A Gift from a Dead Lady

Ruby came into my life three years after my mother died. Mum would have loved this newest baby, not just because of her unruly, abundant hair; not only for her full moon abundance; nor for her kookaburra laugh alone; but because Ruby is of a rare species, a female.

Most of Mum’s kids were boys. And she loved us even though we were boys.

My brother Dennis was Mum’s firstborn, a peach-faced baby with golden hair. Adored, but a boy.

I was next, a truly lovely child, I often said as much. And Mum agreed. But still, a boy.

On Friday evening May 13, 1949, Mum came into labour a third time. The rains came, the river broke its banks and in the next town of Narranderra, Mum’s doctor was stuck in his shrinking island in this Riverina sea.

Mum laboured on. The Sabbath came. Dad lit the Shabbat candles and went to the hospital where he delivered Mum’s third baby.

The next morning Dad read in the paper that a resident of our small town had won the lottery.

Full of the news, he hurried to Mum in hospital: ”Yvonne, a Leeton man has won the Sydney Opera House Lottery.”

“That’s nothing. I’ve got a girl!”

Last December our thirdborn gave birth in a hospital in Bristol. My wife was present but I was not. Thirty-six years previously I had delivered that thirdborn, a girl. Now she had borne a girl, Ruby. One of Ruby’s Hebrew names memorializes my Mum.

I met Ruby about six weeks ago and spent three weeks loving and learning her. Since I parted from her, Ruby has learned to laugh and to suck her thumb. She is the smartest kid of the present century. Mum would have loved her.

(If you look at this little movie you’ll fall in love too.)

My Mum would have burst with love for Ruby.

But Mum died. She left little pieces of beauty, bits of jewellery she gathered here and there during a long and travelling life. These lovely things have found their way to her female descendants as keepsakes.

One item, a small brooch of enamel and pearls, wanted a claimant. I saw Ruby, I came home and found the brooch. Then I remembered Mum and how she was about little girls.

If, one day, a score of years from now, you happen to bump into a plum-cheeked young lady with disobedient hair and this brooch (see link) in her lapel, you’ll know: this is Ruby; her great-grandmother would have loved her.

Copyright Howard Goldenberg, 28 April, 2013.

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41 Kilometres along the Road to Evil

Evil is a strong word. I seldom use it. Today there is no alternative.

Last Monday, I ran in the Boston Marathon. In innocent unknowing, I ran, together with twenty five thousand comrades, 41 kilometres along a joyful road towards an undreamed evil. An evil where an adult would calmly place a bomb within metres of an eight year old child and his family.

The events of that day, both good and evil, shook me, changed me, probably changed us all. Readers of this blog flooded me with kind messages of support and affection – and candidly – overpraise.

The blog is blushing and preparing a response equal to your kindness.
When it comes, expect it to be a marathon read – about one hundred words per kilometre run.

Those readers who donated to the Michael Lisnow Respuite Centre can expect news of your Investment in my Black Chip offering.

After the enormous events of the past week the blog needs to discharge mixed and deep feelings..

Once done, expect a return to the usual flummery.

For now, thank you, thank you all.

Howard Goldenberg

Bostonians reach out and turn their goodness on me

The Boston Marathon is the oldest and most celebrated of the mass marathons. You need to qualify. Twice I qualified and ran. In 2005 I ran again, this time as fundraising runner.

Today’s Boston was to be my fourth. I was running as a fundraiser for the Michael Lisnow Respite Centre. This morning I visited their HQ in Hopkinton, near the starting line. I met people who face their colossally difficult lives with genuine joy. I met the fundraisers who punctuate their serious marathon training by devoting themselves for months to help fund this small enterprise.

Why am I going on at this length about these small matters in the face of the bombings?

You need to be in Boston on Patriots’ Day to appreciate the celebration that is the marathon. A city of less than one million comes to a stop; people take their chairs, their picnic rugs, the treats they will give to the runners; they line the 42.4 kilometres and stay all day, cheering on every runner; they hold banners – everything from “You are all Kenyans” to “Kiss me, I’m flexible”.
Picture Melbourne on Cup Day or Grand Final day without the booze. Boston is high on its marathon and the runners. Patriots Day is the time to enjoy the embrace of the city’s people.

