A long journey, a long, long time…

When I was almost 12, I spent most of the days of summer curled up on a comfy chair in the small room that led from the living room, that opened onto the front porch of our upstairs, rented flat. I spent so many days curled in that chair, reading, reading, reading the books that would open their pages to a large world outside of that old flat in the inner city, Milwaukee, that working class street lined with flats, flats filled with families whose parents and grandparents had come from the Old Country. I spent so much time in the chair that my mother would yell from the kitchen several times a day: “go outside!” Summer is short in the Midwest, she knew that, and maybe she wanted some time alone in the house.

My imagination was at work in that chair, also, and I remember, have always remembered, a fantasy I had that took me from that little room with the dark, varnished woodwork, “outside,” to another place. From my porch, a few feet away from where I sat, I stepped into a glass tube, large enough for me and fellow travelers, that moved like an escalator from that rented flat, a tube that floated above my neighborhood, headed west clear across the country to a place I had never been: South San Francisco, California.

 In fact, I had never been out of the State of Wisconsin except for the occasional Sunday afternoon family drive south across the state line into Illinois to buy “oleo” – margarine in large plastic bags. At the time, Wisconsin was still “The Dairy State;” it was illegal to sell margarine in Wisconsin, and so, we law-abiding people left the state to buy contraband margarine.  We drove back across the state line with oleo in the trunk.

I had never been to South San Francisco, but a favorite uncle, my Uncle Pete, and his family lived there. I don’t remember conjuring up an image of South San Francisco in my mind, but I do remember the trip across the country in my glass tube; the vehicle arced over the Midwest, the plains, and rose higher to accommodate the Rocky Mountains, as I peered out the windows. I knew its destination: xxx Alta Mesa Drive, South San Francisco.  I knew the address by heart, imagined that place, without a picture to grease my imagination.

My journey did not include an arrival; the trip was the thing. Was my fantasy an escape from an often unhappy mother and a father who loved us all beyond measure, his eyes sparkling whenever he looked at my mother, my sister, and me? I don’t know. My world was small, but that’s how the worlds of children begin; those childhood places and people populate us for the rest of our lives.        (3/22/2018)

***

In the  spring of 1995, my husband decided to take a sabbatical.  That is, one day he came home and announced to me that he was going to take a year’s sabbatical from being a pastor, to try his hand and heart at his art.  I was on leave of absence from my own work as a pastor, so I had no church, no community, no income. 

How did we manage that time?  I remember driving in the rain all that spring, shopping for an apartment to rent in South Berkeley.  It did rain all spring!  I also made a phone call to the Bishop’s representative in our area, to let them know I’d like to be placed in a church on July 1, the day my husband’s sabbatical would begin.  It was late in the year, late to let the Bishop know, but they would try.  That’s all the certainty I was given.

We found a flat in a part of Oakland we did not know, a lovely old upper flat with railroad bedrooms, on a street called Sunnyslope.  All that spring, I had only one prayer:  that God find a place for us to live, a sunny place.  The day we saw the flat, after weeks of walking through places we didn’t want to live, we sat down on the couch in the living room and watched the other home-seekers walk through the place.  We hardly dared to hope that it would be ours, as we saw the line of home-seekers.  When we moved in at the end of June, we didn’t know we’d live there for 11 years. 

After we had secured a place to live, we still waited for a call about a church placement.  One day, that call came.  The superintendent told me that this was the only place left that needed a pastor.  She set up an appointment for me the following week, to meet with the leadership of the congregation. 

Jeff and I drove over the Bay Bridge, through San Francisco, to South San Francisco, that Tuesday evening.  We drove over the hill on the east of South City, and onto the flats.  We had directions to the church, which we had never seen.  When we arrived, we met together with the leadership team, and within an hour, the deal was set.  I would  be their new pastor.

Life is odd, sometimes, don’t you think?  What I didn’t know that night was that the little church which would bring me back into life as a parish pastor had been built as part of the development of South San Francisco after World War II.  And in that development was a street called Alta Mesa Drive.  My beloved uncle and aunt still lived in the little house on that street, the street I had imagined so many years before, a few blocks from my new job.

