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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.

Meet my friend: Shame

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We aren’t born with it, but we acquire it when we’re young. We grow up with it. There it is, in the sound of mother’s voice, of daddy’s voice, and in the hushed voices of elder siblings, who have inherited it, like we have, from the air, from the air we are breathing, the air that Momma and Pappa are breathing. We inherit it, just as they inherited it.

And the generations before them.

Shame. Shame arrives on our bodies, in our bodies, in our organs, from these willing people, who love us, but who hate the shame that inhabits them, and so they try to shed it, shed it anywhere – on the couch, at the store, in the nursery, in the kitchen! But still, shame remains. It sticks to the folks, it has stuck to them for generations, and it sticks to us, catches on us – on our soft places with willing contours – just like it caught onto them.

I know shame well, like a well-known sister, who’s been in my life for as long as I can remember. I know her feel, the sound of her voice in me, the whining and the sass that come along with her, that came along with her when she set herself into me. She was fleeing, I’m sure of that, fleeing someone else – Mom, likely, and Dad, and probably even my well-loved teachers in the school I walked to, dutifully, every day.

No one wanted it, and so they kept throwing it off, onto me, onto you, onto any unknowing partner in the crime of shame. We all got it. We all ate it, whole, uncooked, unbaked, unwashed. We took it in, until it began to cover us, that slime, and after a while, we began to think this shame was us.

Then we were lost in it, and some of us are still lost in it, drowning in the shame, the grimy, greasy stuff that didn’t belong to the ancestors, and doesn’t’ belong to us. But still, we hold onto it, willingly, because if this is me, then this all I’ve got, and I don’t want to let go.

One day, after I thought I was free of her – after all, I’d named her, like some scary apparition in the dark – I was talking to a friend in a well-lit room, near the sea – I could hear the crash of the waves in that lovely place – and something was said, I said it or my friend said it, and – there she is again, caught on something in me, a word, a memory that flitted past, the sound of a voice, a feeling – and I couldn’t shake her. Knowing her, making room for her, giving her a name was not enough. I learned that.

Sometimes, now that I’m older, I feel her still. But not often. If I had not left her behind, I wouldn’t be able to speak as I do today, or lift my eyes into the eyes of everyone I meet, like I do today. I wouldn’t be able to sleep as quietly as I do. I left her somewhere, maybe in some therapist’s office or in an old journal, or spilled on the floor of some healer’s dark and quiet room, but part of her is here, still. When I’m angry or seething or tired or dismayed – sometimes then, she arrives, again.

Her sticking power is not what it used to be.
All of this came to mind when a friend told me she had not been raised with shame. Hmmm, I thought, I hope that’s true. Maybe it’s true. Is it true? It got me wondering. I began to remember, then, my long association, my long knowing, my ancestry and all that have inhabited this same dna. Did we have some hooks in us that others did not, do not have? I don’t know. I used to wonder. I used to be envious of those who used their shame in another way, who got ahead with it. I couldn’t. I can’t.

Maybe I learned to love her, or at least, not to hate her. Maybe I have learned to simply give her a nod when she arrives, as if to greet an old friend, someone who I no longer have anything in common with, and our only connection is a slender thread, a memory, not even a longing.

Hero Worship for Activists: “A Conversation with Anita Hill”

From the blog of Elissa Nicolas-Huntsman. I remember, too.

Karma Compass

I am a woman of many heroes, men and women of character, substance and integrity. I admire and emulate them. It is in my nature to seek out traits such as fortitude and compassion in my community. My list of heroes is long and not limited by perimeters such as distance, time, gender or race, for although I idealize simple attributes; these principles are not easy to live by. My heroes are people whose actions demonstrate superior courage and discernment, people whose lives are exemplary because of their persistent vision to transform society for the better. When I experience difficulty, I look to my heroes for the strength required to endure and stand in the face of oppression and to carry on with my work. Today I honor Dr. Anita Hill, who rises into the foreground of my legion of inspiring soldiers.

Like many, I have been asked with whom…

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Hands open to see the color of paradise

Muhammid is a small boy, about 5 years old, and Muhammid has seen the color of paradise.  The mystery of his seeing paradise is that Muhammid is blind.  Muhammid sees the color of paradise with his fingers.  He has learned to read Braille in a school for blind children.  He has learned to understand the language of birds by listening closely; he translates for the birds.  He has learned to see his sister’s beauty by touching her face with his gentle hands.  He knows the smells that are carried on the wind.  He knows his grandmother – his beloved grandmother – is near when he hears her walk.

Grandmother loves Muhammid also, and he knows this, for she says to him:  “I would die for you.”

Always as he walks, Muhammid holds his small hands out in front of him, arms outstretched, his fingers curled to embrace the next touch.  A loving teacher has told Muhammid to keep his hands open, to keep his hands open to touch, to keep his hands open to look at the world with his hands.  If Muhammid will keep his hands open, his teacher tells him, he will surely one day meet God.

Muhammid’s father is a widower with two daughters and a son of whom he is ashamed, for his son is blind.  Muhammid’s father, unable to accept the life he has, and so he rails at his mother, at his family, and at God.  The heart of Muhammid’s father is turned in on itself, in contrast to the hands of his son, whose hands are open to the world.

Muhammid is the one who sees the color of paradise.

*

A long time ago, I heard an anecdote that I have not forgotten.  A little girl takes her father by surprise when he comes to her bedroom to kiss her goodnight.  She asks her father:  “Isn’t it amazing that I exist?”

*

My hope for you, my hope for me, my hope for this world is that we see, with our hands, with our eyes, with our feet, with our minds, the color of paradise.  My charge for you is this:  keep your hands and heart open to the world, and its color will unfold before you.

[“The Color of Paradise” is an Iranian movie written and directed by Majid Majidi.]

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