“Make a joyful noise to the Lord, all the earth. Serve the Lord with gladness; come into God’s presence with joyful songs. Know that the Lord is God. It is God who made us, and we belong to God. We are God’s people.” – Psalm 100:1-3a
“Mickey’s strong spirit shone through his hard work. He was ready with a kind word, with a cheerful word. His eyes lit up as we each were greeted warmly and readily by this man who had known war and spent his life telling the story of what war is like to others.
When I was the Pastor at Lake Merritt United Methodist Church in Oakland, California, I knew that the community there loved a spirited hymn, and so we sang spirited hymns as often as we could. One of our favorite hymns as a community was “Marching to Zion.” I liked to have us sing that hymn as the closing hymn of the worship service, and I would stand at the center front of the sanctuary, just as happy to sing that song as everyone else:
“We’re marching to Zion, beautiful, beautiful Zion,
We’re marching upward to Zion, that beautiful City of God..”
As we stood to sing, a few bars into the hymn, I would see Mickey Ganitch start to march around the perimeter of the sanctuary! I smile when I remember it, as I smiled then. Everyone in the sanctuary smiled! Mickey’s joy in life and in service to others was contagious! As Mickey marched, the children would follow, and then the adults, and we’d finish worship in a high spirit, having marched together to Zion! — Mary Elyn Bahlert, Opening Comments, 7/23/2022
Come And talk of all the things we did today Here And laugh about our funny little ways While we have a few minutes to breathe Then I know that it’s time you must leave
But, darling, be home soon I couldn’t bear to wait an extra minute if you dawdled My darling, be home soon It’s not just these few hours, but I’ve been waiting since I toddled For the great relief of having you to talk to… John Sebastian, 1965
When I was a child, when I was growing up in the flats in Milwaukee, my sister and I were in bed before Mom and Dad. Mom and Dad stayed up to watch the news at 10 pm, and shortly after, the television turned off, they went to bed.
My memory of those days is of the soft, quiet talking they did before they went to sleep. I don’t know what they talked about. In the evenings, after the supper dishes were taken off the table, they sat at the kitchen table and played Canasta, most nights. And from the living room where I watched television, or from my bedroom, where I studied, my back propped up against the headboard of my bed, I could hear their laughter and shouts of happiness at having won.
By late evening they returned to the living room to watch the news of the day. Then, the flat was quiet, except for the soft, quiet talking they did before they went to sleep. I don’t know what they talked about. Dad fell asleep first, of course, and then I could hear his snoring, sometimes having cut the conversation short in the middle of a sentence. And Mom, I know, lay awake for a long time, her anxious mind, her memories filling the space that could have been filled with sleep.
Jeff and I are often quiet in the evenings, reading, chatting a bit, fussing with small tasks around the house, and we both go to bed at about the same time, but we don’t often talk once we go to bed. A few evenings ago, we were talking for a few minutes after we’d gone to bed, and Jeff said: “we’re talking in bed, just like your mom and dad.” He had remembered my telling him about that small intimacy I had known as a child, I expect because his parents didn’t like one another much at all, it seemed. And his remembering recalled those times in my own mind.
From the first time Jeff and I met, I felt as if the John Sebastian’s words, written years earlier than our meeting, were written for us. They still are.
It was in the beginning of January, 2001. My mother was in the last days of her life, and she lay on her bed, under hospice care, in the Mathilda Brown Home in Oakland, every day, all day. I sat with her often – as often as possible – and we chatted idly, our conversation about ordinary things. From time to time, Mom would close her eyes as she lay on her back, and I sat in the silence – our last times together.
At the time, I was the proud and enthusiastic owner of the Palm Pilot, powered by batteries, that held my calendar.
One afternoon, I sat next to Mom’s bed as she rested, and because I had not brought a book or other work from my office, I turned on my little computer-calendar and started to play Solitaire- a bonus feature. A few moments later, Mom sat up, and threw her legs over the side of the bed, as she looked at the object in my hands. “What is that?” she asked.
Over the years, I’ve come to value my own curiosity more and more. Curiosity has been a great gift to me. As I get older, I know that I prefer to spend my time with curious people – people whose sights are set on the abundance of wonder in the world. Their curiosity may lead them to interests that aren’t mine, but it’s the quality they possess that makes them interesting – and, well, curious – to me. What they give me from what they’ve received from their own interests continually makes my life richer.
And their curiosity flows over – to people. Curious people are interested in other people, about the world other people inherit, about how other people got to where they are going now, what decisions they made, who they’ve encountered in their lives. Over the years, my friends loved to visit with my parents. In their small living room, my friends’ lives were of interest to Mom and Dad, whose lives were enriched by the young people in their lives. Mom and Dad were interested in the lives of the young people who visited, and the young people knew that – and liked it.
My brother Ronn was 9 years older than me; he married when I was 14. In my eyes, he was all grown up, making his way in the adult world. One day, after he’d been married a year or so, he said something to me that I’ve never forgotten: “Do you know that some people are not as interested in things as we are in our family?” “No,” I answered Ronn, in response to his reflective question. I’ve never forgotten his question, his observation, really, about the world as he saw it – his own world growing larger by his connection to another family.
Curiosity has led me to be curious about myself, to be curious about my inner life, about what has brought me here, about who and what I’ve encountered over the course of the years of my life. My curiosity extends to other people: what makes them tick? In my mind, curiosity is not dependent on finding answers; curiosity is interested in questions…
I’ve always loved libraries. What better place than a building whose purpose is to hold books, computers, magazines – all filled with something to satisfy someone’s curiosity – or to leave someone’s curiosity unsatisfied, so that they have to go back for more?!?
I didn’t come from highly educated people, people with degrees and titles. But I did come from a curious sort, people whose eyes lit up with the discovery of that was new, new in their lives. I expect that the quality of being curious is not related to education.
And would the world be different, if human beings were less concerned with certainty than with curiosity?
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.
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.