If you have the good fortune to be a charity runner, you run at the tail of the field, feeling that embrace, the surges of love for the people – usually young – who are supporting local causes. One young woman survived melanoma; another is in remission from her leukaemia. I have close relatives saved from those diseases. So, apparently, do hundreds in the crowd who roar their gratitude.

Someone else came to the marathon today with a different purpose than to celebrate. Someone whose malignity exceeds his knowledge: his bombs exploded near the finish around the four-hour mark; in an elite marathon like this, the ‘bulge’ – the greatest concentration of finishers – occurs 30 to 60 minutes earlier. The terrible toll might have been much heavier.

I plodded to the 35-kilometre mark, when a spectator offered me a slice of orange. His kindly young face looked troubled. “There have been explosions near the finish line. The marathon has been temporarily suspended.”

Naively I ran on.

A kilometre further on, I was one of very few still running. Police and runners were mingling on the course, faces dark. Hands held mobiles, sending text messages; local phone coverage was out. Some wept wrenchingly, their features distorted in grief or shock or anxiety for others ahead on the course. Many had relatives waiting near the Line.

The crowds fell quiet. Overhead, helicopters gathered and clattered. Police vehicles racing everywhere, ambulances, sirens shrieking, tore between barriers as the crowds melted out of their path. Not for the first time, the matter of placing one foot in front of another felt slight. Here was immediate danger and evident bloodshed.

Police turned back those of us who were running into danger. I needed to contact family. Strangers handed me their phones. I asked a teenager for directions to a local landmark, where my relatives would be; the teen insisted on escorting me.
As I waited, strangers stopped to offer help. One bloke wanted to give me his jacket so I wouldn’t get cold. Passers by touched me, or took my hand to shake. One gazed at me, shaking his head. “I am sorry,” he said.

Boston silenced, in shock, in grief. Its citizens reaching out to each other in spontaneous solidarity. More than that, people felt implicated in a wrong, embarrassed: their guests had been hurt, frightened, frustrated. They turn their goodness upon me and I feel like crying.

A terrible beauty born.

Reproduced from The Age 17 April 2013.

The Age Boston piece

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Spring is Here – Get Ready for Summer

Great Britain, April, 2013.

There is news of a sighting. More precisely, there’s a report that someone in Bristol claims a sighting. It might even be true – perhaps the someone did sight the sun in Bristol, briefly, the day before yesterday. The day before I arrived.

In Whiteladies Road, Bristol, a sandwich board is full of sunny optimism: SPRING IS HERE, it sings, GET READY FOR SUMMER. The advice that follows makes alarming reading:

FULL LEG 10 pounds

BIKINI 15 pounds

BRAZILIAN 18 pounds

No-one in Bristol should shed nature’s protective fur. For that matter, no-one anywhere in Britain ought to follow that advice.

***

Gippsland Lakes, Victoria, Australia, March, 1990.

A lady, middle-aged, bellows across the water from the deck of her rented yacht. She projects her fruity English accents in the direction of Dad’s boat. My aged uncle sits on Dad’s deck, enjoying the day’s end.

The early evening has turned decidedly cool. Dad and his crew shelter below decks, while Uncle sits above, nodding pleasantly from time to time in the English lady’s direction. As dusk descends, Uncle, who is deaf, drinks in the peace.

The English lady and Uncle have not been introduced. The lady is pleased to share her life story with Uncle. She tells him about her travels and her maritime experiences.

Visiting the daughter, actually. Lives here in Orstraliah. Married here, what?

Uncle nods, smiles.

Always enjoyed boating, all of us. Cowes Regatta, what not. Husband’s vice commodore there.

Another nod.

Cool evening. Reminds one of a coolish time at Cowes. Husband and I went for a quiet evening sail. Left the club, tooled around till dark, turned for home. Monster squall blew up. Caught us unawares – below decks taking cocktails. As one might – moon above the yardarm, what?

Uncle – watching a pelican gracefully spilling air, gliding, teasing his sight in slow, elegant inevitability – misses his cue, fails to nod.

