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.
A few years back, my brother in law, Thom visited my husband and me in Oakland, while Rainier, his younger son lived with us during his college years. One night after dinner, Thom and Rainier, a friend of Rainier’s from school, and Jeff and I sat at the dinner table for a long time after we’d eaten. We were having fun, one of those conversations that happens when we’ve known folks for a long time, when our history together is the framework for a long conversation. At some point, Thom asked me if I was comfortable, sitting there, talking with only men. I was taken aback by the question, and Jeff answered for me. He explained that I’d grown up with a father and brother who liked me, and as a result, I was comfortable with men. As difficult and nuanced as relationships – in particular, family relationships – can be, I was interested and grateful to hear Jeff’s answer. He had said something that brought to consciousness a particular nuance to an important relationship in my life. Within that consciousness is gratitude.
Ronn was nine years older than I was, born to my mother and her first husband at the beginning of World War II. During the War, while Ronn’s father was in the service, Mom was a single mother. My mother’s parents looked out for Ronn when she was working, or when she bowled, one night a week, with the women’s league from Cutler Hammer in Milwaukee. Ronn grew up at a different time, surrounded by different people than me, surrounded by my grandparents, who spoke a different language. After the War, Mom divorced Ronn’s father. He grew up as the son of a single mother.
Nine years older than me, and beginning with my first memory, Ronn was part of what family is to me. Mom told me more than once as a girl that, after I’d spent a week in the hospital because I’d suffered a seizure – a week without seeing my mother or father – she brought me home during the day, and I looked at her out of my big eyes, unsmiling, until Ronnie came home. Then I smiled, for the first time that day.
My sister is almost five years younger than I am, and she has few memories of having her big brother at home. I’ve read that we often grow up in different homes than our siblings – birth order, gender, connection to same and different gender parents playing a big role in how we come to know and relate to “home,” or “family.” I expect Ronn’s experience of home was very different from mine. Those differences would play out in major ways when we grew into adulthood.
Of the handful of memories I have of being very young, a memory that includes me and Ronnie stands out. To this day, it tells me about him,about myself, and about our relationship to one another. The memory must be from around 1958, based on information about Buddy Holly’s life – and death. We were sitting together on the couch, watching Buddy Holly on the black and white television screen. Buddy Holly! (That’s a long time ago!). As Buddy Holly performed, Ronn, sitting next to me on the red velour couch, turned to look at me and said: “He’s wearing glasses!”
Whenever I remember that moment – I am filled with understanding and gratitude. I knew, without his saying so, that my big brother was self conscious about his having to wear glasses. He was a skinny, tall kid (taller than any of the rest of us in the family), and his comment betrayed his insecurity. And I knew, still know, that I was someone important to Ronn, my big brother, so much older, his life a different trajectory, as our lives would attest to, years later. Ronn had difficulties I did not have, as the son of an absent father. I had an intact family. Ronnie was lost, in a way; I grew up knowing that I belonged to this particular family, for better or worse.
Ronn has been gone a long time now. The night before he died, his granddaughter held the phone to his ear in a hospital in Jacksonville, Florida, while I cried and told him I loved him – my big brother. Ronn’s legacy – a large extended family, children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren – continues to grow. My family legacy is small, I often think.
“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.
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.
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.
Were I still living in the Upper Midwest, I’d be in the thick of winter: navigating weather from snow storm to snow storm, carefully descending steps in case a bit of ice clings to the edge of a step, dressing in layers – lots of layers – before going out for the day, idling the car in a store parking lot to get it warmed up for a short drive, driving carefully on city streets to avoid patches of ice, sometimes swerving, having not avoided unseen ice,and sitting in a cozy house, watching flakes fall, early in a storm.
While winter is long, dark, cold, cold, cold, and wet (or icy) -there’s nothing like it.
But I’m not in the Upper Midwest. I live in Northern California, the Bay Area, where I get to enjoy a mild winter, and where I long for a storm in these days – years – of drought all over the West, where I both cherish the mild climate and long for snow and the coziness that arrives along with the winter storms. Although I expected “sunny California” when I moved here, it didn’t take me long to learn that we have a Mediterranean climate in the Bay Area, with lots of fog, fog which often burns off by late afternoon (because of climate change, we do get a lot more sunshine these past few years, and earlier in the day).
In a way, I’ll always be a Midwesterner, although I’ve lived in the Bay Area over half of my life. Every couple of years, I have a longing in me that will not be satisfied until I make it “home” again, to the place that marked my early years, to the places that gave me a start in life. For many years after I moved to Northern California, I would catch a feeling of nostalgia when I went outdoors. I’d be homesick, not knowing why. It came on suddenly, had me remembering places, people, often thinking about the people I loved, many now gone a long time. Later that day, I’d discover that there was a bit of humidity in the air. The humidity had brought on the nostalgia.
My brother-in-law, Randy Kunkel, wrote a Haiku for me, many years ago. I discovered it in some old files the other day:
She draws a deep breath
Unexpected humid air
We’ve still got weeks of winter here, longing for rain, hoping, watching the skies: “Is rain coming, or will the gray skies give way to another beautiful day?” At the same time, some trees have already begun to blossom. Today, I took a look at my Korean Lilac – planted by my husband Jeff for me – to see that it is beginning to bud, and February not even here!
In the Midwest, I loved, loved the lilac trees full of fragrant blossoms which graced front lawns in May for several weeks. When I had a tree in my own front yard, I’d cut an armful of blossoms and put them in water to grace my kitchen table before the blossoms went a way. If I didn’t have a tree, I’d have to beg from the neighbors. Nothing like a blossoming lilac tree, gracing lawns in the city or bestowing its fragrance in the house in early spring, coming through open windows, a luxury.
My Korean lilac will blossom this spring, too. It’s getting ready to blossom. This lilac does not need the freeze like the variety in the Midwest, and its blossoms are not as abundant, but the blossoms give the same fragrance as the lilacs I knew as a child and young adult.