of her parents were illiterate – the ancestors of freed serfs from Ukraine – and she had taught her own father to read English when she was in grade school in Milwaukee, in neighborhoods to the south and east of where I grew up. Poor people, they lived among poor people, and the flat she grew up in served as a boarding house for other men who came from Ukraine, hoping for work and a better life. My grandfather had returned to his own country to bring back his wife, Feodosia (Frances), and their eldest son, Ivan (John). By my measure, the better life they dreamed of did not manifest in the new land.

So Mom made sure we knew the inside of the library, and with her as an example we had library cards and, during the summer, we were members of the Billy the Bookworm Reading Club. To make progress in the club, I had to answer a series of questions to show I’d read the required books. One day, as I stood at the librarian’s desk, my cousin Mark whispered the answers to her questions in my ear. I’m not sure if I heard him right, and I’m not sure if the answers I gave were right, but she gave me the sticker to the next level.

I discovered my first crush at the Center Street Library. I stood in the aisles with Larry Bartis. He and I walked along, looking up – to the highest shelf! – where we read the titles of books out loud to one another! Oh – how we laughed! Once – only once – I glanced over at him, and to my surprise, I realized as I watched him throw back his head and laugh: “I like him! A boy!” I kept it to myself (years later, after we connected on Facebook, Larry confessed he’d had a big crush on me). But I had noticed, noted my first crush.

I still love libraries. In high school, I worked in the library at Washington High School in Milwaukee. In seminary, I worked in the Graduate Theological Union library in Berkeley. I love the smell of libraries. I love the little nooks with tables and chairs, places to relax into reading a good book, or places to write the first outline of an important essay for school. I love the tall stacks. I love to sit for hours, working on a paper, surrounded by the books that hold the answers to my questions. I love – loved – the card catalogs, that held directions to the answers to so many mysterious questions of interest. I love to take my questions to the Reference Librarian, who, I’m sure, loves to discover something new along with me, as he moves his mouse around the big screen on his desk that takes the place of the card catalogs. I love to sit in a corner with a magazine I’ve taken off the shelf to enjoy. I love libraries.

The building that was the Center Street Library in Milwaukee is now home to The Wisconsin Black Historical Society/Museum. The Museum “opened its door and its heart to the community, city, and state in 1987. Based on the premise that a people who know their history will grow to love and appreciate themselves more, the Society is striving to create a bright future out of a heart breaking past.”

Milwaukee Public Library opened the Center Street branch library in the former firehouse in 1927 (from “Urban Spelunking,” Bobby Tanzilo, December 12, 2017).

As I write today, I picture in my mind’s eye myself, my mother, and my little sister, Suzie, walking those streets again. What I picture is a scene from long, long ago. I’m grateful to my mother, who thought in a larger way for us than anyone had thought for her, as she introduced us to something greater than the life we knew, in that library. Maybe she knew it; maybe she didn’t. I’m grateful, anyway.

beauty, poetry, remembering

This morning, a walk up Mount Wanda

This morning, a walk up Mount Wanda,

summer brown – early this year. 

Up the long path to the top –

A windmill, high and lonely,

Turns and listens

As the earth crunches beneath our feet,

and as we circle, again and again,

The azure sky draped overhead.

Here, tired from the climb, the trees our companions –

our lives have come to this! –

We stop! We breathe. —Mary Elyn Bahlert, 6/2021

On Mount Wanda, photo by Mary Elyn Bahlert, 06/2021






		
remembering, wisdom

??? Curiosity ???

It was in the beginning of January, 2001. My mother was in the last days of her life, and she lay on her bed, under hospice care, in the Mathilda Brown Home in Oakland, every day, all day.  I sat with her often – as often as possible –  and we chatted idly, our conversation about ordinary things.  From time to time, Mom would close her eyes as she lay on her back, and I sat in the silence – our last times together. 

At the time, I was the proud and enthusiastic owner of the Palm Pilot, powered by batteries, that held my calendar. 

One afternoon, I sat next to Mom’s bed as she rested, and because I had not brought a book or other work from my office, I turned on my little computer-calendar and started to play Solitaire- a bonus feature.  A few moments later, Mom sat up, and threw her legs over the side of the bed, as she looked at the object in my hands.  “What is that?” she asked.

?????????????????

Over the years, I’ve come to value my own curiosity more and more.  Curiosity has been a great gift to me.  As I get older, I know that I prefer to spend my time with curious people – people whose sights are set on the abundance of wonder in the world.  Their curiosity may lead them to interests that aren’t mine, but it’s the quality they possess that makes them interesting – and, well, curious – to me. What they give me from what they’ve received from their own interests continually makes my life richer.

And their curiosity flows over – to people.  Curious people are interested in other people, about the world other people inherit, about how other people got to where they are going now, what decisions they made, who they’ve encountered in their lives. Over the years, my friends loved to visit with my parents. In their small living room, my friends’ lives were of interest to Mom and Dad, whose lives were enriched by the young people in their lives. Mom and Dad were interested in the lives of the young people who visited, and the young people knew that – and liked it.

A curious stone building, once home… Saukville, WI, 5/2022 Photo by Mary Elyn Bahlert

My brother Ronn was 9 years older than me; he married when I was 14.  In my eyes, he was all grown up, making his way in the adult world.  One day, after he’d been married a year or so, he said something to me that I’ve never forgotten: “Do you know that some people are not as interested in things as we are in our family?”  “No,” I answered Ronn, in response to his reflective question.  I’ve never forgotten his question, his observation, really, about the world as he saw it – his own world growing larger by his connection to another family.

Curiosity has led me to be curious about myself, to be curious about my inner life, about what has brought me here, about who and what I’ve encountered over the course of the years of my life.  My curiosity extends to other people:  what makes them tick? In my mind, curiosity is not dependent on finding answers; curiosity is interested in questions…

I’ve always loved libraries.  What better place than a building whose purpose is to hold books, computers, magazines – all filled with something to satisfy someone’s curiosity – or to leave someone’s curiosity unsatisfied, so that they have to go back for more?!?

I didn’t come from highly educated people, people with degrees and titles.  But I did come from a curious sort, people whose eyes lit up with the discovery of that was new, new in their lives. I expect that the quality of being curious is not related to education.

And would the world be different, if human beings were less concerned with certainty than with curiosity?