His locutor raises her voice helpfully.

Nasty Squall. Tipped the bally boat over. Husband and I took to the dinghy. Squall passed. Squalls do. Boat out of sight, had to row to land.

Uncle, enjoying the first stars behind the lady, looks attentive. From time to time, as her jaws come to rest, Uncle obliges with another nod.

Rowed all night. Dashed cool by morning. Rowed right up to the jetty at the Club, there’s Reginald, Club Commodore, strolling along the pier. Calls out to us: “Lovely morning for an early row.”

One had to explain: ”Not rowing for fun, Reggie. Bally shipwrecked. Learned something from the experience, though: never knew the purpose of hairs on one’s pussy, Reggie – keep one warm in a shipwreck.”

Copyright, Howard Goldenberg, 7 April, 2013

What I Have Been Doing With Your Donated (and Undonated) Monies

Late Training Notes from the Bristol Downs.

I promised to report on your Unusual Investment. (If, as you read this, you don’t know about that Investment, please visit these links http://hopkintonrespite.com or
http://www.youtube.com/user/HopkintonRespiteTV
It is not too late for your dollars to join the nearly-four thousand dollars that preceded yours, whose donor investors will never see them again.)
Since I first wrote to you the grass has not grown beneath my feet. A certain amount of tinea has, but this is inevitable: I have been training hard. The Boston Marathon will be run on Monday 15 April and investors in my little Scheme are helping the Michael Lisson Memorial Respite Centre.
Michael’s mother, who created the Centre, wrote one week ago, reminding me that Michael died on the day of the 100th running. I ran that day, unknowing. Now I know and marathon running feels like a small matter.

They ought to call the Downs the Ups, these vast, everlasting, uptwisting hills. Or the Steeps. From one end of the Downs you can’t see the other for distance. And even if you could, you couldn’t – because of the mists. In spring, season of mists and frosts.

My father, not a lewd man nor crude, told few risqué jokes. However this semi-liquid air brings to mind one of Dad’s one-liners: Did you hear about the man who took his girlfriend out into the night air and mist?

Enough complaining. Hilly Bristol, like coastal Israel, is terrific training ground for Monday’s Boston Marathon. We’ll run up the Newton Hills between miles 18 and 21, hills famous for breaking hearts, but the Bristol Ups, like the long, high dunes of Herzliyah, have toughened mine.

This is my race preview. I have trained long and hard, six days a week, resting only on the Sabbath. Each run feels easier than the last. Gone is the sense of labour in a run of a mere hour’s duration. My legs feel wonderful, muscular and light. There is the little matter of the creaking discomfort in the left knee – my good knee – a new sensation. The knee hurts only when it bears weight. Best ignored.

With the exception of a 3.5 hour run in the Jerusalem Forest all my training runs have been solitary. This is not of my choosing: running with a friend is four times easier than running alone. This is true for all runs, over all distances. I know: I have done the maths. However all my friends have stopped running; they have heard the call and they have gone inside for dinner or for breakfast or to their homework or to dull duty. So I run alone.

In Bristol Alfred Lord Tennyson has kept me company. Some fluke or inadvertence has selected the poems of Tennyson on my i-phone. Useless here in the UK for telephony, my i-phone has become the perfect companion. Deaf and mute to the world outside my earbuds, my Apple sings the songs of my choosing, or in this case, the poems of my non-choosing.

He was keen on death, was Lord Alfred. From ‘Ulysses’, where he found romantic allure in Death, the Adventure; to the dying of King Arthur; to the demise of the Lady of Shallott; through lyric after lyric, the Laureate spoke to me, morning after morning, of death. Last Sunday he spoke to me at great length of the loss of his friend Arthur Hallam.
Endless his grieving, dark his spirits, Tennyson’s mood finds its echoes on these misty Downs.

That day found me running near the railing that kept me from stepping out into air and falling hundreds of feet in near-dark to the river, tirra lira, below. A blaze of red in the gloom, patches of white at shoulder height; what are these? A brief breather is permitted. The patches of white turn out to be cards, handwritten by members of a local junior cricket team and a junior football team, in memoriam to a teammate. The blaze of red is a football club scarf inscribed in black marking pen: Russell Simmons # 14.
Fresh posies of daffodil and another, paler flower, bloom from the railings.

