In the Mediterranean climate in the Bay Area, we know the weather, the sky, the light is changing, heralding the coming holiday time. The changes are subtle here, but the leaves fall from some of the trees, and the color is changing – the color not only of the trees, but the light in the sky, the early darkness. It’s winter now. The Season of Holidays has arrived.
The Bay Area is a diverse area of the country, and here we respect many traditions and the holidays they honor. Many of them reflect this time of darkness, this season. In my own faith tradition, we enter the liturgical season of Advent, four Sundays before Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, four Sundays filled with stories of those ancient, ancient people who longed for a Messiah – waited for the Coming of the Messiah. In the darkest time of year, we honor the Coming of the Light, the Holy One. In the darkest times of our lives, we long for someone to save us, for someone to come to us who will fulfill our longing.
I have always loved the time of Advent, those four Sundays before Christmas. As a pastor, I worked as hard as I could to have the good church folks “stay put” in the season of Advent, to have them hear the stories of the faith as if the Light had not come, to sing the songs that tell the story of the people who wait. As the autumn gives way to winter, we watch the days grow shorter. The sun falls earlier each day into the west. The last rays of each day come earlier, day by day, until we know the longest night. We are fully in the darkest time, then, we exist within it. Although we know the Light will come – as it has before – we still must live within this darkest time.
Advent is a time of darkness. In our lives, we know Advent well. A marriage ends. A depression has its hold on us – longer than we can bear, it seems. A relationship that is floundering goes on and on until its participants are exhausted with the ending. An illness has us in its grip, and though we long for it to end, it does not. The times of emptiness go on and on, without subsiding. We know so well these times of Advent, before we come to a time when we will breathe again.
And we are in that season, now. Of course the churches will begin to sing the Christmas Carols – soon. Too soon, for me. I want to honor, to respect this time of waiting, of preparation, of darkness. And there will be time for the lights to be hung on the tree, to be lit each evening as soon as the sky becomes dark. There will be a time for the Light. Are we afraid of the darkness? I want to write: of course we are. Who doesn’t want the times of sorrow, the grief, the depression, so hard to bear, to end? Who doesn’t want the light to come on so that we can see our way down the hall? But there is that moment of darkness, there is that season of darkness – when the promise is held before us – waiting in the wings – but not given.
Early Sunset, Autumn. Photo by Mary Elyn Bahlert, November 17, 2022.
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.