Memorial Concert

I was the second in a bunch of four kids. Including parents we were a family of six. That was then.

In 2003, Dad died; a few years later our eldest brother died, three years after him, Mum died. Now we are three. The anniversary of Dad’s death fell this week. I wrote to the other two survivors:


sister, brother

I wish us all many more years of vigorous good health

It has been an empty yahrzeit* no ceremony, no minyan** to respond to my kaddish*** just a candle burning and reciting the bedtime shema and recalling how Dad taught us and translated, the words echoing his love of the text, his love of the tradition, and his love of us, to whom he was passing it all on and reciting the psalm: ”yea even though my father and my father have forsaken me…”
I thought of Dad at intervals through the day, but I didn’t build my day around acknowledging him

He was phenomenal – a brave man who made himself strong despite inner infirmity a man who inspired, a man to remember

we were blessed

love howard

Sister and brother wrote back, with their rememberings. Cousins wrote, and friends. It all felt mellow, a species of happy. There was a pleasure in remembering and in sharing memory.
I found myself wandering around, singing a song I hadn’t sung or heard for perhaps forty years. I heard myself singing: he sipped no sup and he craved no crumb…

This was one of the many songs that Dad, a singing man, especially liked.
When I realised what I was doing, I tried to recall one of Mum’s songs. Although Mum was a blithe old girl, she seldom sang. But a memory came of one song she did sing to me when I was very young. I remember her contorting her face as she sang, glee and hilarity bursting from her in self-parody, flinging the words from her with abandon:
cigarettes and whiskey and wild, wild wine they’ll drive you crazy, they’ll drive you insane…

I decided to record myself singing my parents’ songs. You can hear their memorial concert by pressing play below.

*anniversary**a congregation***a memorial prayer, recited only in congregational worship

Curfew Tales: The Story of Mister Jones Chapter IV

Winter in Melbourne. The sun observes the curfew longer than we humans do. It stays in bed and rises late if it rises at all. Today the sun sleeps in. The wind blows, the rain falls and two figures run through the dark and the wet, down to the wet and dark of the Bay. As we run, Toby sings his morning song:

Nice and freezing

Nice and freezing 

Nice and freezing

He sings these lyrics to the initial bars of ‘Shortening Bread’.

Toby sings the lyrics with the sincerity of one who is underdressed for the weather. It falls to me to state the obvious: ‘It’s raining, Toby.’

‘Nice and freezing

Nice and freez…

The rain reminds me: ‘In Papua it rains every day, Toby. I hope Mr Jones is keeping dry. I hope he’s well… I hope he’s alive.’

‘Saba, that newspaper report from Leeton about Mr Jones’ daughter Amelia Bodelia – do you think it’s true? I mean can a person’s heart really burst with love? Can they die of it?’

‘Toby, doctors now know that grief or shock can kill. There are cases where a person who never had heart disease before received sad news then suffered a heart attack and died. Maybe something like that killed Amelia B.’

‘Saba, when Amelia Nee died, our chances of contacting Noel Henry Jones died with her.’ 

‘I’ve been hoping that newspaper message was mistake, hoping she might be moribund, or just stunned. I’ve been checking my emails. Nothing. Poor Ameila must be really truly dead.

Toby speeds up and leaves me behind. For a while he runs alone. It’s hard to tell in the rain and the dark, but I think I heard tears in Toby’s voice when he said our chances died with her. After a while Toby slows down and allows me to catch up. Together we shiver home companionably. Once inside I find myself at the computer. Where is Mister Jones? How will I find him? I open my emails. There’s lots of SPAM but there is no information.

The snail mail arrives. Lots of letters, addressed to me by machines. Toby envies me for the many letters I receive daily: ‘In a whole year I hardly get any. What’s that letter you’re reading Saba?’

‘The lost dogs’ home wants a donation, Toby.’

‘Saba, if the dogs are lost, the home doesn’t need donations!’

‘Good point, Toby.’

There’s a letter advertising pizza and a flyer for a new gym.

