Mum Interviews God

Friday, eighteen minutes before sunset. Mum stands before the candelabra, strikes a match, holds it to the wick, pauses and watches until a flame rises, blue at the wick, yellow at the fringe.  She applies the same match to a second candle, which obliges with a sturdy flame just in time for Mum to drop the match-end that was about to burn her. She lights the third and last candle. Again she watches briefly, now drops the match and holds her hands – cupped palms upward – above the dancing flames. Now starts the ballet I have witnessed and loved since earliest childhood, as Mum’s hands move up, then down, up again and down, then a third rise and fall, as she caresses air and brings up the light of Shabbat.

Mum’s hands move to her face and shield it from sight. I won’t see Mum’s face again until she completes her interview with God. She whispers a blessing. Then silence. What is she doing? Unlike us boys Mum does’t wear her religion on her sleeve, nor, for that matter, on her head. Mum’s discourse is free of theology. She is not one for external display. But this moment – these moments – she dedicates to One who is outside and above that world in which she cooks and reads and dreams and loves. 

I wait. We all wait. All of us, her four children, our father, smelling the smells of the sabbath meal, all suddenly ravenous. We’ve recited our prayers, we’re ready. But we must wait while Mum talks to God. Mum lowers her hands, turns to us, “Good shabbos, darlings.” Her eyes shine behind tears.

Eighteen minutes before sunset on a Friday, sixty-five years on. Mum stands before the candelabra, takes a match and strikes a flame. This is no longer a simple act: to do this, to light the candles one by one, to judge when to hold the burning fragment and when to drop it, Mum must release her grip on the kitchen bench. Since the haemorrhage that tore through the back of her brain, none of Mum’s motor functions is simple: to stand, to remain standing, to direct the fingers to strike a match, to light a candle, to articulate words, every act a challenge to be met and overcome. The three candles rise, yellowblue, to Mum’s wavering matchstick. She drops the match and now her hands caress air. Once, twice, three times, those slender hands, those long fingers still graceful, rise and fall. Now the hands rise to Mum’s face and hide it, and we hear her whisper the words. No sound now as we watch and wait.

After one of these lengthening quiets, I ask Mum what it is that demands so much of the Creator’s time. “What are you saying, Mum?” 

“I’m asking God to care for you all, darling.”

Mum has four children. She had a husband but he died a few years ago. She has grandchildren who have become adults, she has a rising score of great-grandchildren, she’s accumulated children-in-law, grandchildren-in-law. Every one is precious, each has individual needs, each must be singled out and presented to God for blessing. Blessings must be tailored: Heal this one, strengthen that one, protect that third, comfort him, calm her, bring them peace.  

We wait and we wait. Mum and God have much to discuss, as God’s old friend comes to Him again with her weekly agenda of love.  

My Friend the Policeman

Working here in this large regional hospital in the Kimberley not a day passes without a call to the care of drunken patients.

More often than not the patient arrives in the company of a pair of police officers. More often than not the patient is abusive. Frequently she swears at her captors, often roaring at the them. The custodians stand calmly, quietly watchful, gentle, as I do my work and the patient does her worst. The police officer is here as a guardian, my guardian, the hospital’s, the patient’s. I wonder at this patience.

 

 

 

***

 

 

 

When I was very small my parents brought me to the city for the High Holydays.

Mum took me to Collins Street, a river different from those I knew in our small riverine town.

Collins Street flowed, a fast human current that would sweep up a small boy, sweep him away, never again to see his loving kin. I looked up and about, legs everywhere, legs striding fast, eddies, rips, king tides. 

I gripped Mum’s hand tighter. “Mum said, don’t be afraid, Howard. The Police will look after you. If you ever get lost find a policeman. The Police are your friends.”

 

 

Back in my hometown I knew this to be true. A man pulled my pants down in the park. A couple of days later I told my parents about the man’s strange behaviour. Mum looked at Dad and Dad looked at Mum and a few hours later Sergeant Stewart arrived at our house. 

