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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

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Bishop Earl

One Sunday morning in 2002, as I was in the sanctuary at Lake Merritt United Methodist Church in Oakland, preparing for worship, I saw an elderly African American couple I had not seen before. It was my practice to arrive early, while the choir rehearsed, to greet folks I knew, and to personally welcome people I did not know. When I walked up to Joanne and Earl that morning, they stood, and Joanne spoke first, introducing herself, and then her husband: “this is Earl,” she said. “He’s a Bishop,” she added. I saw the look of pride that moved across his face at that moment.

An African Methodist Episcopal Bishop, Earl had chosen to have a community outside of his denomination to make his home in retirement.

I came to know that every emotion showed in Earl’s face: tears shed, eyes shut tight in laughter, a wandering look when he was wondering. Every emotion showed and was quickly replaced by the next emotion. Sometimes anger and frustration, the next moment, joy, laughter. After a time, Bishop Earl volunteered in the church office, and often as I worked in my study there, I would hear his booming voice as he answered the phone, and laughter – also booming – from the office staff, and from Bishop Earl himself.

My husband has an expression that he saves to describe certain people, and I think it applied to Bishop Earl: “he was helplessly himself.” And for those of us who knew him, his being himself filled our lives with kindness, with sincerity, with happiness.

Over the years I pastored at Lake Merritt Church, Earl and I spent lots of time together. One day, we visited the Mountain View Cemetery in Oakland, where Earl parked his car and walked to the stone crypt that held his oldest daughter. He cried, and his little dog, who stayed in the car with me, whimpered as she watched him in that sad and lonely place. When he returned to the car, Earl was all words again, and soon we were laughing, enjoying the day. Sometimes, Earl would take me to another of his favorite eating places, and we’d talk and laugh over lunch together. When my mother died, he was one of the first to talk to me, to offer his condolences, and he preached for me that day after she died, on short notice.

I can remember the exact place in Oakland where, stopped at a stoplight, Earl and I were talking about our favorite kinds of music. I told him that I loved the blues. He burst into song, singing the blues – in his deep, resonant voice. We laughed, and laughed again!

My mother-in-law, Betty, was a reserved woman from a small community in Wisconsin. On one of our visits to see her, she answered the phone to hear Bishop Earl asking to speak to “his children.” She handed the phone over to me quickly, not sure what to make of this!

Joanne’s health failed before Bishop Earl’s, and they moved away. On one of his return trips to Oakland, where their daughters still lived, Earl invited me to hear him preach at a small church near my home. That’s the last time I saw Earl; as I walked away, I watched him court the women, speak with respect to the men. Many years have passed, but I still think of him when I pass that little church.

There was no one like Bishop Earl. I miss him.

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Sue, Sister, Sweet

I remember when I first named you:  “sister,”
your sisterhood, a gift to me:
you, sitting on the edge of the claw footed bathtub
in the crowded bathroom of an old Milwaukee flat, crying.
Smaller, I sat without a word, until we laughed - again.
Then, I knew:
You are my sweet, sweet sister, Sue.

I remember you, 8 months pregnant – 
	another baby!
- your deep voice, your laughter until dawn
in the Carolina night,
the light from your cigarette, bright in the darkness.
During the day, you were Mom.

I remember you, marching with me to find the classical CD’s in the back 
	of Barnes and Noble.
You bought me Beethovan.
I listened, all spring long, to the minor notes,
mourning another Sue.
Now, these notes are for you.
	I mourn for you.

Sweet, sweet Sue:
Your love was there:
a simple melody in the background of my life.
Your love, that spanned the miles, the years.
I remember, Sue, sweet, sweet Sue.

I remember you.

“I don’t know when I’ll see you again, Sue,” I said into your silence,
your deep hug.
I remember your silent wave:  "goodbye."
(I watched you in the rear-view mirror).
You knew, you knew, you knew, my sweet, sweet sister, Sue.
You knew.

Sue Lass, 1943-2015

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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.

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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Liga

Liga was my mother’s godfather. Whenever he arrived at our house, he was dressed in a suit coat. He looked like a retired businessman. I remember his presence, quiet, and he seemed kind. I don’t think I ever had a conversation with Uncle Liga. When he couldn’t work any more, he rode the Milwaukee buses in his suit – always a hat, with a top coat in the winter. In his final years, he lived in an old, narrow apartment close to downtown. The place was dark, made darker by the sounds of traffic on the busy street it faced.

Liga died in the bathtub of that old apartment. At that time, after Dad had retired, my mother and father went to check on him every few days. When he didn’t answer the ring to his doorbell, the apartment manager unlocked the door of his place. My father found Liga, dead. Later, Dad said he couldn’t sleep for several days after he found LIga. “I loved Liga,” Dad said.

Liga worked in the foundry with the other men who arrived from Eastern Europe in the early years of the 20th century. They left before the Revolution of 1917, a revolution that brought a new life, but not the life they had hoped and dreamed for their land. When I knew him, he was alone. I have a picture of him, from the pictures my mother saved and gave to me. It looks to have been taken in the “old country.” Liga, a young man – handsome, with thick, black, wavy hair – sits in a chair, dressed in a top coat and tie, looking sternly into the distance. A young woman, also formally dressed, stands behind him, her hand on his shoulder. What happened to her? What happened to him? Where did those beautiful young people go? In my mind, Liga was always an old man. And when I knew Liga, he was always alone.

Many Ukrainians fled Ukraine for work and food and an education for their children. They arrived in the New World, and settled in the industrial cities of the Midwest, Chicago, Detroit, Milwaukee. Others settled in Canada. They brought with them their hard work, their ability to live with very little – they were descendants of freed serfs – freed to remain landless, illiterate, and poor, apparently – and a need to drink. Oddly, I don’t associate Liga with drinking.

Most holidays, Liga joined us at the holiday table and in the living room afterward. He was there when we enjoyed the Christmas tree lights, and he was there when we tapped together the ends of colored, painted eggs at Easter, to see whose would crack first. The one whose egg didn’t crack was the winner!

Every few months, Liga arrived at the front door of our flat, where he rang the bell and waited for one of us to run down the stairs to answer the door. In the summer, I would often go to open the door for Liga. He would greet me, shyly and gently. Then, he and Mom sat for an hour or two at the kitchen table. She read to him the latest letter from his family in Canada, which had been carefully carried in his pocket. Sometimes a photo – black and white, of a favorite niece – was included in the letter. Then, Liga told my mother, line by line, his answer to the letter. She translated his Ukrainian into English. When Mom addressed the envelope, Liga always handed her a couple of dollars from his pocket, to put into the envelope with the letter. A few dollars from a poor man, sent as love.

When I think of Uncle Liga, a place in my heart is warm.