No-one else in sight. No-one to ask or tell. No-one else to lament. My head bends, defeated. A sudden roar, a cry of raw sorrow bursts from my throat. My voice thickens, my eyes are wet.

Running is an easy thing, marathon training now trivial.

Shaking my head, shaking it to shed reality, I look up once more. There are more words to be read on that blood-red scarf: You’ll never walk alone.

Postscript: Afterwards I Googled Russell Simmons, deceased Bristol sportsman, and felt still sadder.

Copyright, Howard Goldenberg, 10 April, 2013

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Lying Beside the Mahommedans

Ellen wants to take me to the Broken Hill cemetery. There are Jewish graves there that are neglected, and Ellen frets about them. She wants to use my masculine muscle to put the graves to rights.
I wonder what exactly is the problem and what does she see me doing to correct it. In any event my lineage will disqualify me from close proximity to any grave: members of the Jewish priestly caste avoid contact with the dead. We cohanim go to the graveside only at the funeral of a first degree relative.
Seven years ago, I went for my father; three years ago for Dennis, my older brother. Then last year for Mum. I’ve run out of older people: I am next in line.
I break the news to Ellen: “The next time I visit a grave it will be a one-way trip. I am not going to be your grave fixer, Ellen. I’m sorry.”
Ellen is troubled: “The graves are under constant attack. They are disappearing…”
“What do you mean? Who’s attacking them?”
“No-one. It’s windblown sand that’s doing the damage. The sand banks up on the graves and it damages the inscriptions. I’m afraid that the memorials will be lost.”
Ellen comes to a stop, ponders, then says: ”You wouldn’t have to go near other graves. The Jewish section is at the farthest edge of the cemetery. There should be a way.”
She seems to have forgotten that I won’t be getting close to any graves. I won’t be the tomb rescuer she needs.
***
We drive, park in a deserted side road, then bush bash through some remarkably verdant growth until we have impaled ourselves on some barbed wire, emplaced there to deter grave robbers and illegal tourists.
We trudge through mud, then loam, then sand, duck beneath boughs, push aside branches that smack the face whoever of us is following, climb a bank, plunge down into the muddy floor of the creek bed, climb again, and stop.
Ahead of us and below stretch the vistas of the dead. All those who came to Broken Hill for fortune, for the silver; for adventure or for escape; to save themselves or to save others; everyone who came and who stayed – from about 1860 – lies here, at rest.
Ellen gets her bearings and points. “There, at that edge. Do you see?”
I don’t think I do see, but I nod and we set off, skirting the suburbs of the dead in their denominated areas. Here lie veterans of the First War, here a few of the war before it, the Boer War. Then the veterans of later wars of the late, terrible century. Here are Anglicans, here Catholics, there anachronistic Methodists, Presbyterians: Christendom lying in its battalions.
And beyond all of these, a triangular section with a curved perimeter, an outlier shaped like a slice of camembert: the sign reads MAHOMMEDAN SECTION. The sons of the Prophet are relatively few. Their names, defiantly unockerized, bravely declare to the ages ‘here lies one who kept the faith.’
Just beyond the Mahommedans, in an irregular quadrilateral of peripheral land, lie the Jews.
Ellen and I have kept ourselves at a good remove from all of the graves. By dint of dirt and mud, of trudge and tumble and sweat and blood, I have avoided priestly impurity. Now, like Moses on the hills of Moab, I stand and look down and across to the land allotted to the Jews.
The patch is small, but for all that, it is not crowded, for the Jewish graves are few. Standing at my Mosaic remove, I can make out little detail. Ellen is my scout. She reads the inscriptions aloud, citing dates from the nineteenth century to the 21st. One family is represented in its generations, across those three centuries.
Ellen returns to my side, a little out of breath. She has been kicking, hefting, scraping away with a stick the sand and windblown detritus accumulating hard against the graves. She points to decaying headstones: “Those inscriptions are getting harder to read with every year that passes. There are no Jewish people here to look after them.”
From my height I can see a couple of smaller plots. Ellen investigates these for me and confirms my thoughts. These are the graves of young children. Dead now for a century, they have their names still, in English and in Hebrew. Those who buried and wept for them are now long dead. All lie in their quiet obscurity, alongside the Mahommedans.
Because Ellen cannot let their memory die, their dates, their names and lineage all live. She has her dream, which she confides, as a plea, almost as prayer: ”The synagogue in Broken Hill is a Jewish place. It must be rescued: one day, when Jewish people redeem it and own it again, they will care for these Jewish remains.”