The next letter is the Gas Bill.

‘Saba, can I open one and read it to you?’

‘OK, Toby. Golly, what do you think of my gas bill, Toby?’

Toby does not reply. He’s engrossed in a letter. I glance at the envelope, addressed not by a machine but by a human with shaky handwriting. The address reads:

dR hOWARD jONATHAN gOLDENBERG

formerly of Leeton

now in Melbourne

The handwriting is really hard to read, but there’s something familiar about the ink. My memory stirs. Long ago, when I was just a kid, younger than Toby, I once used a pen with ink like that. I’m pretty sure I know that ink. I do recognise it. It’s Parker Pen ink. 

I look at the back of the envelope. I read: Sender’s Address: MANUS ISLAND. Isn’t that in Papua New Guinea? What does all this mean – familiar ink, familiar address?

Meanwhile Toby holds the scrap of paper in the air, he’s squinting, concentrating hard, his forehead wrinkly as a dartos muscle in winter. He mutters, ‘I can hardly read any of this writing, just a few words: Leeton, carrot…Amelia.

Saba! – he exclaims.

I hand the envelope to Toby and he passes me the letter. We speak simultaneously: look at that! I hold the scrap of notepaper and I read.

At that same moment I recalled the true owner of the Parker pen. I jump to my feet and shout, Toby!

‘Toby, we’ve found him. ‘He found us actually. But I don’t think we’ll ever see him. He says all his cannibal tribesmen have died.’ 

‘How come, Saba?’

‘Old age, perhaps. Maybe COVID 19.’

‘Saba, I saw on the National Geographic Channel there’s an etiquette among cannibals. At times of famine – that means there’s no humans to eat – the elders offer themselves to be eaten by the youngers. Until there are only two left.’

‘Well, Toby, Mister Jones wrote he thinks he’ll die soon.’

Toby grabs the letter and peers at it hard. He shakes his head. ‘I can’t read this spidery writing, Saba. Mister Jones can’t die! We have to contact him.’

‘Toby, darling. Everyone dies. Old people understand they can die at any time. Old people reach an age when they know they have lived their life and their time is near to leave it. Often the person who dies is not sad; as death comes closer it’s the people who love the old person who feel frightened. And afterwards they feel sadness and emptiness.’

‘But Saba, not Mister Jones. Not yet. What about grace?’

The boy throws his arms around me and holds me hard. Who is he comforting – me, or himself?

‘Toby, you’ve put your finger on my question. Grace is my problem, not Mr Jones’. He’s at peace. I’m the one with unfinished business. Somehow Noel Henry Jones, that kind and gentle man, seems to remember me kindly. He says he had a daughter, Amelia Bodelia; he never had a boy, but I was like a son! He doesn’t even mention my pen pinching. I don’t know whether he ever forgave that. And now I’m afraid I’ll never know.’

Time passes. COVID crowds our days, curfew squeezes our nights, danger lurks, darkness reigns. In my dreams I walk from Number 10 Wade Avenue in Leeton, past the Fire Brigade, past the Library, past Major Dooley Park. My legs take me around a corner and there, before me is Leeton Public Primary School. Night after night the streets of Leeton open before me, I walk towards the school but before I arrive, I awaken. The school is there, waiting. Time after time Mr Jones’ classroom stands open before me, but I never enter.

Weeks later, the sun appears. One morning Toby and I return in sunlight from an early morning run. I open my emails, hoping for news. Nothing. Just a message from Australia Post to expect some delivery. Probably the masks that I ordered.

A knock at the door. Toby answers and brings in a very small package, too small for the masks we’re waiting for. I’m curious. Toby says he wants to open the package. I let him. This is what we see:

I take the pen in my hand. Through tears I read the words engraved there: Noel Henry Jones.

