Tag Archives: memories

This holy time…

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When I was a young girl, my mother told me the story of Jesus dying on the cross on Good Friday. I know she had told me the story to explain why I couldn’t go off and play that afternoon, and so I stayed dutifully in front of our flat on Ring Street.

I don’t remember Mom telling me the story, but I do remember hanging from the iron hand-rail that led to the sidewalk, thinking about a man who was dying somewhere that afternoon, on a cross.  I remember looking out across the street, imagining the scene in my child’s mind.  I wondered about him.  I had a sense of loneliness, as if loneliness hung in the air that day.   I couldn’t see what was happening, but it was somewhere, then, in present time.

It was a quiet afternoon.  In the 1950’s, activity stopped and stores closed from 12 to 3 on Good Friday afternoon.  Folks who went to church, did.  And many folks did in that Midwestern city, good and faithful church folks who sat for 3 hours listening to sermons about the 7 last words Jesus spoke.  Then, they returned to whatever else they were doing.  In Milwaukee, I’m sure, Friday fish fry meals at taverns across the city and state would be full that evening, as they usually were.

My family were not church-going people, and so it seems strange, in a way, that Mom told me the story, but she did.  Stories have power even when they are not our stories.  Stories that are told, again and again, have more power.  Stories have more power than fact or history, truly.   And stories we tell become our stories, have a way of working their wonder and fear and meaning inside of us, all the time.

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Now, I love the quiet season of Lent, that time of year when winter gives way to spring, slowly, with each lengthening day, with early buds on slender branches, with each storm that may be the last for the season.  And I love the movement of the moon across the sky.  I wait for the evening when I see the Pascal moon, the full moon that heralds Passover and Easter, an off-shoot of Passover.  That same moon marked the day and time for the telling of the story, Jesus taking a meal with his closest friends, honoring the ancient story, also.  The moon marks the time when winter slinks into spring, when green appears, when life that was under the earth comes back from the death of winter.

I watch the moon.  For as much as we modern folks know, moon is mystery.  For a time, it gives reflected light that lights up the white cover on my bed as if it was lit from within.  In the evening and night, moonlight comes into the bedroom, and by morning, it is far across the sky, hanging over the Pacific in the west.

Moon is mystery enough.  All those other things, those theological understandings and explanations, do no justice to the moon.  The passing of time is mystery enough, also, that I would reach back in memory today to see myself hanging from that bar, on that lonely day, the street quiet, and me, safe  in the assurance that Mom was close by, checking on me from the upstairs window, often.

 

“Houseplants,” a poem by Mary Elyn Bahlert

IMG_0525My little friends,
yellow and brown and purple and green,
I treasure you,
my hands among your leaves,
my fingers at your roots.

My little friends,
there is so little I am good at in this world:
my children want for what they cannot have –
I have only these hands among your leaves
and a few places of sunlight in the house.

My little friends,
my eyes drop tear-less on your stalks;
I protect you from the cold in this place.
I touch you with these worthless hands
and you flourish.

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I wrote “Houseplants”  as part of a series of poems that belong to my grandmother, Feodosia.  For these poems are the story of her life, told through me over the course of a year or two in the late 1980’s.  Surely our connection to the ancestors goes deeper than we know – or than we are taught to cherish, in our culture.  The magic my Grandma – a bent-over babushka in a long black coat walking through the slush of Milwaukee’s narrow alleys – must surely have come through me, the magic of our connection told through the words I recorded.

Enjoy.

Who we are is there, all along.

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As I enter the journey to the elder years, I seem to be myself more than ever.
In the shedding of what was not me – what was given to me by others, to shape me into who they would have me be – I become, every day, more myself.  And even though, in the living of life, I wondered if I was being true to myself, I see now that I have only come back – through the shedding of others’ image of me – to me.  To me!  To me!

I have vivid memories of being a young girl – 8 or 9 – playing alone in my first bedroom of my own.  The small bedroom was at the back of the flat, a narrow window overlooking the city backyard and the alley.  To the right of the window, adjacent, was the dark wooden door of the small closet – my own!  The narrow Jenny Lind bed – second-hand, my mother had refinished the wood to a deep cherry – was to the right of the closet, its foot at the door when I entered from the kitchen of that narrow flat.  I had room for a desk – plain wood stained to match the bed, directly ahead of the room’s entry, to the left.

I still like to play alone!  An introvert, I have often had extroverted work in my life, and I’ve had a need to rest – alone.  In my memory, I play at being a teacher, in that small, dark room. .  First of all, I make up files for each of the students in my class.  I use the names of real classmates, to be sure, and I file them in the deep filing drawer of the desk on the left.  I alphabetize the files, too.

I still do that first, in any job, in any endeavor.  I get organized, my pencils in order in the zipper case, books lined up and even.  I like to have my files in order.

Then, I stand to face the class – the full-length mirror – a luxury! – that graces the back of the door.  I teach.

I suppose I have always been a teacher.  Always.  I emulated the teachers I knew from school, imagining them, how they dressed, how they walked back and forth, how they projected their voices, to teach.  They were my models to another life, another path, a reality I did not know in that flat, but that beckoned to me, by purpose, by expectation, by education, which I would have to learn how to traverse, step by step.  Sometimes, I had role models – like those teachers in their navy and white polka-dotted dresses – and sometimes, I did not.  Sometimes, I made the path up on my own.

Though shy as a young person, it has never been difficult for me to speak to a group.  I discovered that in high school, when we were privileged to have forensic societies in my large urban school.  For me, those privileges of public education in the 1950’s and 1960’s began to shape my life.  What teacher could have imagined that shy girl, big green eyes taking in every movement, every word, challenged by new ideas, would make her life as a speaker, a preacher, a teacher of the inner life?

What did those teachers see in each one of us, some of us hungry to learn, some of us not able to speak a word out loud in class, some of us abused at home, some of us hungry – for food, and for knowing?  What did they see – and not see?

Now I see that the gifts that are mine have been mine all along.  I only had to discover them, to have the privilege – a privilege, surely – to live the gifts out in my life.  I suppose we all do.

The little girl who dreamed – and didn’t even know she was dreaming – in that little room at the back of a Milwaukee flat – is a teacher, still.  She always was…

 

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.