Howard is a doctor, marathon runner and author. He has written two non-fiction books, My Father’s Compass (2007) and Raft (2009). Carrots and Jaffas (2014) is his first novel. His latest novel is A Threefold Cord (Hybrid, 2107)
Around 1942, Myer Goldenberg asked Yvonne Coleman, ‘Will you marry me?’
Yvonne asked herself, ‘How high is Mount Sinai?’
Yvonne’s question was rhetorical. What she understood by Myer’s question was, ‘Do you reckon you can observe six hundred and thirteen commandments?’
In truth whatever the precise height of the mountain (2,285 metres), the answer would not influence Yvonne’s decision: Moses climbed up that mountain to receive the Torah. If old Moses could do it, she would. The Children of Israel, standing at the foot of the mountain, declared to Moses they’d embrace the Law, sight unseen: We will do it and we’ll hear it! – they shouted. Yvonne said to Myer, ‘I’ll do it.’
Yvonne’s response was wholehearted. On that understanding the two married.
Yvonne Coleman was born in 1917, in Perth, Western Australia, the daughter of a pearling captain (a son of the tribe of Levi), who sailed south from Broome to marry his bride, the daughter of French Jewish settlers who landed in Australia around 1852. In 1917, Perth was a long way from Mt. Sinai. According to family legend Yvonne’s grandfather and the Anglican Bishop of Perth were close friends. There is no legend that links Grandfather with the Rabbi in Perth. We do know the family attended synagogue. Strangers to the word, shule, they attended Synagogue regularly – on the three days of the High Holydays.
Yvonne liked synagogue. After the family removed to Melbourne, Yvonne joined the Melbourne Synagogue where her father’s family had been members since 1882. Although unschooled in Hebrew reading, Yvonne enjoyed the choral service and judged her punctuality by the particular choral items she recognised. Famously unpunctual her whole life through, Yvonne judged her arrival ‘early’ if before before the closing hymn, Adon Olam; and ‘late’ if after that hymn.
At the Toorak Road Synagogue the presiding Minister, Rabbi Brodie, (later to become Chief Rabbi of the British Empire), introduced Yvonne to the young Doctor Goldenberg. The doctor asked his question and Yvonne gave her question in reply. And Yvonne began her ascent of the mountain.
By the time I learned stories of Yvonne Coleman-that-was, she was a Shabbat keeping, Hebrew reading, kosher cooking, succah decorating, challah baking housewife in the small country town of Leeton in New South Wales. Yvonne was the sole Jewish ba’alath bayit (home-maker) inthe town, the mother of four observant and knowledgeable children.
Mum said she would do and she would hear; she never said she’d love the restrictions; but she observed them. Travelling on a bus with Mum one night, I asked her, ‘How do you like your life, with all the rules and restrictions, and the ‘thou shalt’ and the ‘thou shalt not?’’
‘I do like it, Darling. But if I were granted an interview with God, I’d say, ‘Look, Almighty God, if, after a meaty meal (Mum never came to terms with fleishig), you’ll allow me just a dash of milk in my coffee, I’ll swear on a stack of Bibles I’ll never seethe a kid in its mother’s milk.’
One precept in particular showed Mum to me in a distinctively devout light. This was lighting the candles before Shabbos and Yomtov. Mum would light, recite the bracha in the unfashionable Anglo-German ashkenazith pronunciation that Dad taught her, then stand in silence, with her eyes covered, for a long time. During these long minutes, we kids would wait while Mum stood, a fixture, unmoving like Hannah, mother of Samuel; only her lips moved. The silence felt sacred. Mum was praying for her loved ones, praying for every one of us, praying in detail, in secret, listing our individual needs, telling the Creator what she needed Him to know, and what she wanted Him to do.
After more than sixty years of marriage, Myer Goldenberg died, full of years, and was gathered to his people. Yvonne held his hand, still warm, in hers, and said in a voice wrenched with feeling, ‘He was a lovely man…’
Mum was now a widow. In 1942 she’d given her word – she would do and she would hear – and for sixty years she had kept her word. Now she was free. One son, looking perhaps to enjoying with Mum a more liberal future, asked, ‘Are you going to keep all those rules and restrictions now, Mum?’ Mum answered, gently, in her soft voice, ‘Why would I change now, darling?’
***Mum lived a further six years, keeping Shabbat, keeping kosher, keeping faith. She died just before her 92nd birthday, the day following Shavuoth, the Festival of the Giving of the Law at Sinai. Next Sundayher children will observe her yahrzeit. I might even find a congregation where I can recite kaddish. And a candle will burn in my house in her memory.