We walked together into the park. I led him to the place and answered his questions. “Look around the park, Howard. Can you see the man?”

I couldn’t but I didn’t want to disappoint the officer. I pointed out a man dozing on his picnic rug: “That’s him”, I said. Sergeant Stewart said, ‘It’s a very serious thing to make false accusations, Howard.” I learned a new word that day. 

 

 

Another time I found a ten shilling banknote in the street. Briefly I was rich. Mum said, “‘It’s lost property, darling.”

“No it’s not Mum. It’s found.”

“You report lost property to the Police and they look for the owner.”

I walked to the top of Wade Avenue, past the courthouse and around the corner to the Police Station. Sergeant Stewart opened a book dipped a pen into an inkwell and asked, “What’s your name Howard?”

“Howard.”

“Do you have any other names, Howard?”

“Jonathan. Goldenberg”

Sergeant Stewart’s thirsty nib drank again and again at the inkwell as he recorded my address and my parents’ telephone number. “Leeton two eight, isn’t it, Howard?”

Six months passed, an age. Our telephone rang and Constable Bulley said something to Mum. Mum thanked him and hanged up. “Go to the Police Station, Howard. No-one has claimed the ten shillings.”

I went and said I’d come for the money. I signed the policemen’s book and I left, a rich man.

 

 

 

On one occasion I tested Police probity. Leeton sat in the Murrumbidgee Irrigation Area, fruit bowl for the nation. Fruitfly was the feared enemy that could wipe out the industry, it might destroy livelihoods and the local economy. You weren’t allowed to bring exotic fruits into the MIA. If you wanted bananas or pineapples you had leave the Irrigation Area and drive to Narranderra, nineteen miles distant. One Sunday we did just that and gorged on those tropical fruits. To my surprise, my law-abiding parents embarked on a criminal career and brought the surplus home.

After lunch the next day I was loitering outside our house in Wade Avenue when Sergeant Stewart strolled past. The Sergeant is my friend; I should offer him the pleasure of conversation:” Hello Sergeant.

“Hello Howard.”

“We’ve got bananas at home.”

The officer smiled.

“And a pineapple.”

“Good afternoon, Howard.”

 

 

 

***

 

 

Ten years ago I met Detective Inspector John Bailey (retired) in Albury. He spoke of his father, the police officer who, unarmed, braved an armed murderer, who shot him. Bleeding from his wounds Bailey Senior grappled with his assailant, pinning him beneath him. Bailey died, the only police officer known to have arrested his own murderer. Bailey – the son – showed me the George Cross, awarded posthumously to his father. I hefted the weighty silver medal in my palm, while the old officer looked down at me between ptotic eyelids: “It’s a great thing, a George Cross, but it’s not a substitute for a father.” The orphaned son followed his father into the force, entering in his teens, retiring a much-decorated and admired servant of the community.

 

 

 

***

 

Every night in the Kimberley police officers bring in their freight of broken and bleeding humanity. Their charges reel with the effects of alcohol, their heads, faces, limbs bloodied. Many are handcuffed. Invariably the officers tower over the injured prisoner. Sometimes the prisoner-who-is-patient shouts in a crazed manner, offering abuse to nurses and coppers alike. The officers remain calm, their manner respectful, even, I should say, kindly. Gently they lead the injured miscreant to care. I see this, time and again. I see it and I marvel.

 

 

 

 

***

 

 

 

I never became separated from Mum in Collins Street River. I never needed police succour until the day came when an arsonist set fire to my motor cars parked in the street outside my home. The policeman, Commander Kim West said, “When someone sets fire to your car they’re saying they can burn your house. They’re saying they can burn you.” The Commander asked me about my children. He gave me a significant look. He wrote some digits on the back of his card and handed it to me: “That number will get me night or day, Howard.” 

