remembering, wisdom

“You learn something new every day.”

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 reason to do it then, 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 – Ron, 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, paced – determined, also.  He was smart, although illiterate 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.  The life of a working class woman in that era 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.  Although she had greater earning potential than my father, she quit her job when she married again. That’s how things were done. 

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 flirted with the idea of becoming a librarian. Books would save me, many times, during my life.

The old Center Street Library at 2620 West Center Street, Milwaukee, photo circa 1920

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, handing it to me:  “you learn something new every day.”  I was not able to see that for many years, but now, in my own learning, I understand. And I came to see that the learning that comes every day is not always in books!

Mom taught me how to wash clothes, too.  During 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 smells – 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.  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.  Like most of what has been held and used over the years, that wooden stick is gone.

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.  I keep your mantra, Mom.

nostalgia, remembering, Uncategorized, wisdom

Remembering Mom, her later years

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 Bible verse: “A thousand years is but a day in the eyes of the Lord.” Apparently, my dad did not stop thinking about the passage of time.

Often, I think of my most cherished memories, as “life has gone by so quickly.”   My memories include those days on my visits to Milwaukee to see my mother, after I had moved to the Bay Area of California, after my father had died.  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 still there.

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, the places where African Americans came to live, to build community, during the Great Migration.  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 places in cities that are new to me.  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,, 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 old places that held meaning for us, 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 of our adventures, 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 storefront, 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.  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 saw old things new again, would not end. 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.

nostalgia

War in Ukraine

Only a few weeks ago, the news was not filled with story after story of the War in Ukraine. Only a few weeks ago, we were focused on what the next surge of the COVID virus would bring, what it would mean to this pandemic that has affected the world. Only a few weeks ago, we all waited for the next report: what countries were open to travel? How would life be different after these two years of the global COVID pandemic? Although these were not easy questions, we did not know how quickly and completely the news, our attention, the attention of the world would shift to Ukraine. Like so many of you, I cry every day now.

My mother’s first language was Ukrainian. Mary was born in 1918 to Alex and Frances Markowski – Vlas Markov Srebny and Feodosia Machsuda Srebna – in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Mary was the third living child of my grandparents, after her brother, John, and her brother, Michael. She was the second child to be born in the United States of America. After her would come Anne – Hannah – and Peter.

Like immigrants of all times and places, my grandfather and grandmother must have had their dreams, their hopes, for their new life in their new land. Or maybe it was my grandfather’s hope, and my grandmother, dependent on him, left her home and all she knew in the “Old Country” to come to a land she would not know as her own, as his spouse, without a dream of her own. They brought their first born – Ivan – and their memories of the land they knew, the people and customs of the land they knew, to this unknown place, where life would surely always be a struggle, as it is now, to the poor and the immigrants among us. Maybe my grandfather had a dream, a hope, some sort of light in himself that would surely come to shine in this new land. It did not. All of these thoughts now are speculation, because the poor and the uneducated among us are only numbers, so seldom is their story told.

The memory of my grandparents and how they came to be here is only memory, now. My grandfather died when I was one, and my grandmother, who only spoke Ukrainian in my memory, died when I was 19. Many times in the life I’ve crafted for myself, I’ve wondered about them. And I wonder who else now, in my generation, wonders about them, thinks about what their lives must have been like, what they held in them and with them as they came to this new place. Only questions arise, not many answers. As I think about my family in this country, I think that pieces of the story must exist somewhere, in someone. Who knows?

*

I’ve always had questions, I’ve always wondered, from the time I was young, about what lives my grandparents had. People who struggle to survive seldom leave deep marks on the path of their lives. Their children and their children’s children – and so on – are all that remain of them. I expect they had a dream, or a hope for this new place. I keep looking for that dream, that hope. I’ve been looking my whole life.

Alex and Frances Markowski, Johnny Markowski, about 1914

Were they content? Why leave their homeland, then? Why go to somewhere unknown, into an unknown future, with only hopes for something better, and nothing else? Whatever their dreams, they were not fulfilled. “Ukrainians have not done well in the United States,” I once heard a commentator say.

*

In my search for who they were – who I am – I have turned to DNA research. Several years ago, I connected online with a distant cousin who came from Ukraine, and who now lives in Canada. Through our connection, he had hoped to find a way for me to go to the place of my grandparents’ birth, their home. These days, instead, my cousin speaks daily to his family in Ukraine, helping them decide where to go for safety.

And this same story is being told for millions, millions of people, today.

Now, of course, another dream is lost. The dreams of millions in Ukraine have been smashed to death in just these past couple of weeks. As I write, people who could not think of leaving their home only a few days ago are leaving their homes, hoping to find safe passage to – to where? As I write, a war that started in the mind of one man is dismantling lives and livelihoods, forcing human beings to look for safety somewhere far from home. It’s an old story, older than the scriptures.