Life is odd, sometimes.  Surprising, too.  And a bit of a mystery, I would guess. (03/21/2019).

*

 

 

Comfort

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Comfort was sitting in Mom’s living room

for years after Dad was gone.

From our soft chairs

we watched the pine tree fill the front window:

day and night,

it shielded Mom from the sounds of traffic,

muffled by snow in winter.

Comfort was sitting, laughing, listening –

not forever, as time turned.

Comfort is sitting with my husband, forever fresh-faced, toe to toe,

on the couch, our feet covered with a gifted afghan,

each day.

Comfort is reading Rumi, laughing, listening.

Comfort is the listing birch that graces my view,

a forever friend, happy, lovely.

Comfort is quiet, deep, still,

and gone,

forever.

Mary Elyn Bahlert 2/29/2019

Liga

William Liga was my mother’s godfather, so I was told. Every time he arrived at our house, he was dressed in a suit, like a retired businessman. I remember his presence – he seemed kind – although I think I did not ever have a conversation with him. Liga rode the Milwaukee buses in his suit, with a top coat and hat 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 the busy street it faced.

Liga died in the bathtub of that old apartment. Days later, my parents went to check on him. My father found him, dead. Later, Dad told me that he couldn’t sleep for several days after finding Liga’s body. “I loved Liga,” Dad said.

Liga worked in the foundry with other men who arrived in steerage from Eastern Europe in the early years of the 20th century. When I knew him, he was alone. Somewhere, I found a picture – a formal portrait – of Liga and a woman. I’m sure it was taken in “the old country.” A formally dressed Liga sat in a chair, looking sternly into the distance, and the woman, buxom, dressed in a white blouse and a long, dark skirt, belted at the waist, peered into the distance, also. Her dark eyes held something – what? – a part of the mystery of who this old man was, had been. For a long time, that photo was pinned onto the front of my refrigerator, as if seeing it, again and again, would unlock the mystery of who Uncle Liga was.

Many Ukrainians who fled Ukraine for work and food – and an education for their children – 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 simply – the grandchildren of freed serfs – and a need to drink.

He spent most holidays with our family, and so Uncle Liga was there, too, at Christmas dinner, and at Easter, when we tapped the ends of colored painted eggs together to see which would crack first. The one that didn’t crack was the winner!

Every few months, the front doorbell rang. In the summer, I ran down the front hall steps to find Uncle Liga at the door. He greeted me, shyly and gently. He and Mom sat together at the kitchen table. She read to him the latest letter from his family in Canada, which he carried carefully in the pocket of his pants. Sometimes a photo – black and white, of a favorite niece – was included with the letter. Then, Liga told my mother, line by line, what to write in return to his family. She translated his Ukrainian into English. He always included some money in the small white envelopes – a few dollars from a poor man.

When I think of Uncle Liga, a small place in my heart is warm.

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Pretty

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The one inside is an actress.  She is a five year old girl with thick legs standing at the top of the stairs, the dark front hall of a Milwaukee flat, hands on her hips, dressed in a new dress, made by Mom.  Full of herself, full of life, full of blood, of courage, she says:  “Aren’t I pretty?!”  She is delight, she is perfect, she is beauty, perfect beauty.  She is a perfect human being.

I did that one day.  I said that one day.  I stood there in the splendor of that five year old and I knew how remarkable, how beautiful I was.  On that one day, I knew it completely, with my whole being.

I claim that one, I claim that beautiful girl.  I claim also my own mother, standing at the foot of the stairs, hurried and impatient for all of us to be on our way.  I see her holding in herself responsibility for us all.  She was hurrying me, the actress, full of herself at the top of the stairs.  I claim my mother, the child of abuse, her days and nights full of those memories which shaped her life, my mother, afraid for her girl child.  I claim my mother as mine, who out of loving and not loving, fear and pride, who heard me, saw me on that day and said:  “We don’t say we are pretty.”