Curfew Tales: The Story of Mister Jones Chapter 111

“Toby, as you can imagine, I was flabbergasted. Mr Jones, my gentle teacher, now extremely aged, is on the run from the world’s mighty police forces, somewhere in the mountains and jungles of Papua New Guinea. What’s more, he’s a vegan among cannibals. What’s to stop a hungry cannibal from cooking up a Jones Stew, and eating him? I wasn’t only flabbergasted, I was thunderstruck. And a strange thought occurred to me: my teacher had become an outlaw. Obviously as a vegan he’d never eaten anybody, but here he was, on the run from the Law! I recalled how he never punished me when I was an outlaw in his class; I had been a graffiti artist, a thief, a pornographer. Perhaps Mister Jones always had a soft spot for law breakers!

“Toby, I’m worried about Noel Henry Jones. He must be getting very thin and very hungry. He’s really old. I’m scared he might die. Even though I left his class in 1955, I’m feeling guilty still. In fact, the longer the delay the guiltier I feel. And we don’t know how to contact him. Even his daughter can’t contact him. But somehow Amelia Bodelia Wyckehurst, nee Jones, doesn’t seem worried. I wonder why.  I think I’ll write to her again.

Dear Amelia Bodelia,
I’m sorry to trouble you when you might be feeling troubled enough already. But I have the feeling you are confident your Dad’s OK. I’m not his daughter or anything, but I’m worried sick. Would you mind sharing your secret with me? Thank you,
Howard Jonathan Goldenberg

former Fourth Class boy

Leeton Public School

Dear Former Boy, Howard,
Thank you for asking. Yes, it is a worrying situation: my father might be unwell or hungry or injured. He’s almost certainly frightened of being captured. But you are quite right, I am confident he hasn’t died. He promised me he wouldn’t die without telling me. And Father never breaks a promise. If he lets me know, I’ll let you know.
Good wishes
A M W, nee J

“What do you think, Toby? Do you feel we can rely on Mister Jones keeping such a strange promise? I mean who can tell anyone they’ve died? It seems like a joke but Amelia Bodelia seemed to be quite serious.” “Saba, maybe the daughter is not mentally well. Or maybe Mister Noel Henry Jones is not mentally well. I happen to know of the dangers to the brain of a vegan diet. Would you like me to explain how the brain can be injured by not eating animal products?”
“Yes, Toby, I would.”
“Saba, meat contains Vitamin B12. If your body never gets meat or any animal product, there can be a deficiency of that vitamin and the brain and the nervous system can decay. Unless you receive Vitamin B1 by injections or in some other way you can actually develop a paranoid illness. You might believe you can tell your daughter you are dead. It’s called psychosis.”
“Golly, Toby, that sounds dangerous. I’ll write straightaway to Amelia.

A B W nee Jones
Dear daughter of Prince Noel of Papua,

Not wanting to be rude or anything, but how can your Dad and you be so confident he’ll contact you before he dies? I mean what if he gets shot or something? How would he let you know?
I’m really worried.
Howard Goldenberg P.S. if your Dad is a prince, does that make you a princess?

Dr H J Goldenberg,
Nope, I’m not a princess. And Dad is not mad due to B12 deficiency, if that’s what you’re getting at. No, my father made a solemn vow a long, long time ago, when he was initiated into the Wiradjuri tribe before he married my mother. Lying beneath a gum tree, on the bank of the Murrumbidgee River, father gritted his teeth while he said goodbye to his foreskin. He had no anaesthetics or pain killers. He lay there and he didn’t call out, he didn’t moan, he didn’t even whimper. He promised he’d always keep his word. He vowed he would never tell a lie. He promised he’d never break a promise. He took an oath he’d fulfill all his oaths.