“Once I was happily content to be
As I was, where I was,
Close to the people who are close to me…”
– “Far From the Home I Love,” Fiddler on the Roof

Now, as the world watches, the Ukrainian people on the move again, people who were living their lives like the rest of us, just a few weeks ago. We are stunned as we watch, but our discomfort, our tears, our fears are only that. Today, we sit in our comfortable places, lamenting for these other human beings. Their history – their long history, has been full of violence, of turmoil, of poverty, all these things often at the hand of their leaders.

God save us all.

beauty, nostalgia, poetry

Longing

Days before she died, 
Mom sat, legs over the side of her bed, 
gazing out the window onto the sunny street: 
"I wish it would snow once - just for me," she said.
I think that, too, sometimes.
There is a longing in this dry place:
when life is dry, empty.
I'd love to see the snow then,
flakes falling, silent, to the ground,
the heavens shaking their down pillows.
I'd like to be in that quiet place for a few moments,
surrender my busy mind to it,
welcome the holy silence, the emptiness -
                     all that space. 
          
Mary Elyn Bahlert, February 27, 2022




Full Moon – Moments Before Sunrise, 10:00 AM, Sunday, December 27, 2016
Unalaska, AK – photo taken by meb

 





 
Uncategorized

Where I came from

When I was five years old – five years and one month old – I started the long walk from 11 and Ring Street in Milwaukee to 9 and Ring Street, where I entered kindergarten at LaFollette Grade School.  Those two blocks were long walks for a little girl.  I expect – although I don’t remember – that my mother must have anxiously walked with me the first day or so, pushing in a stroller my baby sister, Susan, who had been born that March.  After that first day or two or three, I walked those blocks with the other children from my neighborhood.

When I return to drive through those streets now, I see how short the blocks were, moving west to east, toward “the Lake:”  Lake Michigan.  I think of myself as growing up on the shores of Lake Michigan; it’s not too much of a stretch to think that way.  The shore of Lake Michigan formed my compass-point, my sense of direction,  for many, many years.  “The Lake is on the east,” I think, “so I must be facing north, and to get there, I have to turn left, to the west…”  etc.  Years later, when I land in the Bay Area of California, I find that directions are figured differently.  “Turn right at the second gas station, then get into the left lane.  You’ll turn left at the next stop light.”  When I work at my first job in graduate school, someone hears me giving directions and says:  “You must be from the Midwest.”  Good guess.

That’s how our lives grow, how the edges of our lives expand:  by walking those few blocks to kindergarten, leaving home for the first time.  The edges widen by talking to kids whose lives inside their narrow flats are different.  I hear about dads who are mean, for example, and I hear about mothers who laugh a lot.  Until I leave my house in September of 1954 to walk those few blocks, my imagination does not hold space for those possibilities. 

I am nostalgic for those streets, for those city spaces, for the shadows under the big elms that parade along the streets, for those narrow stairs with the small window on the right at the top, that lead to the second story flat with its small front room, tall windows, its small bathroom with the clawfoot tub that was used by 5 people without a thought that it could be otherwise.   My nostalgia wants to be satisfied, so I ride my laptop via google earth to the front of that flat; I walk with google the two short blocks to La Follette School.  I still see the beauty that was there, and I see the poverty, the simplicity of those flats, as well.

On the way to school one day, I learn that I am not Catholic.  Michelle, my neighbor across the alley (which runs next to my house), a year older then me, asks me one day, as we walk to school:  “Are you Catholic?”  I don’t know.  That night, I ask my mother if I am Catholic, and she tells me no.  I do not know the fraught history that lies behind her answer, and I will not know, for many years, the fraught history and the longing that goes with not being Catholic, in me. 

At LaFollette School, I am introduced to a kind of diversity, for the first time.  I sit near the front, always, our seats assigned alphabetically by teachers in navy blue polka dotted dresses.  In those narrow rows, in those wooden desks with holes for ink pots still marking the right hand side, I sit beside the children of first and second generation immigrants.  I do not know that many of my classmates speak a different language at home.  In my house, I often hear Ukrainian words, spoken with a kind of mysterious wink; from time to time, when my grandma visits, she and my mother speak their native tongue. 

In autumn, the elm trees that line Ring Street turned bright colors.  As  I walk, I often catch a maple seed – a helicopter to enchant children – as it floats to the ground.  Over the street, the trees meet to form a ceiling that arches from one street to the next.  In later years, Dutch Elm disease would take the elms away, and when I see these streets now they are just beginning to be tree-lined again, after many years. 

In winter, snowbanks form a path for children, four foot high, on the strip of land between the road and the sidewalk.  After a winter storm, the tops of the snowbanks form a hardened, frozen, flat sidewalk parallel to the cement sidewalk.   At the corner, I climb that tall bank of snow and stand taller than any adult, until I take the steps – made by other children – down again, at the place the alley meets the street.  After I’ve crossed the alley, I climb the snowbank again.

In spring, I walk to school as the glorious, wide, lilac bushes on front lawns float their purple flowers, their scent into the air.

meb/2021