“Time passes much too quickly, when we’re together laughing…” Chicago, “Beginnings

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When I was a girl, my father would say from time to time: “my life has gone by so quickly.” I would look at him, just little, and wonder what he meant, and how that could be. I could not relate. Some people say that time goes more slowly for the young, when all the years stretch out beyond, when growing up is something to be yearned for and in the yearning, of course, time passes slowly. But my memory is of that question or wondering that was in me when I heard my father reflect. Later, he would quote again and again, this verse: “A thousand years is but a day in the eyes of the Lord.” Apparently, my beloved dad did not stop thinking about the passage of time.

Just last evening, I was telling a new friend about some of the favorite days of my life.  Those days were on my visits to Milwaukee to see my mother, after I had moved to the Bay Area of California.  My mother lived in a small upper floor apartment on a busy street close to the center of Milwaukee, and I would stay in the cramped second bedroom, the noise of the busy thoroughfare keeping me awake nights.

Both mom and I were “Milwaukee girls.”  We had grown up in the flats that line the streets of poor and working class neighborhoods of the North Side.  Those flats are there, still.

We knew the streets, the bus lines, the parks, and we knew the sense of small town-ness that Milwaukee cherished for a long time.  We knew the particular kind of diversity of that place – the streets where Eastern European communities lived, the place where the Italians built their church, now a Cathedral to welcome the Bishop from Rome.  We knew the part of town where people from Mexico came to live among others who spoke their native language.  We knew how to navigate to new places, too, in that city laid out in a grid.  I have never understood how to find new places in new places, new cities.  How can addresses not make sense, like they do in Chicago and Milwaukee, a small Chicago?

On my visits to see Mom, before the dementia took her away from me, we set aside a day to “do Milwaukee.”  After coffee and breakfast, we backed her car out of the garage and onto the busy street.   We had no particular plan, except to explore some new places, to make our way to the Milwaukee Art Center at some point, to have lunch out, and maybe to do a bit of shopping along the way.  I loved those small adventures.  I loved the fun we had together:  “that’s the fun of it!” was one of my mother’s expressions.

On one adventure, we discovered again a small section of town filled with Ukrainian immigrants.  My mother’s first language was Ukrainian, and so we ventured into a small bakery, a store-front, and she stumbled to say a few words to the man behind the counter.  He understood, all right, and soon we found ourselves in another cramped space, the family’s living room, complete with an altar adorning a corner.  They were Ukrainian Catholics, and a candle burned in that corner, lighting up the features of the Virgin Mary, her eyes cast down, her blue gown ending at her bare feet, on a sphere covered with stars.

On another adventure, I gazed at my mother as she gazed at one of her favorite paintings in the Milwaukee Art Museum, The Wood Gatherer, by Jules Bastien-Lepage.  Later, Mom told me her wonderings about the scene that painting depicted, her own story fleshing out the art.   I still own a print of that painting.

One day at lunch we found ourselves in an old Italian neighborhood for an Italian lunch, another at a Jewish deli across from a synagogue.

As the years passed, it was harder and harder for mom to enjoy those days, until the last time we set out.  Of course, we did not know it was the last time, but something had changed.  We returned home to her apartment right after lunch.  Soon enough, I’d have to move Mom out of her apartment and into assisted living in the Bay Area, a move which she made bravely and with great trust.

I suppose some part of me thought those adventures would go on forever, that those times when we laughed and remembered and noticed would not end.  But all times end.  Now, those days are distant memories, and I continue to cherish them as some of my favorite times.

Here, I find myself years later, remembering those small adventures, remembering the tilt of Mom’s head as she laughed, remembering the narrow streets we knew so well, remembering driving her blue Tercel all over the city we loved.  I’m in the memory time for so many people I have loved, so many experiences, so many grievances that had filled my life over the years.    All of those beloved people, all of those rich days are a memory, now.

 

 

Always learning

 

IMG_0685Mom used to say: “You learn something new every day.”

Like a mantra, I have lived those words.