I don’t remember her voice.  I remember the teaching; I remember it well.  In that moment, on that day, in that hallway, in the darkness of of those memories, of hers and of mine, I hauled in my beauty, my splendor, the courage to stand and to say:  this is who I am, world, hear me, you’ve been waiting for me, and I’ve been waiting for this moment.  I have lived my mother’s teaching, her loving and not loving, her protecting and her hurting, her maiming and her loving, my mother of strong love.

I have lived the teaching.  I have sat in the shadow of a million things.  I have sat behind the shadow – quietly, nicely – of the girl who sat in front of me in the second grade, keeping my bright thoughts to myself.  I have sat behind the shadow of my own fear in high school, watching the prom from the windows of  the gym, seeing all the pretty girls and lovely boys, unable to imagine myself in a long, beautiful dress.  I have sat behind the shadow of  men who could not see me.  I have sat behind the shadow of others who spoke up, who stood up to say, “I am here.  I am beautiful, beautiful beyond words.  Hear me, hear me now.”

We don’t say we are pretty.  We don’t say we are beautiful, beautiful beyond words.  We don’t say we can sing, we can dance, we can make beautiful music.  We don’t say we have what is needed.  We don’t say we have a good idea, better than most.  We don’t say we are the one, we are the one to do it, to stand up and to be heard.  We don’t say this is not good enough for me, I have not been seen, you missed me, the best, the brightest.  We don’t say, I am here, I need to speak.

***

Inside of my skin, inside of me, the one I have always known has been here all along.  She did not go away.  Had she not been there that day when Mom looked up at her from the bottom of the steps and spoken her strong and protecting, damaging words,  she would not be as precious as she is now to me, now.  She is an actress.  She is strong.  She is beautiful, beautiful beyond words.  She can balance on the heights and she can pick flowers in the depths.   These are the things she does.

Dad

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Dad had strong arms, the arms of a working man, the arms of a man who crawled around on silos all day in that steel mill.  We didn’t know – I didn’t –  how he counted on those arms – those working arms – until years later, when I heard him say as he lay in his hospital bed in St. Joe’s cancer ward, with a tremor in his voice: “I used to be so strong.”

Those arms were his pen, his pad of paper, his living.

He was strong, a worker’s body and strength. He was no taller than me, when I was grown.  Strong as he was, Dad’s eyes sparkled and flickered as he sat in front of the television in that narrow living room, in all the upper flats every night, laughing at Lucille Ball, drinking a beer, two, three.  He loved to laugh; his eyes twinkled if he got us to laugh, too.

When I was small, Dad would lay down next to me to tell me a bedtime story.  His favorite was “Jack and the Beanstalk.”  When Jack climbed the beanstalk, he discovered that the giant at the top had lots of food, and cases and cases of beer, in his coffers.  Most of the time, Dad would soon be snoring as I lay awake, always slow to sleep.

As a child, my days began when the alarm went off in my parent’s bedroom – 6 AM.  Mom was up first, her nightgown covered with a chenille robe, in the kitchen, where she reached to the top of the refrigerator to turn on the radio, to hear the weather report.  Day after day, she got the frying pan heated on the gas stove, added the bacon, and two eggs for dad.  The coffee pot perked alongside.  In a few minutes, I’d hear Dad’s footsteps in the back hall, all the way to the basement, where he shoveled coal into the furnace, and shortly, the room I shared with my little sister was warm, that cozy warm of rooms in cold places.  I lay in bed, heavy quilts that kept me overnight covering me.

Winter into late spring, autumn into winter, dad changed the storm windows into screens, fall into winter, he changed the screens into storm windows, year after year after year.  He did it himself.  When he worked, Dad did not talk.  When he worked, Dad lifted those heavy, heavy storm windows by himself from the second story windows, and balancing each one in his strong hands, he fit them into the space they served, bolted them into place, and we were safe again, safe in his strong arms, for the coming winds and snow.

