Uncle Johnny wasn’t very tall, but he was a god to us. He could stand at attention in a doorway for hours, talking about the workers, about union wages and strikes, about strikes and collective bargaining. He was an Atheist. He greatly respected my father, who had gone through 8th grade in rural schools, because my father was a good, strong, honest worker, a union man, a steelworker.
Johnny was a Communist, giving his own life, his smarts, to make life better for the workers.
Uncle Johnny was almost ten years older than my mother, who adored her brother. He had “been born on the boat,” we were told, coming with his father and mother – my grandparents – from Ukraine, about 1914. Years later, I discovered that his date of birth was in the year 1910. To this day, I hold firmly to the understanding that people who leave their homeland for life in a distant land do what they must to keep their families together. I know mine did. My people were poor and uneducated, the grandchildren of freed serfs. My grandfather died when I was almost 2, falling to the curb on a Milwaukee street, drunk again. Still, he’d made it, made it to America to give his kids a life different from his own. My mother taught him to read English when she was in grade school.
When my mother, her two brothers and younger sister, Anne, were small, Johnny was already a worker. With great homage to Johnny, my mother told me that he had made Christmas happen for his siblings one year when my grandparents could not. There was no Christmas tree in that Milwaukee flat, now a boarding house for other men who’d arrived from Ukraine, most without their families. And there was lots of drinking in that house, a fact that has shaded the family ever since. Johnny knew there’d be no Christmas for his brothers and sisters, so he bought a tree and brought it home. Together, the kids decorated it, together, they made Christmas happen, thanks to Johnny. And under the decorated tree lay the gifts big brother had also brought. That made him a hero, forever.
My sister tells me that she was home sick from school the day two men in suits came to the door. That would have been about 1960. Two men in suits – an anomaly in that working-class neighborhood! What Suzie remembers is that Mom lied when the men asked her if she knew where her brother Johnny was. Mom said no. Didn’t Mom always tell us not to lie? A rumor in the family is that Pete, the youngest brother, who fought in three wars in the Army, never rose above the rank of SFC because of Uncle Johnny’s politics.
The family was proud of its politics, proud of its atheism. We were smart people, smart and uneducated, smart people who worked hard, union workers.
Sometime around the time I turned 20, I started thinking that the life of a minister might be a good call for me. I don’t know where the idea came from, because, like the rest of my family, I was not a “church person.” Now, I think a lot of people answer the call they receive by choosing a vocation that suits their temperament. The Call is not particular to the Church, although the Church likes to think it is. The year I was confirmed in the Lutheran Church, Missouri Synod, I stopped going to church, because what I heard in that fundamentalist denomination did not jive with what I was already learning from my European-educated school teachers. Besides, I had never heard of a woman minister. And I wouldn’t, for almost a decade. But there it was, the seed of a different life.
I was over 30 when I enrolled in seminary, almost 35 when I was ordained and sent to serve as Associate Pastor at a Church in San Jose, CA. My uncle Johnny and aunt Dani lived in Campbell, West of San Jose, where they had raised their family, my cousins. The autumn after I started work, my parents wanted to visit me, to see Uncle Johnny, and they wanted to see my church, to hear me preach.
You’ve heard it: “he would never darken the door of a church.” That was certainly true for Johnny. But there he was, along with Aunt Dani, my Uncle Pete and Aunt Athalie from South San Francisco, and my proud parents. It would take me several years after that time to get the hang of being a pastor, of whatever that all meant.
When the service was over, the congregation – full of many well-educated and highly regarded members of the community – filed out through the ornate doors, each person stopping to have a moment to tell the pastors a health concern, or about a death in the family. When my parents came through, followed by the uncles and aunts, I expect pride shone on their faces. I don’t remember.
What I remember is what Uncle Johnny said to me that day. “I can see you want to help people.”
With a touch of kindness and a few words, Uncle Johnny delivered the blessing. From people who had nothing came a love for their children, a pride in the young people who followed them. As a pastor, I’ve given blessings, and I’ve received blessings. I’m grateful. Mostly, I’m grateful for the quiet blessing I received from Uncle Johnny that day.
Something is wrong with my mirror in the morning.
I step up close,
take a look.
That’s when I see her.
She looks familiar.
“Do I know you?” I ask.
Yes, of course! Those are Mom’s eyes!
“Is it you, Mom, come for a visit?”
I look again.
“Is it you, Grandma?”
Scrambling to translate,
she doesn’t answer.
This one speaks my language:
“Oh, no!” she says, staring back at me:
My seventeen-year-old self looks out at that old woman
in my mirror.
“Oh, no!” I say.
Mary Elyn Bahlert, 8/2020