I never knew about this, until father’s 99th birthday. He said, ‘Amelia Bodelia, my dear, I’m going away. I’m going to Papua New Guinea. I’ve got a job in the jungle. ”I asked my father about the job. He said a remote tribe had advertised for a prince. They said in the ad the previous prince was ‘not to their taste.’ So Father applied and was appointed. I asked him what he knew about the tribe.
He said they were headhunters, the last active headhunters on earth. I said, “Dad, it’s unsafe. They eat people. They’ll eat you.” He said he’d ask them not to. He kissed me goodbye and went to walk out the door. I started to cry. I said, “I’ll never see you again.” He turned back and he said, “Yes you will, Amelia Bodelia my darling. I promise you. “And he looked at me seriously, and he bulged his eyes as he said, “I promise.” And I started to feel a bit better. He wiped my eyes and he said quietly, “Here and now, I swear an oath. This is my oath to you Amelia: I, Noel Henry Jones, swear to you that at the moment my life is about to end, I will appear at your side; and with my very last breath, I will say to you, ”’Amelia Bodelia, I love you. I die. Goodbye.” ‘My father picked up the string bag that held his worldly goods – his toothbrush, his pare pair of undies, a leather-bound copy of The Constitution of the Leeton Lawn Bowls Club, and some cinnamon-flavoured chewing gum – and he walked through the door. I’ve never seen him since. But I know I will see him again. He promised.

Yours sincerely
Amelia Once-was-Jones not a princess, but the daughter of a noble soul.

‘Toby, what do you think about Amelia’s reply? Do you think her Dad is mad? Do you think Amelia is mad to believe his promise to her? Do you believe the promise of Noel Henry Jones?

‘Saba, I believe in truthfulness. I believe Mr Jones. I believe your old teacher is still alive.’

Oh, Toby, I hope you’re not mistaken. I want to contact him and make things right.
‘I posted one last post on my blog: Desperately seeking contact with Noel Henry Jones, Papuan prince, outlaw, cannibal and vegan. Please respond to this blog.

Toby, I posted that 49 days ago. I’ve posted that every week since. Seven posts – and nothing.
And then I read in the Leeton newspaper, The Murrumbidgee Irritator, the following announcement:

LEETON LAWN BOWLS CLUB

It is with deep regret we announce the passing of Amelia Bodelia Wyckehust, nee Jones, daughter of our former president and present Patron and Life Governor, Noel Henry Jones. Amelia died on her father’s one-hundredth birthday, her heart full of love for her father, who is engaged in royal duties abroad. Her love was too great for her heart to hold and it burst into two.

Toby, my own heart felt it would burst too.’

Curfew Tales: The Story of Mister Jones Chapter II

Toby and I run again. Toby asks, ‘Any luck finding your old teacher, Saba? ”Well, Toby, yes and no.’ “Don’t be exasperating, Saba, yes or no?’ “Both, darling. And yes, it could be exasperating, but actually I’m feeling excited. Let me explain: I posted the story of Mister Jones on my blog and I added this request at the end: Anyone with any knowledge is asked to please respond in this blog, or by email to doffanpaz@gmail.com Well, my blog came up with nothing. But I received the following email: dEAR dR hOWARD jONATHAN gOLDENBERG,
i HAVE INFORMATION
SIGNED
aMELIA bODELIA wYCKEHURST (nEE jONES)
When I read this, Toby, I really felt excited. When I read the names Amelia Bodelia, I thought, YES! But then I read her family name, Wyckehurst. I never knew any Wyckehursts. This lady must be a fraud or an unrelated person simply making an innocent mistake. But then I read, ”nEE jONES “. Nee, after a name means, ‘I wasn’t born with my present name. ‘In this case it would mean, ‘I wasn’t born Wyckehurst; I married a person named Wyckehurst and I took that person’s family name. The name I was born with was Jones. ‘So here was a person who must be the daughter of my Mister Jones, who was born on the day I became a Parker pen pincher. She must be 65 years old, Toby.

I wrote an email to Amelia Bodelia Nee. I wrote, Dear Ms Nee, Are you the daughter of Noel Henry Jones?Were you born in Leeton in March 1955?
She wrote back: Yes. No.

More exasperance, Toby. I wrote, Well, if Noel Henry Jones was your father, where and when were you born? If you don’t mind me asking. (I put in that last bit, Toby, because some people do mind, especially ladies.)

