“I don’t belong here.”

When I was in the early, early years of puberty, a moment in my life – happened? took place? I remember it – have always remembered it, with complete clarity.

I stood at the front screen door at the bottom of the steps that led from my family’s rented upper flat. I looked out at the street – 28 and Locust Street, our building facing 28 Street. From that house I walked to Peckham Junior High School, under the train tracks at the factory site of Master Lock Company, with my neighborhood friends. I was not a happy pre-teen child – my mother’s anxieties pushing against my own desires to grow up. But I have no memory of my mood that day, or what had brought me downstairs on that warm day.

As I looked out at the street, I had a thought: “I don’t belong here.”

In fact, since the time I was a young girl, I had not identified with my parents. In my memories, I am looking out at that world as if I am a stranger, passing through. I knew my parents loved me, saw that in Daddy’s eyes and his happiness in his family, and knew somewhere deep inside that Mom had her own fears and so she was afraid for me, a girl-child.

I did identify with my school teachers, old-world women with polka dotted dresses and hair that was set weekly at the beauty salon. From the time I was little, I used the small space in my bedroom to teach an imaginary class, full of the classmates who were my friends. I made an elaborate systems of attendance charts and folders with each child’s name. And I watched myself teach in the mirror at the back of bedroom door.

My life has been very different from my parents, who were old world people, my mother the first generation of an immigrant family to be born in the United States, Ukrainian her first language. She did not graduate from high school – she received her GED certificate when I was in college. My father went through the eighth grade in country schools, and my father spoke in a dialect of North Eastern Wisconsin that I still hear in the people who grow up there. They were solid working people, and my mother, who had been working at Cutler Hammer until she married my father, quit working when she married to take her proper role for that time and class and place: housewife. That was my world, and by the time I was in junior high, I was painfully aware of distinctions of class. I saw the nice clothes of my new friends and I looked with great interest at all the details of a friend’s one family bungalow house, which her parents owned. One day, Mr. O’Reilly, the Junior High Guidance Counselor who taught health classes, pulled me aside to ask where I lived as he spoke to another teacher; he wanted to show his ability to identify the social class of his students. I surprised him when I told him where I lived with my family. In a way, I’ve always felt as if I “pass” for middle class; my education and vocation match who I was becoming.

All of this is to ask: is that what I meant that day, looking out over the narrow city street, the sidewalks lined with elm trees that met like a canopy over the street?

I expect I’ll never know; I have not forgotten – I have not forgotten that moment, and I have not forgotten where I come from.

Vlas Markov Srebny and Feodosia Machsuda Srebna (Alex Markowski and Frances Markowski), with family, circa 1905. Mary Markowski Bahlert, my mother, the little girl with hand on her father’s knee.

may my heart always be open to little – e.e. cummings

may my heart always be open to little
birds who are the secrets of living
whatever they sing is better than to know
and if men should not hear them men are old

may my mind stroll about hungry
and fearless and thirsty and supple
and even if it’s sunday may i be wrong
for whenever men are right they are not young

and may myself do nothing usefully
and love yourself so more than truly
there’s never been quite such a fool who could fail
pulling all the sky over him with one smile

e. e. cummings


Still as a plant

The tree is empty
save for red berries and full, green leaves,
until you come with a partner one Saturday, early.
Checking out the territory, you dance on its branches:
one inside - then out - 
one inside - then out.
I have questions for you:
     is it nesting time?  
     can this be your new home?
     will the berries be enough?

The tree is empty, 
filled only with hope
as you navigate its branches.
I sit, empty too, still as a plant,
watching you:
afraid to move -
scared you'll fly away.

“Bird in the Tree” Photo by Mary Elyn Bahlert, 2022