Someone called the Clinic the other day and left this message: ‘Alexa Rosa wanted to speak to the doctor who treated her mother a long time ago. And she wanted to buy your book.’ Did I know an Alexa Rosa? I thought somehow I should. A scene came back to me: a cold winter’s day in Melbourne, a young family in a front room, a sick mother, her worried husband, their adult daughter.
If this truly was my Alexa, then her story was strong and bright in my recall. I could never forget it. It was the winter of 1971. I had a new marriage, a new licence to practise medicine outside of the hospital and a brother about to marry in the United Kingdom. In order to raise the fares to the wedding I moonlighted as a radio locum. A radio locum installed a two-way radio in his car and travelled, like a taxi driver, to wherever the job called. On this occasion the call came to the Migrant Hostel in Kororoit Creek Road Altona. My bride, an able map reader, sat at my side and navigated.
Kororoit Creek Road in Atona was a long drive from everywhere else. When we arrived and parked in a vast car park, Annette (the bride) repeated the Controller’s directions, “Building 19, apartment 5.” I stepped outside. Here, at Melbourne’s western edge, you could see the setting sun disappearing beneath the horizon and the world darkening.
I didn’t feel happy leaving Annette there in the dark. I looked beyond the carpark toward the distant buildings. Would Annette be any safer in that lowering mass? Annette said, “I’ll be alright here. Just go.” Troubled, I went. How would I find building Nineteen where someone needed a doctor, someone who was suffering from something, possibly something serious? Having now reached the first of the buildings I could see my search was hopeless. The buildings were all great bulky cuboids of concrete. All were unli. And the dark was cold. I wandered and looked for numbers. No number nineteen anywhere, no five. I knocked on a door to enquire. The door opened, I asked, Can you direct me to Flat Five? A hand flew to the heart. The head shook: I not English. I sorry.
I felt sorry too. I turned dully away. Of course no English, everyone here newly arrived, everyone indoors, appalled, like me, by the cold. Movement in the shadow on my left. I hailed the shadow: Excuse me, do you speak English? The head shook no, while the face smiled a wide yes. The shadow, a young man, beckoned, and signed me to follow. I followed. He moved swiftly along cement paths, in and out between buildings, along corridors, until abruptly he stopped in his tracks, pointing and nodding furiously. The shadow knocked on a door, turning to me, smiling. Pointing towards the door, the shadow said, English! The door opened and a voice spoke: Good evening. How can I help you? Did you send for a doctor? No. Is this Apartment Five? No. This is seven. Is this Building Nineteen? No but I’ll take you to Number Five..
This was someone not lost in language nor in space. Feeling found, I followed. A building or two or three later, my guide stopped and knocked on a door. I noted a large numeral 5 next to the doorway and felt almost hopeful. The door opened and a pretty young woman appeared. Behind her stood a man, older than she; behind him a couple of small children, curious and fearful, clutched at the man’s legs and peeked. The young woman saw my medical bag. She told me her name and said, Come in Doctor. Thank you for coming. My mother is sick.
Mother lay on a couch. She did not look well. Her daughter explained: We arrived just today from Spain. During the flight Mother started to cough and it was hard for her to breathe. Now she has a fever. We didn’t know how to call a doctor. Thank you for coming.
I examined the lady. I thought I heard altered breathing sounds in one lung. I bent and listened hard. The air struggled into one side of the chest, it rattled and squeaked.This was bronchopneumonia. Ordinarily a hospital matter, this called for X-RAY, possibly intravenous treatment as an inpatient. How would this lady get to hospital? Would Medicare cover a new arrival? Would the ambulance take her? Was there another way?
I straightened and addressed the man through his adult daughter. Mother is sick. She has an infection in her chest. She needs strong antibiotic medicine, she might need to go into hospital. If you wish I can start some treatment here, now. And with luck she will improve quickly.
The daughter translated for her father. The two spoke with the mother, the three nodded. They had decided. The daughter spoke. Thank you doctor, yes, we would like you to treat her. Thank you doctor…we don’t want hospital. I fished out some penicillin – no, mother is not allergic – and gave the lady a hefty dose by injection. I wrote out a prescription for oral penicillin to commence the next day.
Leaving detailed instructions for a range of eventualities I prepared to take my troubled leave. I wished the lady well, I wished the whole family good health in Australia. The daughter reached for a purse. How much do we pay you, Doctor? I did not want payment. A doctor who deserted his sick patient didn’t deserve payment. I said something like, There is no charge. To myself I said, You have paid me, you’ve paid off my guilt. The young woman protested, No Doctor, we must pay you. We don’t know who sent you. How did you know we needed you? I didn’t know. Once again I wished them well and I left, my ears burning with blessings I could not accept.