Dear former student of my Dad, Born March 1955. In Yanco, 5 miles from Leeton, under a gum tree, on the banks of the Murrumbidgee. Same tree where my Mum was born. Traditional birthing place for us Wiradjuri women. (The Murrumbidgee is a great river, Toby. The Wiradjuri are the traditional owners of all the Leeton district and the country far beyond.)

So, Toby, that explains why the Leeton Hospital had no record of the birth of Amelia Bodelia, born Jones, before she became a Wyckehurst.

I wrote, Dear Amelia Bodelia Nee, Please tell me, is your honoured father still with us?
She replied, Sadly, no.

Toby, I felt a thump in my chest, as if something heavy had landed inside my body. I wrote again, with my eyes stinging:

Dear Ms Nee, I am so sorry. You must be heartbroken. When did your father pass away?

Amelia Bodelia wrote back: Dad’s not dead.

Confused, I wrote: But, Ms A B Nee, you said he was no longer with us. I am happy he is alive. But I don’t understand.

Amelia Bodelia wrote: Dad is completely alive, he’s just not with us. He’s in Papua New Guinea. He’s a prince in Papua. He’s the prince of a Papuan tribe.

Toby, I was pretty happy to read this. Now I could get in touch with my old teacher and start to be gracious. I wrote: Dear Amelia Bodelia Wyckehurst, Nee Jones, Would you kindly send me your father’s address?I am seventy-four years old and, with the time still left to me, I wish to seek grace.

I sat by my computer and waited and watched the screen in nervous excitement. Before too long this letter arrived: Dear Howard Jonathan Goldenberg, I’d like to but I can’t. Father’s tribe is the last tribe of true cannibals on earth. Every police force on earth, as well as the Papua New Guinea Army, is hunting them. The New Guinea Air Force hunts them from the air. No-one knows where they are. The Papuan police, the Australian Federal Police, Interpol, the CIA, Mossad, the KGB – no one can find the cannibals. They are off the grid. They don’t use computers, they don’t have Internet. No-one can trace them. I can’t trace them either. Sorry. A B W (Nee J)
ps, who is grace?

Toby, i couldn’t give up. I decided to write one more time:
Dear Daughter Jones, How could your gentle father possibly be a cannibal?
He was so kind. Yours, deeply confused and quite distressed, HJG
My screen lit up immediately: Dear HJGI never said father was a cannibal. He is a vegan. ABW Nee J

I wrote: Dear Vegan’s Child, Golly. How extremely confusing: how can an Australian man be the Prince of a cannibal Papuan tribe and still be a vegan? Not doubting you or anything. Howard.

The vegan’s child replied: Dad IS a vegan cannibal: he eats only vegetarians. And there are no vegetarians in Papua New Guinea. Amelia Bodelia Wyckehurst, Nee Jones.

Bedtime Stories for the Nights of Curfew

THE STORY OF MISTER JONES

Chapter I
It’s 6.00 am. Curfew’s over for the night, we’re allowed out for a run. My grandson and I run through the darkness. The boy asks, ‘Saba, will you tell me a story? ‘I will. I search for a story I haven’t already shared, something new.
“Toby, in Fourth Class at Leeton Public School, my teacher was Mister Jones. I guess he might have been in his mid- or late thirties, but to us, Mister Jones looked old. If he were alive today he might be in his late nineties. He might even be a hundred. I’ve been thinking about him recently, wondering if he’s alive, daydreaming of getting in touch. We haven’t seen each other since June,1955, which was the time I left Leeton. I left Leeton but Leeton never left me;it stays inside me in memories and stories. Recently Mister Jones has come back to me in a series of memories.
“Toby, Mister Jones was kind and gentle. He was good to your Saba, but your Saba was not good to him. Now I daydream of tracing Mister Jones and contacting him. I’d like to tell him I remember him and his goodness, and confess my naughtiness. So here is a story. It starts out as a true story and then it escapes into the wild.”

