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,
The smell of beer, always.
Cereal for breakfast,
peasant borscht for supper at 5.
On the back porch, tracing Sputnik 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" *
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.
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
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.
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?
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.