Back in the car, I found Annette unharmed. I said, I couldn’t find my patient. And I told her the story.
It might have been six months later when I was called to the Delivery Suite for the birth of a baby. Birth was not expected for some weeks. Labour was well advanced when they called me and birth was imminent. I needed the mother to help. ‘Push, hard, push! The mother didn’t speak English. A masked figure at her side coached her, translating my words: Big, long push. Push….The mother pushed, her face turning deep red, the veins standing out on her forehead. Stop pushing now! Don’t push! Breathe, breathe…The mother breathed and with each breath the head advanced. The mother breathed her baby into this life, accompanied by fluids, red and clear and mucoid, and followed by the placenta and cries from the baby and crying from the mother. I counted fingers and toes and other parts and placed the baby on the mother’s chest and wished the new family joy. I pulled off my mask and thanked the person whose interpreting had made the birth smoother. I extended a hand, My name’s Howard. We have met, she said, removing her mask. I am Alexa.
Alexa explained she had come to visit her friend, now a new mother, in her ward. Abruptly, labour started and accelerated. The hospital discovered there was no-one to interpret for a Spanish speaker so Alexa volunteered. We chatted. She told me her own mother was well, recovery had gone smoothly. She, Alexa, was working as a wardsperson in this hospital. She told me she hoped to study nursing.
I said, I don’t know if you realised I had been called by an entirely different person on the day you arrived from Spain. I never found that person. I never discovered how I fund your Mum. I know, said Alexa. God sent you.
A few weeks later my father told me a new family had started seeing him as their local doctor. They’re from Spain, he said. They tell me you treated the mother for pneumonia.
Forty-nine years passed. Locked down, I’m doing Telehealth from home. A message arrived for me, asking me to contact an Alexa whom I had know years before. I rang the number. Alexa speaking, said a voice. The voice sounded Aussie. I told Alexa who I was. She asked, Do you remember us? If you arrived from Spain in 1971, then yes I do. How could I forget? We did. It was 1971. I guess you were about nineteen then. Exactly. So you’re sixty-eight now? Yes. And I did do nursing. I’m still nursing. We talked for a while. Mum is still alive. She’s ninety-three now. Dad only died last year. Do you remember what you said when you left us that night? What did I say? You said, I wish you health and happiness in this country. You blessed us and your words came true. I reminded Alexa of her words to me in the Delivery suite. You said, ‘God sent you.’ That’s right. God did send you. It’s the only explanation. That was the night I became a believer. I found God in the Hostel.
In the few days that have passed since Alexa opened the closed door on half a century, I’ve felt excitement and perturbation. I’m excited that Alexa and I will ‘meet’ again, that I’ll ‘see’ my pneumonia patient again, spry and vital; that I’ll meet the children and their father, that I’ll learn their stories. At the same time, some different, powerful feeling operates and unsettles me. It’s the thought of the power of a word, the reverberation of a small act. Alexa sees the hand of the Divine. Does that make me somehow an instrument in a plan? I cannot begin to recognise anything so lofty. I dismiss any idea of some special mission I might have; I find that sort of belief a burden, an embarrassment; it makes me want to run away.
But I’ve been moved to tears thinking how a simple act might lodge in memory, might germinate as a seed, might influence a life; that somehow, quite without intent or thought or awareness, a simple act could take root, help, lift, encourage, perhaps inspire. That thought brings with it a glow, the sense I have done as I know my father did before me – many times – some act of unwitting goodness that lived on afterwards. I’ve felt overcome with a feeling of blessing, perhaps of being a small link in a long chain that might continue on, in lives undreamed…
Every morning a politician jumps out of bed, scheming, dreaming, thinking, what harm can I do today? Whom can I betray, traduce, diminish, promote? How to hide that lobbyist’s bribe? What principle or promise can I break, whose arse might I lick today? Perhaps I’ll knight a duke, maybe I’ll munch an onion.
Alternatively, every morning a politician wakes up, gets up, does the morning’s physiology, washes, dresses, buckles on the day’s armour, takes on fuel, paints her face to face the world – to face herself – lights his cigar, drops the kids off at school, her mind abstracted with the birthday CD she’ll buy her husband, with the vote in the House, with the speech he’s preparing for the School Fundraiser.
We get the politicians we deserve.
At those times when our leaders disappoint us, people make this assertion.