 

 

 

Twenty years have passed since the Commander gave me his card. A few months ago Kim returned from Europe where he’d visited with his wife. He buttonholed me: “We went to Auschwitz.” A shake of the massive West head: “Shocking. Shocking. When I tell people that, they say,Who’d want to go to Auschwitz?  I tell them, Everyone should go to Auschwitz!  Soon after our chat, Kim became unwell. Tests showed cancer, advanced and widespread. Very quickly he died. At the close of his funeral the minister said to the congregation: “The last prayer Kim recited was at the former concentration camp at Auschwitz. There he and his wife read the Jewish Prayer for the Dead. Rise please and read this with me: Yitgadal ve’yitkadash shmei rabah…” 

 

 

Portrait of Kim West by Dr Harry Unglik for the Archibald Prize

Summer Stories, 2

Catch the Flying Undies Game

 

It all starts when six-year old Ruby decides to change from day clothes into her bathers for a beach picnic. She regards the undies she’d just removed and decides she’ll need them later. She flings them to her mum, standing nearby. “Catch!”, she shouts.

“You catch”, says Mum, flinging them back. Just then Joel runs into the room and, leaping, brings down a smart catch.

Adult applause, beaming seven-year old boy, hilarious Ruby.

 

The game is afoot. Ruby says, “It’s called ‘Catch the Flying Undies!’”

 

(Later the mother says to her father, “You have to write this story, Dad.”

I demur: “ Hard to write, darling. A game without rules or shape… And flying undies might be open to misrepresentation. Better for a mother to report to her friends on her social media. Older men should steer clear.”

“Since when did you ever play it safe, Dad?”)

 

 

Ruby runs at Joel and grabs at the undies. A tug of war, Joel, legless with laughter, tumbles backwards and yields the garment. Ruby swings her arm in a mighty arc and flings with all her midget might. She forgets to let go and the lump of fabric falls at her feet. Mum swoops, grabs, chucks and the little lump hits grandfather in the face. 

 

 

There’s a science to undie chucking, I find. Flung open, undies sail, stall and fall haphazardly. Tied tightly into a knot a pair of undies becomes a projectile that flies true. The adults learn the science and exploit it. The children never master the science. Instead they charge the person holding the garment and grab at it. Much tumbling, endless screaming, brief triumphs (pun unintended), misgrabs, misfires, children helpless with mirth, adults little better. Exultation, the sense of chance, some freak or wrinkle in Time, a moment of miracle, this once and never again ecstasy.  

 

 

 

The children whirl and leap and fall. They shriek in their delight in our unwonted adult craziness. They won’t allow the moment to end. As they whirl they lose all balance, fall drunkenly and shriek the more. The adults keep their feet but not their dignity. Whooping and jumping and flinging undies in endless keepings-off, we grownups are mad as the children are mad. They’ve admitted us to a world we had left behind and lost. We are become children again. 

Dennis

 

 

When I was born my elder brother was two years and two months old. When my brother died he was sixty-two. Tonight my younger brother and I will remember our firstborn brother. We’ll recite Kaddish together in his memory.

 

 

 

When I was newly born Dennis filled my baby carriage with all of his toys, submerging me. I didn’t recall that; our mother told me of it. She said Dennis loved his new brother so much he wanted me to have all his toys. All of our lives Dennis gave away everything that was his.

 

 

 

Dennis and I always bathed together. When I was five years of age, and trusting, Dennis conned me into an act of fellatio in which he pissed in my mouth. I recall that clearly.

 

 

 

I’ll light a memorial candle tonight. The candle burns longer than twenty-four hours. When I walk into my night kitchen the small flame takes me by surprise. I stop and I remember. The small flame flickers and falls. It looks about to die, but then it rises and burns brightly.

 

 

I sit alone in the kitchen and the truth comes to me anew: we all flicker before we die. But Dennis! Dennis had such a force of life. I see him pushing Mum in her wheelchair along a steep winding path, pushing her up, up, to catch the sea view from a peak at Wilson’s Promontory. The tyres sink deeply into the sand but Dennis, by sheer force of will, propels Mum forward and upward.