*

I have a soft spot for working guys.  Maybe I see Dad in them, his truth, his simplicity.  They get the benefit of the doubt from me, and why not? From my earliest days, I knew a man, a good man, full of words and simple love, love that flowed out of his eyes –  and sometimes, tears.

Mom

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I slept in my own bed the night before Mom died. Jeff wanted me to rest in these last days of her life, and so he offered – even said clearly – that he would sleep that Friday night in the recliner that filled the corner of her tiny room at Matilda Brown Home in Oakland. Mom loved that room, the smallest in the assisted living home, and she loved Matilda Brown Home. Again and again, each time I visited, she would look at me, her eyes big, and ask: “How did you find this place, Mary Elyn?” And I would answer, again and again, each time she asked: “God found it.”

Yes, God found that place, the place she loved after we moved her from her two-bedroom apartment on Appleton Avenue in Milwaukee. Milwaukee had always been her home. Mom was a “Milwaukee girl,” and on my visits back from California, she and I would spend at least one day finding places in Milwaukee we had not seen before. One time we found ourselves in the living room of Ukrainian speaking business people; Mom spoke her first tongue with these strangers in that shadowy place, a statue of the Virgin lit by a candle in the corner. We ended the day by stopping for dinner, and returned home before dark. I miss those days, those adventures in my own hometown. And I miss Mom.

Before we moved Mom to Oakland, I had the job of finding her a good, safe place to live. I walked through countless assisted living homes, places that smelled of urine and places where the old sat, their chins on their chests, in crowded, rug-less living rooms. I walked quickly through those places, marking them off my list without thinking. One day, frantic, I said to God as I prepared for the day: “You have to help us!” When I walked into the kitchen that morning, I took the yellow pages out of a drawer and I swear the pages fell open to “Assisted Living Homes,” and my eyes fell to the name of a place I hadn’t seen before: “Matilda Brown Home for Women.” I was on the phone with the director within moments, and Jeff and I left soon after to see the place. Mom’s dwindling resources would pay for three meals a day, a small room with shared bath, caring staff, in a lovely setting, beautiful gardens, in the neighborhood behind Oakland Technical High School. Matilda Brown was a hidden gem.

My little working class mother felt like a queen in that place, after she adjusted. For the first week or two, she would say to me when I sat with her in the garden: “I’m trying, Mary Elyn.” This was before she fell in love with her new home, and her new friends, many with memory loss, also, and before her question turned to: “How did you find this place?” But then she loved the caring staff, the good meals, her daily routine, and even a couple of friends. Once, she and a friend who also had memory problems left the gated gardens for a walk around the block and found their way back. I swear they did it to prove their independence! And she remembered to tell me at the end of the day.

I stood in front of the wood framed mirror in the dark corner of my bedroom, brushing my hair. I knew the end was coming, someday soon, and so I hurried to get ready for the short drive. I heard a voice: “Everything is going to happen naturally from now on.” Surprised, I turned quickly to look over my shoulder, facing the windows in the next room: “Jesus?” I asked. No answer; no more voices. I finished my preparations for the day and drove to Matilda Brown Home.

*
When I walked into Mom’s room, she was still in a coma, having fallen into that state after suffering a stroke three days earlier. I had brought her a chocolate heart on Valentine’s Day, three days before. She said, “thank you,” looking into my eyes. Hospice had told me that when someone is dying, the primary care giver and the dying person often look deeply into the other’s eyes. In her final days, I’d decided to bring her a favorite treat, after lecturing her for years about watching her diet to control her diabetes.

When I entered her room, I noticed her labored breathing. I stood by the side of her bed for a few moments, Jeff on the other side, talking to me. He didn’t notice her breathing, I could tell: a hospice nurse had told me this deep breathing would happen as death approached. I nodded at Jeff. I was only focused on Mom.

