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Where I’m From

I am from
frame flats with steep staircases, lining city streets.
Daddy's eyes, sparkling.  Momma's worries.
Baby sister, big brother.

The smell of yeast bread as I climb the narrow steps,
Cozy.
The smell of beer, always.
Cereal for breakfast,
peasant borscht for supper at 5.
On the back porch, tracing Sputnick across the sky.

Shame:  "we don't say that."

I am from 
Steelworkers Union 19806,
Bargaining rights and hoping for overtime.

Snowy drifts.  Winter winds. Slow springs, long awaited:
lilacs in big dishes, coleus leaves and hollyhocks.

Moving - again.

Up north and cooler by the Lake,
Humid nights, thunderstorms crashing from east to west,
short, languid summers,
sheets fresh from drying in the sun.

I am from
hanging with the smart kids,
The Center Street Library,
laughter, and lots of tears.
Anger that never cooled.  Warm and loving folks.

Books.  Books.  Books.

Old World people and me,
tiptoeing into the New World.

       *  "Where I'm From," Mary Elyn Bahlert, after George Ella Lyon,"Where I'm From" *








Photo by Mary Elyn Bahlert, May, 2022, Cedarburg, Wisconsin
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Winter Mornings at Home

The alarm clock in Mom and Dad’s room went off every weekday morning at 6 am, all year, except for weeks when Dad had vacation from the steel mill. Mom, who was never a good sleeper, would jump out of bed at the sound of the alarm, pull on her bathrobe, summer or winter, and head into the kitchen. In the kitchen, she reached to the top of the refrigerator to turn on the electric radio, and she started to make Dad’s breakfast – bacon and eggs, every morning. And coffee – Dad liked his with evaporated milk and a spoonful of sugar. As part of her morning routine, Mom made sure these were on the table, ready for him.

I listened to this routine over the course of my years as a child, and on through my college years, when I commuted to the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.

On winter mornings, the routine had an added wrinkle: after my dad dressed in his work clothes, I’d hear him open the door from the kitchen into the back hall, then I’d hear his footsteps start down the steps that led from our second floor flat, past the door of the flat that was home to another family, right below us, and down another flight of steps into the basement. There, Dad shoveled coal from the coal bin into the furnace, stoked the fire, and climbed the steps again to find his breakfast waiting.

Sometimes now, I miss the heavy, heavy blankets that covered me in my narrow bed, pushed up against my sister Suzie’s narrow bed, the heavy blankets that kept me cozy warm. I miss the smell of the heat coming through the register in our room, making the room cozy, too.

I miss snow days, too.

We grew up hearing stories of the Winter of ’48 – before I was born, when the snow lasted for days, cars were marooned miles from home, covered with snow and parked in a snow bank. Some would not be discovered by their owners, who walked home that day, until the snow had melted enough for them to be seen. Pictures of that winter storm are still available to see on the Internet. (So, it was true…)

One day, I listened and listened to the school closings on the radio, waiting and waiting for “The Milwaukee Public Schools” to be called. They never were. Still, the wind was blowing, the snow was falling, and it was cold – real cold. So Mom told us we didn’t have to go to school. From the window of our living room, I watched the kids who still went to school that day, saw my friend Nancy, her head down as she faced the wind, walking from her grandparents’ house, two blocks to the east, to our school on 28th and Clarke Streets.

That was unusual for us Mid-westerners, though: if our school system had not made the list on the radio that morning, we’d be up and getting ready, like any other day.

After Dad had gone to work, Suzie and I got up and dressed for school in the warm room. When we got to the kitchen, our breakfast dishes and choice of cereal was waiting for us: cold cereal with milk, a glass of orange juice. While we ate, Mom stood at the kitchen counter, making our lunches: cold cuts on white home made bread, slathered in butter, an apple or a banana, and if we were lucky, a home made cookie or piece of cake – all wrapped in wax paper and carried to school in a brown paper bag.

After the storm days, on cloudy winter days, we children walked to school on the snow banks that stood four feet high between the street and the sidewalk, left there by the snow plows. At the end of the block, we’d take the steps that had been carved out in the snowbank by the children who’d walked there ahead of us, and climb the snow bank when we’d crossed the street, walking high above the sidewalk, taller than any adult, all the way to school, where we’d take off our layers of winter wear and park them in the cloak room between the classroom and the hall, along with all the other children’s winter trappings. All day, the cloakroom smelled of wool from the warming coats hanging there.

For a long time, I didn’t miss cozy, here in Northern California, but sometimes now, when it’s hot and dry – even in January – something deep in my memory yearns for that time and place, the warm house, the smells, the sounds of slushy roads, the scrape of folks shoveling snow, even the bleak, gray skies. I see my parents in my mind’s eye, as if they were from another time – indeed, they were – and I miss them. I even miss the cold, the gray. And the cozy.