They do so with a grim satisfaction, almost with relish. It bespeaks a rush to judge, a refusal to wonder why. Over many years I’ve known politicians enough to judge them – that is, I’ve known them superficially and like electors everywhere, I’ve made my superficial judgements. I’ve found politicians to be pretty unextraordinary. Generally bright enough, usually public-spirited, not scared of hard work, usually more ambitious than enough. My mind wrestles with the contradictions we see between a politician’s avowed belief and actions. In particular, we’ve seen ostensibly active Christian people actively demonising asylum seekers. Where, I’ve been wondering, is the love?
The first person of power I knew was Oscar Washington, Mayor of Leeton in my early childhood. He lived a bit down Jarrah Street from my best friend Johnny Wanklyn. Oscar had a large belly and he smoked a large cigar. Oscar would smoke his cigar as he walked from his front door to the car. We’d smell the aroma lingering in Jarrah Street. I liked the music of his names, I liked the cigar smell so I liked our Mayor.
A good stretch of time passed before my next brush with one of the great, those who are at once our masters and our servants. This one was a Cabinet Minister, mother of young children. She first came to see me suffering a florid attack of hay fever. I treated her, saved her life, and she stuck. In the course of subsequent visits the politician and I have spoken of many things. She introduced me to the music and verse of Nick Cave. Newspaper editorials blamed her for failures in her department. I read and I wondered and I judged her to be conscientious and diligent.
Great Ones from all sectors passed through our waiting room. We’d bump into the Premier, into potentates of the Australian football League and its champion players. One of the leaders of the Opposition visited. I liked her. She drank too much, she carried a bit of weight, she worked too hard. Earlier, while in power, she’d been a member of Cabinet with a sensitive portfolio. Exercising ministerial discretion she made numerous decisions that favoured cronies. I judged those decisions corrupt.
When an economist friend married off his daughter he seated me at the reception next to a parliamentarian who held an Economics portfolio. Through the evening I watched and I listened. I watched him empty wine bottles and I heard how Economics was his ideology, his theology and his sociology. He welded his faith to his practice of politics. I was enlightened and impressed by the seamless content of mind and work. No splits.
One night I delivered a keynote address at an Awards ceremony for volunteers who worked in human rights. I spoke in passionate protest against my country’s treatment of asylum seekers. The standing ovation that followed amazed me. First on their feet in the audience were two Federal parliamentarians, one a backbencher, the other a very senior frontbencher. The two approached me, independently, requesting a copy of my text for their websites. The junior parliamentarian confided: You’ve said what we all want to say, but we can’t. There it was, the split, the active paring away of principle from action. I didn’t know the politician personally, but I knew his of family’s refugee origins.
I recalled one desolate day on Christmas Island where I worked in the Detention Centre. When off duty I’d run the tracks on the island’s hills and forests and beaches. At one lonely cove I sighted a small street sign that read, Tampa Bay. My legs stopped. I was back in the day of ‘Tampa Election’ when the arch-politician of the era saved his government by turning away those refugees. We will decide who comes to our country he said, a credo parroted by the Opposition leader. That was the day I first felt shame in my country. Many elections later that credo governs our policies still.
That same leader astonished me some years later when he promulgated a law of this land that ruled Australian Law, Australian human rights, would not apply in certain Australian places. The detention camps were to be Australian islands free of Australian rights.
How? Why? What force separates a human’s deeds from his core beliefs? In the case of a politician I think it’s fear. While a few succumb to the offerings – fame, celebrity, power, little bribes, big bribes – most stumble upon the fear of sacking by their bosses. An election can happen at any time. The electors are fickle, voters don’t want more Muslim terrorists, do they? And all those people, they’re all queue jumpers, illegals, aren’t they?
It’s not easy to function in your job while in fear of losing it. Those people we vote in to serve and to rule us, those ordinary, fearful individuals with their cigars and their families and their ambitions and ideals and drives, organise themselves into gangs. The gangs are called political parties. Parties appoint managers. Managers put their ears to the ground and listen for tremors from the electorate. They conduct focus groups. They survey voters to discover what they’ll punish. They learn we’ll punish congestion on our roads, we’ll punish job losses in mining.
Managers veto any policy softening on refugees and on climate change. The politician, having joined her gang, having outsourced morality and left her conscience at home, never learns that we voters regret these harsh policies. The politician, elected to lead us, follows instead, abiding byourlower instincts. That much is our own fault; we choose our politicians, we reward them for timidity, we don’t ask them to dream, to wonder how good this country can be. We too live lives of moral laxity. We split belief from policy. And as election follows election, the refugee languishes in our prisons.