My mother did not graduate from high school, although she received her GED while I was in university.  I know for certain she did that so that I would graduate with a degree, since I was wavering, and had taken a semester off during my senior year at the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee.  She didn’t tell me her purposes, but I knew.  When she received her certificate, I sent her a spring bouquet.

Mom quit school early to work.  She married young, also, and had a son within a year – Ronn, my brother.  Mom was bright.  Now, when Mom comes up in conversation, I tell folks that she should have been a teacher – a kindergarten or first-grade teacher.  The daughter of Ukrainian immigrants who lived in flats in neighborhoods of poor folks, it was enough that she learned to read and write.  She taught her father to read English when she was a girl.  In my mind’s eye, I can see her, bright and determined, her feet wrapped around the rungs of a wooden chair in a cramped Milwaukee flat, as her father, Vlas, concentrated and paced, determined, also.  He was smart, although uneducated in his native language.  He made that long trip across the ocean, left the familiar village of his homeland so that his children could learn to read and to write.

So Mom knew the value of education, although she could not see to get a degree herself.  Life, the life of a working class woman, intervened.  She was married and divorced by the age of 22.  She worked hard at Cutler-Hammer in Milwaukee, where her employers noticed the bright, hard-working young woman.  She quit her job when she married my father.  That’s what working class women did in the 1940’s.  The truth is, she had greater earning potential than my father.  But that’s how things were done.  A woman married, a woman quit working in the outside world, a woman kept house and raised the children.

When I was girl, I walked 3 blocks to the Center Street Library – on 27th and Center – with Mom, every week.  She must have read all of the books  in the “mystery” section of that library.  It was in those days that I learned to love the smell of libraries.  In a library, it seems we can smell the riches of what is carried in the aisles.  Twice in my life I have worked in a library – in high school, and again in seminary.  For awhile as an undergraduate, I even flirted with the idea of becoming a librarian. Books would save me, many times, during my life.

When Mom and I left the Center Street Library  to walk home, we each carried two or three books to read for the week ahead.  I see now that Mom was living her mantra:  “you learn something new every day.”  She modeled that for me in concrete ways.  I was not able to see that for many years, but now, in my own learning, I understand.

Mom taught me how a woman washes clothes, too.  During the summers when I was a young girl, my babushka-d Mom would take me down three flights of stairs to the shared basement of our flat to show me how to wash clothes.  I remember the smell there, too, the damp and soapy smell of the basement, the hot, steaming water of the wringer washer.  Into the first load went whites – sheets, pillow cases, underwear.  Into the second load of the same water went towels and colored clothing.  Into the last load went Dad’s work clothes.  See, Mom?  – I have not forgotten!  I know the smell,  I can see the beautiful wooden stick Mom used to lift the clothes from the washer into the first rinse water, and then into the final rinse before the clothes were taken in the large wooden basket into the yard to dry in the humid air.  As I write, I can smell the air, too.

If I could have one item of Mom’s, it would be that wooden stick, smooth, smelling of soapy water, imprinted with Mom’s hands, her weeping and her worries.  Where did that stick go?

I see Mom’s broad, strong peasant hands, hands that in later years would be crooked with arthritis.  She was a worker, teaching a little girl whose work is ideas and books and the fabric of words.   “You learn something new every day.”  I took those words into myself, and I made them my own.

The path I have taken through life has been the path of learning, too, not always from books.  But I am keeping your mantra, Mom:  I keep it, still.

 

 

 

Take a look out the window – !

A few weeks ago I watched an online video about a woman who, from her front window, waved to the high school students who walked past her house day after day, morning and afternoon. Because they were accustomed to her being at the window, the young people waved back. After years of this interchange, the students invited their friend – a woman in her 90’s! – to their school to honor her.

Take a look out the window!

In some neighborhoods in most cities, people are afraid to look out their windows. That’s hard for me to imagine, and maybe it is for you, too. But it’s true. Folks are afraid to look out their windows because they might be seen by the crack dealer who walks the street, the crack dealer who carries a gun. Folks are afraid to look out their windows because they are afraid to be called as witnesses to the crime that is living in the streets.