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First Kiss

Our house on Ring Street stood right next to the alley, and from the porch of our upper flat I could see my Grandma Markowski in her long black coat, her head covered in a cotton scarf, as she made her way from her house on Burleigh Street to our house – walking in the alley.  Grandma was a babushka, a peasant woman from Ukraine who came to the United States with my Grandpa; he had left his home to find a better life for himself and his children.

The alley was lined on either side with garages.  My dad rented a garage down the alley to keep our car out of the weather.  When I was a child, we children played outside for hours, close to home when we were little, and farther away as we grew.  From the front porch or the small back porch outside our kitchen door at the back, my mother could keep an eye on me as I played.

I have a memory from those times, when I was very young.  I am in the bath tub, and Mom is helping me with my bath.  As she runs a washcloth over me, and without looking at me, Mom says: “I saw you hit a little girl when you were playing today.” 

“That wasn’t me – that was another little girl who looked just like me.”

I see Mom turn her head away, a smile coming to her face.  She liked to call me, “Mary, Mary, quite contrary”.

One of the favorite games of kids in my neighborhood those days was playing Roy Rogers and Dale Evans, our television heroes, whose show we watched faithfully every Saturday morning, one in a line-up of shows for children that aired – a new episode every week.  Randy Larson, a neighbor boy my age who lived in a flat around the corner on 12th street, played Roy Rogers to my Dale Evans.  And one day, as we played our parts, riding our bikes in place of horses – skinny, blond-haired Randy Larson leaned over from the seat of his bike and planted a kiss on my cheek!  We laughed!

*

My mother always kept up to date on happenings in Milwaukee.  And she read the obituaries, faithfully, in The Milwaukee Journal.   If something or someone of note to me had had their name mentioned, she made sure to tell me.  And so, one day, I had the news from my mother that Randy Larson had been killed in Vietnam.

In 2015, Jeff and I traveled to Washington, D.C. to meet up with our good friends and traveling buddies from the U.K. – Pat and Tone.  While there, we visited the Vietnam Memorial.  I had long wanted to see the Memorial, the Vietnam War having made a mark on me as it had on all members of my generation.  I looked for Randy’s name on the register, and found his name engraved on the Memorial.

Just another working class kid, a kid who died serving in a War that was not declared a War, his name a memory on a wall. 

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Shame

We aren’t born with it, but we acquire it when we’re young. We grow up with it. There it is, in the sound of mother’s voice, of daddy’s voice, in the hushed voices of elder siblings, who have inherited it, like we have, from the air, from the air we are breathing, the air that Momma and Daddy are breathing. We inherit it,just as they inherited it.

And the generations before them.

Shame. Shame arrives on our bodies, in our bodies, in our organs, from these willing people, who love us, but who hate the shame that inhabits them, and so they try to shed it, shed it anywhere – on the couch, at the store, in the nursery, in the kitchen! But still, shame remains. It sticks to the folks, it has stuck to them for generations, and it sticks to us, catches on us – on our soft places with willing contours – just like it caught onto them.

I know shame well, like a well-known sister, who’s been in my life for as long as I can remember. I know her feel, the sound of her voice in me, the whining and the sass that come along with her, that came along with her when she set herself into me. She was fleeing, I’m sure of that, fleeing someone else – Mom, likely, and Dad, and probably even my well-loved teachers in the school I walked to, dutifully, every day.

IMG_0946
Vienna, November, 2016, photo by Mary Elyn Bahlert

No one wanted it, and so they kept throwing it off, onto me, onto you, onto any unknowing partner in the crime of shame. We all got it. We all ate it, whole, uncooked, unbaked, unwashed. We took it in, until it began to cover us, that slime, and after a while, we began to think this shame was us.

Then we were lost in it, and some of us are still lost in it, drowning in the shame, the grimy, greasy stuff that didn’t belong to the ancestors, and doesn’t’ belong to us. But still, we hold onto it, willingly, because if this is me, then this all I’ve got, and I don’t want to let go.

One day, after I thought I was free of her – after all, I’d named her, like some scary apparition in the dark – I was talking to a friend in a well-lit room, near the sea – I could hear the crash of the waves in that lovely place – and something was said, I said it or my friend said it, and – there she is again, caught on something in me, a word, a memory that flitted past, the sound of a voice, a feeling – and I couldn’t shake her. Knowing her, making room for her, giving her a name was not enough. I learned that.

