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.