 

 

 

Dennis the fearless. Dennis undaunted, never defeated. When his affairs took a reverse I’d worry for him, but he’d say, ‘It’s always darkest before the dawn.’  Dennis meant that, he believed it, he lived by it.

 

 

 

Life brought ease to the second brother, a harder path to the firstborn. Dennis rejoiced for me in all my little successes. He knew no envy, never felt usurped by the younger brother who got the birthright. He bought me a holy book and inscribed it with his heart’s blood: ‘For my brother Howard. God must be proud of you.’

 

 

 

Dennis had the gregariousness of the deeply lonely. I sit and leaf through his address book, an odd keepsake. The crammed pages teem with names, so many names, names of down and out people he’d find and succour. These people, themselves lonely, found in my brother a man who’d give away all his own toys. 

 

 

 

Dennis decided to undergo major surgery, hazardous surgery. I misgave. But he said, ‘Doff, It will cure my diabetes, I’ll get my life back.’  He had the surgery, his flame flickered and he died.

 

 

Eini, eini, yorda mayyim

My eye, my eye runs with water.

 

 

 

Ellul, 17-18, 5779.

Birth of a Pearl

My mother’s name was Yvonne but her sister’s children called her Bom. I believe that name was the gift of her toddler nephew for whom Yvonne was too large a mouthful. That scapegrace nephew entered Bom’s life before she had children of her own. From the first, the two treasured each other with the distinctive closeness of the boy who finds a second mother, and the sister (yet childless) who yearns to mother.

The aunt moved to the country town of Leeton where she promptly hatched a litter of her own, of which I was the second born. From time to time the nephew (it’s time to give him a name: let’s call him Barry) was sent to us in Leeton, where his sojourns were long and wild and wonderful. His parents sent him to us ‘for the country air’, ‘for his asthma’, ‘to recover from the injury when a stake went through his belly’. All understood the true reason: They sent Barry to us when his parents needed respite. Bom would take Barry to her bosom, and he thrived.

In Leeton Barry taught us the Facts of Life. I have found these Facts to be of enduring value. He taught us too, a game called Murder in the Chook House, which I have described fully in my book titled My Father’s Compass. But all wild things must end and eventually Barry would return to Melbourne.

Contrary to all prediction and expectation Barry reached the age of thirteen without being hanged. His family marked the occasion with a barmitzvah celebration in the grounds of their beautiful home. The heavens marked the occasion too, with the mercury reaching 112 degrees. A marquee appeared on the tennis court, glamourous women sprang up like so many flowering shrubs.  Barry behaved with mature grace, accepting gifts and tribute without complaint.

Among the adult company present that day one particular beauty stood out. She was a person, someone said reverently, from Channel Nine. We didn’t have TV but I’d heard of Channel Nine. This lady’s job was to be beautiful on television. Today she was being beautiful at Barry’s family home.

TV Beauty Brenda Marshall

I came upon her seated in a shady spot next to my mum.  The two were talking. Beauty was admiring a pearl suspended from my mother’s throat.

What a beautiful pearl, Mrs Goldenberg!

Thank you. Daddy found it at the bottom of the sea and brought it home and gave it to me.

How? I mean where..?

Daddy was a pearl diver in Broome.

How wonderful!

Yes. He taught us girls  – that’s Barry’s mother and me – this poem:

When the first drop of rain

Fell from the clouds

Into the deep blue sea…

Mum’s manner of speaking carressed the words into being. They’d tumble from her and flow sweetly to you. Ready to be embarrassed, I watched TV Lady anxiously. Channel Nine was leaning forward, her red lips parted. I saw the pearls that were her perfect teeth. She leaned and listened and she did not move.

She was tossed, small and wistful, by the waves.

How minute I am in all this immensity, she cried.