That can happen to any of us. Unless we take a few moments today to look out our windows, to see what is happening on the street, to witness who is passing by, or to see who is missing today, we’ll lose control of our communities.

Over the past several months, students from a nearby high school have taken to climbing up the hill from the main drag that runs through this part of the city, to walking across the quiet street that leads to a cul de sac, and to sitting on the wall that marks the edge of my yard. I took a look at the kids as I parked my car, making sure they noticed me, as I had noticed them. When I came into the house, I went over to the window that looks out onto the wall. There they have gathered, talking, laughing, playing music. They look like young kids to me, and they look like kids just young enough to pay attention to adults.

That day, I opened the window and told them that this is private property. They looked up at me – ! – and answered politely that they weren’t harming anything. But I wanted them to know I’d noticed. A few minutes later, I heard a loud “pop!”, and laughter. Again I opened the window, but this time, in a firmer voice, I told them they’d have to go. When they didn’t leave, I opened the window a third time and told them I’d call the police if they didn’t leave.

Wow! young people can certainly run fast! I saw about 7 or 8 kids go running back across the street and down the hill onto the sidewalk of the main drag! Whew! That didn’t take much!

I know I’m just another old person to those kids. Anyone over 30 is old to them, after all! But I also know that I’m doing my best to keep my own community safe. I can’t do that alone. I need other well-meaning folks to keep an eye on the street, like I do. I need other kind people to point out clear boundaries to young people who are simply doing what young people do – hanging out together, maybe skipping afternoon classes.

When I was in junior high at Peckham (now Jackie Robinson) Junior High School in Milwaukee, I lived in an upper flat on Medford Avenue. I walked the mile to school, morning and afternoon. My parents rented that flat from Mrs. Schmidt, a widow who seemed very old to me at the time. Every day when I walked up the driveway next to the house to the back door and into the narrow hallway to take the steps to the second floor, I saw Mrs. Schmidt sitting in her chair by the front room window. Recognizing me, she waved – every single day.

I think adults weren’t as leery of young people those days as we are now. But Mrs. Schmidt was keeping watch, in her own way, of who walked up the driveway. One time she knocked menacingly on the window when my friend Sharon came to see me; later, my mother told Mrs. Schmidt that Sharon was the daughter of the Baptist minister, and Mrs. Schmidt didn’t try to motion her away again!

Sometimes we do what’s right, and sometimes we don’t do what’s right. How do we ever know for sure? At the very least, take a look out the window – today!

“What’s Happenin’ – by poet Peggy Trojan

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What’s Happenin’
by
Peggy Trojan

Selma Makkela
printed all the news fit to print.
The Hemmilas had a boy,
Erickson’s cow was hit by lightening,
The Polks motored to Chicago
for their grandson’s graduation.
Nothing to cause you anger
or “take to bed worry.”
When you saw Willard
at the feed store, you could ask how
Mildred’s broken leg was coming along,
send an anniversary card
to the Mattsens,
keep an eye out for
Johnson’s lost calico cat.
The news connected you
to community,
safe in the knowledge
you were informed enough
to know just what
was going on.

Peggy Trojan retired from teaching English to the north woods of Wisconsin.
She enjoys quilting, gardening, picking berries, and writing poetry. She is a
member of the Wisconsin Fellowship of Poets.

I had an aunt, Edna Johnson, who also “printed all the news fit to print” in the Door County Advocate. When I would travel all the way from Green Bay to Ellison Bay (!) to see her for the weekend – about 80 miles – she’d make sure she mentioned that in her column. Everything was newsworthy, and we had to wait for news – wait for news to be published. That’s hard to believe for those of us who receive news every moment, at our fingertips.

But have we lost our sense of community, a community that cares, a community that takes notice, a community of real people, not “bits of information?” For as easy as information is to receive these days, connection does not seem easy to receive.

“Something’s lost, and something’s gained, in living every day…” from “Both Sides Now,” written by Joni Mitchell.