He walked out of the room. I said to Mom: “I’m here now.” I stood next to her bed as her breath deepened. I cried and said to her, “I’ll miss you so much.” And I watched as her face shown with a light, a light from somewhere in her. I’d never seen this light before. “You’re so beautiful,” I said. Her forehead wrinkled for a moment, the stopping of the heart. She was gone.

“Everything is going to happen naturally from now on.”

A few moments later, I walked out of Mom’s room and into the hall to look for Jeff. I saw a woman I knew walking down the hall, and I told her that my mother had died. Grace was a great talker, so she told me about the day she learned that her brother had died overseas in World War II. She and a friend were canning that day, and when she put down the phone and returned to the kitchen, they continued their work.

I took her words to mean that after someone we love dies, life, living goes on.

Stay in the boat!

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photo by Mary Elyn Bahlert, 2017

I was introduced to cousin Jack awhile before I knew he would be part of my life forever, and before we were formally introduced. I was riding the Hiawatha, the train that runs from Milwaukee to Chicago and back, returning to Milwaukee from a week-long class in the Loop. I was a young professional woman, and I sat alone, watching the flat countryside of southern Wisconsin float past the window on my left.

“Kunkel!” I heard the men, business men returning to Milwaukee, like I was, I was sure, shout to one of their fellows as we rode along. They were playing cards, Sheepshead, I expect, the card game of choice for most Wisconsin folk. Anyone who has played Sheepshead knows that shouting is part of the game. “Kunkel!” I heard, again and again. I had met my future husband (I didn’t know it, then), earlier that summer, and that was his last name.

The next time I saw Jack was the following summer at the Kunkel home on Pewaukee Lake, two counties to the west of Milwaukee. The summer home had been in the Kunkel family for over two generations, since the turn of the last century, when the Kunkel family were part of the German industrialists who built Milwaukee into the city of factories that would make it home to my people, laborers, a generation later. Great-grandfather Kunkel also had a beautiful home on a tree lined boulevard on the north side of Milwaukee; his neighbors were other industrialists. Today, over a century later, those homes are still palatial reminders of that time.

I met Jack at the summer home, and as was the tradition in those years, Jack invited anyone who was at the house for a nice ride on his pontoon. I joined the rest of the “crew,” and we set off to sail slowly around Pewaukee Lake, Jack holding forth as the loudest voice on board, the rest of the Kunkels – and me – enjoying the weather, a beautiful day in mid-July, a gem in Wisconsin. Talk was mostly about the houses that lined the Lake side: which had been sold to someone no one knew, what repairs or additions had been added to others over the past year. Some were year-round homes, and these were mentioned, too.

In the middle of that beautiful lake, in the middle of that beautiful day, Jack’s boat ran out of gas. Apparently, Jack liked his drink better than he liked taking care of his boat, something else I would learn about the Kunkel lore. What I learned that day is that this was a regular occurrence, which included Jack shouting out to any boat that came near enough that the pontoon was out of gas! Some kind friend of Jack’s came near enough with a container of gas, and we were at sea again… at lake again…

I’m not much of a swimmer, so I couldn’t swim to shore. I knew to stay in the boat. We’d make it back to shore, Kunkel’s grumbling under their collective breath about how Jack had done it again.

*
There’s a story in the Christian scriptures about Jesus being in the boat on the sea with his disciples when a storm comes up. The disciples are rattled and worried, and they yell to their friend Jesus, who is sleeping through the storm. The story is often told to remind the faithful that they should not lose hope, that Jesus will save them, though he is sleeping. “Never fear,” is the message, “the Lord is with you, even in the storm.”

This much I know about life; most of us need something to hold on to when the boat runs out of gas. My own boat has run out of gas plenty of times, and most of the time, I just don’t know what to do. So I grumble to my friends, usually circling the real issue, but signaling my unhappiness, and I lose sleep over things, my mind circling, looking for the answer.

But the real answer comes when I remember to stay in the boat, to do the same things I know have worked before: a warm bath, a good cry, a walk, a prayer: Help! And then, most wonderful of all: surrender.

The answer returns me to shore.