And the sea replied: Thy modesty pleaseth me.

I shall make of thee a little drop of light.

Thou shalt be the fairest jewel among jewels…

 

 

The TV lady turned slightly to look again at Mum’s pearl pendant.

Thou shalt even rule woman.

 

 

Mum stopped, looked up at her companion, smiled:

And a pearl was born.

Ecclesiastes, 12, 1

A letter arrived inviting me to join a panel of former students addressing a bunch of peers from my old school. Panelists were to discuss a number of questions which all boiled down to If you knew then what you know now, what would you have done differently?

The questions made me think about my schooldays. I loved school. I felt happy. I thought the brutality of our teachers was somehow just the way of things, neither wrong nor right, simply conduct that lay beyond judgement. I didn’t like it – in fact when I witnessed it I’d whinny with the ugly mirth of the unpunished; when I received it I felt I might vomit. But then I didn’t like winter either. Winter and corporal punishment were both unpleasant and both lay beyond lawmaking.

As I reviewed our jungle behaviour my older self felt sad and ashamed. I wished we had been kinder. An instinct revealed to us whoever was the most vulnerable. Arriving as a new boy in mid-term I was conspicuously vulnerable and the hounds duly bayed and pursued me. Being new was a temporary condition; others suffered perpetually. In my turn I identified one or two of these and I teased them with relish.

In time I saw how that fat child, this gay person, that person whose father belted her every day, attracted the crows, and I declined to join in the pecking. In time two of these three were to die by their own hand; the third tried and failed.

I wasn’t fat, or gay. My father didn’t beat me. My schooldays were happy. Inspiring teachers inspired me; loving mentors nurtured me. I suppose I blossomed.

Half a century and more have passed since I lived in that arena of mind-nurture and bloodsport. My eyes, clouded now with cataract, my knees grating, my hearing dimmed, my balance wonky, my farting – ever a reckless delight – now hazardous, what advice would I offer today’s schoolchild? Should I say Rejoice in the days of your youth before the evil days come when you will say, “I have no pleasure in them”?

I watch those tender green shoots anxiously as they don school garb and they venture into their jungles. I hold my breath and hope. Will she make her way? Will she find a friend? What wise words might I proffer?

Instead of speaking words I hope I might hold my peace and let her be, and let her become.

Autumn Notes 111

The ruler of this blog disqualified the title of my previous post. I’d proposed “Autumn Notes -III”, but the blogmeistress ruled that out. ‘It’s a book review, Dad, it’s nothing to do with autumn. You’ll confuse people if you call it that.’

I disagreed.

She insisted.

I demurred.

She overruled.

So here we ago again. I’m writing this in autumn. Brown leaves are falling, the air is chilling, malicious winds lash the streets. What’s more, I’m in the autumn of my days. And today when I visited my aunt I glimpsed Winter.

My mother-in-law is a beauty. At 91 years she dresses like my daughters and she’s still admired as a beauty. Her name’s Helen. As in Troy. Ma-in-Law Helen remarked to me once,   ‘Your Aunty B was the most beautiful bride I ever saw’. On a separate occasion Aunty B said to me ‘Your mother in law was the most beautiful bride I ever saw.’

I’ve seen wedding photos of them both and I can’t disagree with either of them.

Today I visited Aunty B. Family news had filtered through the dark: B isn’t doing well. I found her sleeping in her room, surrounded by her daughters and her doctor-granddaughter. I saw her, I saw that same face, beautiful still. I thought of Aunty B’s life of battles, of her buoyancy and grace, her good cheer. I remember how she took this bewildered country boy under her wing on lonely visits to Melbourne. Now Aunty opened an eye. Was that a smile? Her hand opened to my touch, the grip strong. My last surviving aunt opened her mouth to speak. No words. The eye closed and she slept. Like Hemingway’s Old Man (of the Sea), did she dream?

It’s not yet Winter but it’s coming.