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?  


Mrs. Hospel

My first grade school was Robert M. La Follette Elementary School in Milwaukee.  During the summer before I started fifth grade, my family moved a mile west where we rented another flat – we always lived in the second floor flat – where I walked to Clarke Street School on 28 and Clarke Streets.  I had to cross 27th Street, a busy thoroughfare on the North Side.

I made several good friends at Clarke Street School.  One of my best friends – Frances (Peltz) Assa – and I re-connected several years ago; we had lost touch after the 6th grade.   Through the years I had thought about Frances, and one of the joys made possible by the Internet has been our re-connection in our 60’s. 

Now, though, I remember a day that was an important day in my life, one I often remember.  In the summer after 6th grade, my sixth-grade teacher, Mrs. Hospel, invited me to spend a day with her at her home.  I expect that only a few of us received that gift, although I don’t know for certain.  I took the bus from 26 and Medford – where we lived in the big upper flat in the house second from the corner of Medford Avenue and Tamarack Street – to the East Side of Milwaukee, east of Humboldt Boulevard. 

I now know that as a child, I identified with my teachers – unlike most children, who identify with their parents or those who’ve been their care-givers.  The trip to spend the day with Mrs. Hospel would have been significant for me.  I’m sure I was excited, although I don’t recall.  The bus trip alone – a young girl, arriving on a city bus – would have been cause for excitement.   

No one in my immediate family had been to college, and my childish ability to note these differences was important to me. 

In my mind, I see the wall in one room of Mrs. Hospel’s home.  Was it the living room?  The dining room?  I know we had lunch.  Sometimes, I think I can almost remember what she served for our lunch together, but I do not remember.  I see the wall, I see the framed pictures there.  And when I see them, I realize – again, as I did as a child – that this house, this way of living was different than the way we lived, the way my family lived. I knew this, with a child’s knowing, a knowing I have not lost through the years. 

At the end of our time together, Mrs. Hospel walked me to the corner of Humboldt Blvd. and Locust Streets, where we sat on a bench, waiting for the bus to take me home again.   Just a few years later, I would wait on that same corner for the bus to take me home from the University.  As we sat there, I remember talking to Mrs. Hospel, asking her questions about herself.  I seemed to call on a part of myself – a larger, more adult part of myself – to have this conversation.

A good friend of mine – a retired school teacher – tells me that some-times she sees in children a part of them that is mostly hidden, but that rises to the surface in certain moments; as a teacher, mother and grandmother, she loves these moments.  I think she was describing the Me I knew that day.  Maybe this part of me was my True Self, that larger, indescribable Self that we have always known, that has been with us, is in us, birthing us – forever. 

me, 1961

Sometimes, Facebook is a remarkable thing!  A few years ago, Mrs. Hospel and I became Facebook friends.  When she was my sixth-grade teacher, she was in her first year of teaching, and so, I expect, she is only 10 years older than I am.  We’re both still young – and in the Wisdom Years…

remembering, wisdom

“You learn something new every day.”

My mother did not graduate from high school, although she received her GED while I was in university.  I know for certain she did that so that I would graduate with a degree, since I was wavering, and had taken a semester off during my senior year at the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee.  She didn’t tell me her reason to do it then, but I knew.  When she received her certificate, I sent her a spring bouquet.

Mom quit school early to work.  She married young, also, and had a son within a year – Ron, my brother.  Mom was bright.  Now, when Mom comes up in conversation, I tell folks that she should have been a teacher – a kindergarten or first-grade teacher.  The daughter of Ukrainian immigrants who lived in flats in neighborhoods of poor folks, it was enough that she learned to read and write.  She taught her father to read English when she was a girl.  In my mind’s eye, I can see her, bright and determined, her feet wrapped around the rungs of a wooden chair in a cramped Milwaukee flat, as her father, Vlas, paced – determined, also.  He was smart, although illiterate in his native language.  He made that long trip across the ocean, left the familiar village of his homeland so that his children could learn to read and to write.

So Mom knew the value of education, although she could not see to get a degree herself.  The life of a working class woman in that era intervened.  She was married and divorced by the age of 22.  She worked hard at Cutler-Hammer in Milwaukee, where her employers noticed the bright, hard-working young woman.  Although she had greater earning potential than my father, she quit her job when she married again. That’s how things were done. 

When I was girl, I walked 3 blocks to the Center Street Library – on 27th and Center – with Mom, every week.  She must have read all of the books  in the “mystery” section of that library.  It was in those days that I learned to love the smell of libraries.  In a library, it seems we can smell the riches of what is carried in the aisles.  Twice in my life I have worked in a library – in high school, and again in seminary.  For awhile as an undergraduate, I flirted with the idea of becoming a librarian. Books would save me, many times, during my life.

The old Center Street Library at 2620 West Center Street, Milwaukee, photo circa 1920

When Mom and I left the Center Street Library  to walk home, we each carried two or three books to read for the week ahead.  I see now that Mom was living her mantra, handing it to me:  “you learn something new every day.”  I was not able to see that for many years, but now, in my own learning, I understand. And I came to see that the learning that comes every day is not always in books!

Mom taught me how to wash clothes, too.  During summers when I was a young girl, my babushka-d Mom would take me down three flights of stairs to the shared basement of our flat to show me how to wash clothes.  I remember the smells – the damp and soapy smell of the basement, the hot, steaming water of the wringer washer.  Into the first load went whites – sheets, pillow cases, underwear.  Into the second load of the same water went towels and colored clothing.  Into the last load went Dad’s work clothes.  I know the smell,  I can see the beautiful wooden stick Mom used to lift the clothes from the washer into the first rinse water, and then into the final rinse before the clothes were taken in the large wooden basket into the yard to dry in the humid air.  As I write, I can smell the air, too.

If I could have one item of Mom’s, it would be that wooden stick, smooth, smelling of soapy water, imprinted with Mom’s hands, her weeping and her worries.  Like most of what has been held and used over the years, that wooden stick is gone.

I see Mom’s broad, strong peasant hands, hands that in later years would be crooked with arthritis.  She was a worker, teaching a little girl whose work is ideas and books and the fabric of words.   “You learn something new every day.”  I took those words into myself, and I made them my own.

The path I have taken through life has been the path of learning, too, not always from books.  I keep your mantra, Mom.