I lead a weekly group at a center for disabled adults, here in the Bay Area. Each week, we open with a prayer and we talk about something in our lives – our memories, our worries, the people we love who are no longer with us. We close with prayer.

The week before Thanksgiving, we talked about the upcoming holiday season. We remembered what the season was like for us, some of us recalling events that happened decades ago. We talked about what was hard for us during the holiday season. Each of these memories brought back the images, the laughter, and sometimes the sadness, of these times, remembered.

I always wait until everyone else has spoken to share my own answers to the questions. I remembered the yearly outing to buy the Christmas tree, years ago, when my father – he was “Dad” in our family – and one of us, or the rest of us would go to pick the Christmas tree. Winter can start early in Southeastern Wisconsin, and that fact is important to my memories. Dad was real fussy about the tree that we would choose to bring home. So we’d walk down the rows of trees, smelling the pine that was a harbinger of the season to come. Dad would stop, pull a tree that leaned against the others from the row, and hold it up – so we could get an idea of how tall it stood. When I was little, the trees were really tall – clear to the ceiling of our old Milwaukee flat. As my siblings and I left home and Mom and Dad were alone in the apartment on Appleton Avenue, the trees seemed to grow shorter. Or maybe it was me…

Finally, as we endured the cold, the smell of the fir trees, the sound of bells – always – and the darkening sky – sometimes flurries of an early snow – we’d find the right – the perfect – tree. Dad would secure it in the trunk of his Chevy BelAir, and we’d drive home.

When Suzie and I were really little, Mom and Dad decorated the tree after we went to bed on Christmas Eve – in the old-fashioned, European way – so that we awoke on Christmas morning to the beautiful tree, decorated, icicles hanging, thick and luscious, standing tall in the corner of the living room. The smell of the pine needles we’d smelled in the tree lot now filled the room. Mom was careful about the icicles on the tree. Every evening during the season, she’d get up from her chair and arrange the hanging silver strings so that they were perfect, not resting on the branch below, but hanging in the air, like the huge icicles that hung from the edge of the roofs. Late at night during winter, from time to time I would hear an icicle fall, flying past the window to the snow covered ground that wound around the side of the house.

As we grew older, Suzie and I helped decorate the tree, and over the years, the tree began to appear in the front window earlier and earlier in December.

Every year, the same ornaments were hung on the tree. When some of the ornaments were taken from their careful packing and placed on the tree, even when silver trees and flocked trees were popular, our house boasted an “old fashioned tree”. We never tired of it. I never tire of a green tree, recently cut, even now.

The tree stayed up, decorations and all, until Epiphany – Mom called it “Russian Christmas,” for it marks the celebration of the birth of the Christ in the Orthodox tradition of the Christian Church. Then the pain-staking job of removing the ornaments, the oval lights of many colors, and the icicles would begin, each item carefully packed in the boxes that had been around since before I was born, set aside in the attic until next year.

Next year doesn’t come anymore, at least in that old way. I still like a real tree, and the ornaments that Jeff and I remove from the boxes each come with a story, like the days when they hung on my mother’s tree. We remember who gave us the ornaments, we guess the time in our own history when they were added to the family’s tree, and we note the newer ornaments, too, those given to us by friends or the people in our parishes. Some lie in the box, wrapped in the same paper Mom had wrapped them in, years ago. Like my parents’ ornaments, each one comes out of the box with a story, and with the story, a memory. A bit of sadness comes along with the decorating of the tree, as the people we love are remembered, along with funny stories that probably weren’t funny at the time, but that make us laugh now.

This year, Jeff will hang lights on one of the trees that stand at the side of our house. We want to bring a bit of holiday light to the neighborhood, to the neighbors who pass our house every day, and to their guests. We know now that the season of the Coming of the Light is honored by many traditions, not just ours, and knowing of the festivals of others enriches our own. Here in the Bay Area, we respect these differences by saying, “Happy Holidays” to one another. Our youngest niece honors the season with her mother as they light the candles for Hanukkah on the menorah, standing next to their Christmas tree. Some of the old traditions remain; new traditions are made. On Christmas Eve, when we go to bed, I’ll leave a local radio station playing on the radio in the living room, the empty room – empty except for the beautiful tree – filled with the sound of holiday music as we sleep.

Photo by Mary Elyn Bahlert, December 10, 2020 – COVID Christmas Tree

reflecting, Uncategorized

Season of Holidays

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.


Leaving home

In “Fiddler on the Roof,” there is a heart-wrenching scene of the Jewish people of the village Anetevka being forced to leave their beloved village, their home, during the Russian pogroms (massacre or persecution instigated by the government or by the ruling class against a minority group, particularly Jews).  The people are packing the few belongings they can carry, along with animals, onto carts and make-shift vehicles.  What to take?  What can they leave behind?  They will leave behind that place they loved – we all love our homes, don’t we? – not only the home, but the place, the land, the sight of light on those trees, the fragrance in spring – and walk away to where?  Can somewhere else be home, surely? The tailor, a man with a young family (he is the husband of Tevye’s eldest daughter), asks the Rabbi, then:  “Rebbe, wouldn’t this be a good time for the Messiah to come?”  The old Rabbi looks fully into his eyes and say:  “We’ll just have to wait for him somewhere else.” 

Wisdom, in the heart of tragedy, of horrific loss.

We wait for the Messiah these days, also, as the War on Ukraine – invaded by Russia – drives on, for many months. How long will the people suffer? We wait for the Messiah when we are ill, or when someone we love is ill, and there does not seem to be an end to it. We wait for the Messiah when the price of gas goes up an up and – up – and although it is expensive to us, it is too much for so many others. We wait for the Messiah to come into the lives of refugees fleeing from war in their own homeland or fleeing because there is no water in their land. Refugees who are walking now, today, this moment. They, too, must be waiting for someone to save them.

We wait for Someone – Something – to save us.

Deep Dusk, Oakland, 11/12/2022 – Mary Elyn Bahlert


morning, evening

you put on a show-
your dancing leaves turn from green to gold -
shimmer in the breeze,
then fall - 
to the waiting earth - participant in the silent drama.

you put on a show.
you wait
as the autumn wind removes your yellow dress
and your branches lift themselves - light -
into the air.

              -Mary Elyn Bahlert, 10/2022

Birch Companion: photo by Mary Elyn Bahlert, 2020

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