Copyright, howard goldenberg, 28 september, 2010

Bullying in Fifth Grade

Fifth grade is a long way behind us. The party is full of old faces. The boy I bullied back then walks towards me, his gait uneven, his face smiling. “Good to see you, Howard.”
Good to see me? Really?
“Hello Isaiah, great to see you. Hurt your leg?”
“Car accident, shortly after I got my Driver’s Licence. I was driving on the Hume. I hit a tree, hurt my head. I didn’t know I’d fractured my leg, not until three weeks later, when I came out of the coma.”
Three weeks in a coma! A shock.
“Will your leg heal?”
“They told me at the hospital I’d know after a year how good the leg would be. It’s been eighteen months…”
Isaiah leads me to a table where he takes the weight off his damaged leg.
“A single car accident. You’d know from medical school that a single car accident is usually a sub-suicide.”
“I didn’t know that.”
“Well it’s true. And I have no doubt that’s what mine was.”
I want to ask: what drove you to it? But the accidental pun will add hurt; and I am pretty sure I know the answer.

***

In grade five in our rural school, Isaiah is a philosopher and I am a social climber. Already taller than most of us by half a head, his hair a thicket of lustrous black, his manner professorial and his elocution like that of a news reader on the ABC, Isaiah is different. He wears glasses with wide black rims. He is an intellectual who is no good at sport; he’s neither rich nor fashionable nor popular. His voice is deeper than ours by a couple of octaves, a voice racing into puberty, but he is hopeless with girls.

It is fun to tease Isaiah for his mannerisms. We all do it from time to time and it raises a laugh. My social rise is based on performance, on raising a laugh. So I persecute Isaiah systematically. I organize a squadron of followers, to stalk Isaiah at recesses and at lunchtimes, and to chant my witticisms at his expense in a loud and public manner.

After one such lunchtime of bloodsport, Isaiah rises in his seat and addresses our teacher: Miss Redfern, allow me to introduce to you the Anti-Isaiah Army, organized and led by Howard Goldenberg.
Isaiah describes the marching and the stalking and the chanting, how the army surprises him in every nook and corner where he tries to hide. He lists the names of my volunteers and conscripts, he details the misery and humiliation, the desperation of his plight. Hearing this testimony the army deserts. Its generalissimo shrinks in shame, looks down, away from that tall figure, that crop of hair, that deep, true voice.

***

Isaiah’s speech marks the end of his persecution. He befriends me, confides in me. In his forgiving he heaps coals of fire upon my head. Neither he nor I speak again of the Army. School year follows year, Isaiah matriculates in unsung distinction and disappears. Three years on, he limps into my life at the party. He is glad to see me again. Really. He speaks and acts towards me as if his forgiving has been superseded by forgetting. As if his brain were injured.

***

The next time we meet we are in our sixties. Once again Isaiah is glad to see me, and I – glad in his gladness – feel relieved and warmed. And a strong need to be absolved. I tell him how sorry I am for my behaviour towards him in Fifth Grade. He searches my face for a joke. Or irony. Or mistaken identity.
Isaiah looks genuinely lost.
I explain, describing events that remain all too clear in my memory. Isaiah shakes his head, still crowned with its thicket: Howard I honestly don’t remember any of this. I do recall your friendship. I was grateful for it. Somewhere at some time over our lost decades someone has mentioned to me how Isaiah was one who suffered violence, real physical abuse, through his childhood years. Enough abuse, it seems, to obliterate the pain of small injuries perpetrated by Howard Goldenberg and his militia.

Copyright, Howard Goldenberg, 4 April, 2013