“There’s a kind of hush, all over the world, tonight, All over the world tonight, people just like us are falling in love…” Les Reed and Geoff Stevens
The rain has been falling for days here in California. Notoriously dry, the weather here has brought storm after storm this winter. We are grateful. And also, we are hearing news reports of mud slides in the Santa Cruz Mountains, people without electricity for day, highways closed when lanes become impassable to traffic. When I first moved to Northern California from the Midwest, I expected sunny skies – every day. In the winter of 1981-1982, though, it rained day after day; I’d arrived to this sunny place in an El Nino year, famed for bringing storms.
But this year is different. Weather forecasters describe these storms as coming from an “atmospheric river,” or the “troposphere.” Moisture starved farmland is now flooded. Ever since New Year’s Eve, a parade of showers – even thundershowers, a rarity here – have me checking the weather app on my cell phone by the hour to see if it’s safe to go for a winter’s walk. Most days, I manage a few walks during breaks in the storm.
Rainstorms don’t bring the kind of quiet that accompanies certain snow falls in the Midwest, which I remember nostalgically every winter.
One New Year’s Eve before I arrived in the Bay Area, a group of friends and I – women and men – gathered at a friend’s apartment on the East Side of Milwaukee, a beautiful, flat area of the city whose streets are lined with homes and apartment buildings built early in the last century, to call in the New Year together. That New Year’s Eve, it snowed. The snow came down in a particular, quiet, soft way – no wind. And so the lot of us put on our coats and boots and went for a walk before the passing of the year at midnight. As we walked, the snow covered the sidewalks and our boots made dark patches on the sidewalk where we’d passed. Our voices were muffled by the snow. We left our mark, but only for a few minutes, as the snow gathered – gentle – again, covering our path behind us. Our voices were dimmed by the presence of the snow, covered, also.
When it’s cold out – really cold out, not Mediterranean cold, like here in the Bay Area – it’s pleasant to sit inside a warm, cozy house to gaze out at the quiet snow falling. Not many storms come in like that, most accompanied by strong winds and ice forming as quickly as the snow falls.
Quiet. Like cozy, and like the heart rending moments of Indian Summer, I miss that certain quiet.
I left Wisconsin to live in California on December 26, 1981. I had moved out of my own apartment to stay with my parents at the beginning of December as I made the transition from full time work to full time student, at Pacific School of Religion in Berkeley. At the time, I didn’t know that I would be moving “forever,” to not return to the place that had been my homeland, the land of my people, for several generations.
For a few years after I made the move to Northern California, I did not return to Wisconsin at holiday time. I stayed in Berkeley and later, in the parsonage at Pleasanton with my new husband, Jeff. I recall vividly the first winter I spent in Pleasanton, as I stood in the driveway in my blazer, preparing to drive to my first parish, in San Jose. I was surprised – here I was a blazer as my top layer in January – no boots, no wool cap and gloves!
My Dad died in April of 1986, and I was able to be with my parents for a few days over the holiday season after Christmas the year before. One day during my visit, Milwaukee had a wonderful snow-fall, a snow-fall without wind, when the large flakes fell straight from the sky to the sidewalks and streets below. I walked over to a coffee shop not far from my parents’ apartment on Appleton Avenue, taking in the white stuff as it landed on me, looking at the falling snow with wonder. That’s the best kind of snow – gentle,calm, falling silently to the streets of the city. And I didn’t have to shovel! I enjoyed the coziness of the coffee shop and set out to walk again to my parents’ place.
For a few years after I moved to Northern California, I tried – without any success – to bring on the feeling of “cozy,” during the holidays. As I write today, Oakland is getting a much needed, and never-enough rain, after many years of draught. This is as close to cozy as I’ll get, I’m sure, the sound of tires driving in the rain, the tree lights lit, heat from the furnace warming the house. One holiday season, a few days before Christmas, after my father had passed and my mother made the trip to spend the holiday season with Jeff and me in the Bay Area, she and I stopped on Christmas Eve to have a lunch together at a cafe. Inside the cafe, Christmas music played on the sound system, and we enjoyed our quiet time together. And that day, as I sat with Mom in a cafe, longing for cozy, I realized that I could never bring on Christmas the way it had been, in my memory. Those days were gone. My life had changed, and with the changes I had lost something I’d never have again, as happy as I was in my new home, in my new life.
I suppose that as I grow older, I will be longing for Christmas every year, longing for a bit of cold, for a snow – silent, lovely – and of course, for the people who lived those Christmases with me, gone now, for a long, long time.
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 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.
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.