Sometimes, now that I’m older, I feel her still. But not often. If I had not left her behind, I wouldn’t be able to speak as I do today, or lift my eyes into the eyes of everyone I meet, like I do today. I wouldn’t be able to sleep as quietly as I do. I left her somewhere, maybe in some therapist’s office or in an old journal, or spilled on the floor of some healer’s dark and quiet room, but part of her is here, still. When I’m angry or seething or tired or dismayed – sometimes then, she arrives, again.

Her sticking power is not what it used to be.
All of this came to mind when a friend told me she had not been raised with shame. Hmmm, I thought, I hope that’s true. Maybe it’s true. Is it true? It got me wondering. I began to remember, then, my long association, my long knowing, my ancestry and all that have inhabited this same dna. Did we have some hooks in us that others did not, do not have? I don’t know. I used to wonder. I used to be envious of those who used their shame in another way, who got ahead with it. I couldn’t. I can’t.

Maybe I learned to love her, or at least, not to hate her. Maybe I have learned to simply acknowledge her when she arrives, as if to greet an old friend, someone who I no longer have anything in common with, and our only connection is a slender thread, a memory, not even a longing.

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“God found it!”

I was Mom’s caregiver in the last years of her life, responsible for her care and safety.  She was still living in her apartment in Milwaukee in early 1998 when our good friend Joanne, who would look in on Mom and receive her frantic phone calls – more frequent – when she was disturbed about something, let me know that Mom couldn’t live alone anymore.  Her short term memory was affecting her ability to be independent.

In August of 1998 Jeff and I, along with a group of faithful friends and relatives, met in Milwaukee to pack up Mom’s apartment, to move her to Oakland, California, where we lived.

This story has a prelude, more interesting than the move itself.  I had spent months preparing a place for Mom to live in the Bay Area.  As a pastor, I’d visited lots of folks in assisted living homes.  Often these homes were single family homes in residential neighborhoods, reconfigured to accommodate a few elderly folks who needed some level of personal care.  I’d also discovered, and had had Mary Bahlert, my mom, named the recipient, of a grant – $1,000,000 – for a person who needed a retirement home and did not have the resources, at a wonderful continuing care facility in Oakland.  Still, I needed a back-up plan. I kept looking. 

Just in case.

I walked through many of the local assisted living homes, growing more and more distressed at how shoddy the rooms were, how meager the furnishings.  The search was disheartening.  One day, as I was getting ready for the day, I said a frantic prayer: “God, you’ve got to come through!”

Within a few minutes, as I made final preparations to leave the house, I decided to check the yellow pages once again, under “assisted living” – just in case.  That day, when I opened the book, its pages fell open and my eyes set on a place I had not noticed before:  Matilda Brown Home, Oakland.  I called the place immediately; within a few minutes, Jeff and I were on our way over for a look.

Matilda Brown Home was a beautiful building with beautiful gardens, a beautiful room set for the next meal, an activity center on the second floor, and a few empty rooms, waiting for new occupants – women only.  There was a well-appointed parlor with a grand piano, with windows that looked out on the gardens.  The staff changed infrequently.  I talked to the director and learned that Mom, with her limited resources, would be able to afford a room there.  I left that day with some hope in my belly.

When we moved Mom to Oakland, I did try to have her live at the large continuing care facility where I’d received the generous grant.  After 3 or 4 nights, the director called me in for a meeting to tell me that it didn’t look as if Mom was able to come in as independent, a requirement for the grant.  Jeff and I sat in the meeting; the director and Jeff waited for my answer.  I said: “let’s go over to Mathilda Brown.”

No photo description available.

Within the hour, we’d secured Mom a small room with a shared bath on the first floor, the single window overlooking the driveway and the back of Oakland Tech, at Mathilda Brown Home.  Within days we moved Mom into that little room, which we furnished with a few of her furnishings, and where she would die.

During her first weeks, I visited Mom often.  I didn’t know what I was waiting for, but now I know that I was waiting for the place to be a fit – for her – and for me. During each visit, at some point, she’d look at me and say: “I’m trying, Mary Elyn.”  We didn’t say anything else about it, although I knew it was my last hope for her to have a nice place to stay. I expect that she knew it, too.

One day, we sat in the garden, enjoying the afternoon together.  Mom turned to me and asked: “How did you find this place, Mary Elyn?”  “God found it,” I said.

Mom lived at Mathilda Brown for another 2-1/2 years before she was diagnosed with inoperable cancer and put on hospice care – which she received at Mathilda Brown Home.  Each time I would visit, at some point, Mom would look at me and ask: “How did you find this place, Mary Elyn?”  “God found it,” I would say.  Her question assured me of her happiness. 

During one of our last visits, when Mom could no longer get out of bed, I sat on her bed and we chatted.  We talked about ordinary things, as we usually did. Then, Mom looked at me and asked: “How did you find this place, Mary Elyn?” Before I could answer, her face lit up and she said: “I know!  God found it!”