***
The story of Mister Jones starts one year before he and I met. That year I am in Third Class, where my teacher is Mrs Savage. Mrs Savage is fierce. She shouts, and when she shouts she froths, and we are all frightened of her. I say to myself, Savage by name and savage by nature. She shouts and I sit still and behave, and I try not to breathe. At playtime we all go outside, where I breathe and I court the teacher’s daughter, Lynette Savage. Lynette is pretty; she doesn’t froth or shout. For one whole year I sit still in class and I behave perfectly.

Then we escape into Fourth Class. The new teacher is tall. In the eye in my mind Mr Jones has black hair which is starting to thin. He has a smile and a voicethat doesn’t shout. He is easygoing. Howard Jonathan Goldenberg has behaved too well for too long. It’s against his nature to be so good. Howard starts to misbehave and Mister Jones does not punish him. One morning Howard arrives quite early. He goes to the classroom where he picks up some chalk, walks to the blackboard and draws a large picture of a man. Between the man’s legs he draws a very long penis. He writes beneath the life-sized figure, Noel Henry Jones has a great big carrot hanging between his legs. The door to the classroom is open and so long as it stays open, the art work is covered up. The artist sits down and waits. He hears the whistle blow in the playground. The class straggles in, followed by Mister Jones. Mister Jones closes the door and, facing the class, he says, ‘Good morning, Fourth Class.’ Fourth Class gazes at the picture on the board and starts to giggle. Mister Jones tries to bring the class to attention, but the laughing grows louder as Fourth Class reads the words about the Jones carrot. At first Mister Jones is puzzled. Then he turns around and notices the blackboard.Mister Jones stands perfectly still, bent forward a little as he reads. As the teacher reads one guilty boy shakes a little in his seat. The teacher reaches for the blackboard duster and he rubs out the picture and the words. Mister Jones turns to face Fourth Class. ‘Class’, he says, ‘Today we’ll start to learn long multiplication.’

One day Mister Jones doesn’t come to school. For an hour or so we have no teacher. This seems like a good time to explore Mr Jones’ desk. I open his drawer and see a number of pens and I take one. It’s pretty special, a Parker pen. Late in the morning a substitute teacher arrives. He says, ‘Mister Jones won’t be in today. His wife has just had a baby, a girl.’ During the day I try out my new pen. The next day Mr Jones returns. He tells us his new baby is called Amelia. I like the music in the name. I decide her full name is Amelia Bodelia Jones. Mister Jones wanders around the classroom. He stops at my desk and he says, ‘Nice pen you have there, Howard’.’Yes, Mister Jones’.’Where did you get it?”My father gave it to me, Mister Jones.”Did he, Howard? That’s nice. Do you mind if I look at your pen, Howard?’I don’t want Mister Jones to look at the pen. He lifts it up, studies it for a moment: ‘It’s a Parker pen, Howard. Pretty special. Oh look, someone’s engraved names onto it.’ Mister Jones shows me the engraved names: Noel Henry Jones. He asks me, ‘Did your father have those names engraved on the pen for you, Howard?’ I have no answer. Noel Henry Jones walks away, with the pretty special Parker pen in his hand. He does not punish the Parker pen pincher. He does not tell my father.

One day Mister Jones teaches us about the ancient Israelites who live in the land of Canaan. He pronounces the name Cay’nan. I know that’s incorrect. It should be pronounced Cah-nah-ahn. I know that because it’s a Hebrew word. I read it aloud in Hebrew every morning when I recite my prayers, and that’s how it’s pronounced in Hebrew. I share my wisdom with my teacher. ‘That’s not how you say it, Mister Jones: it’s Cah-nah-ahn.”No, Howard, it’s Cay’nan. I correct Mister Jones once more.

‘If you say so, Howard.’ That evening I report Mister Jones’ mistake to my mother. Mum looks up Canaan in her Oxford Dictionary. ‘No darling, Mister Jones is quite correct. In English it’s pronounced Cay’nan. You should be gracious and apologise for correcting him.”What does gracious mean, Mum?’Mum explains. Next morning I recite my prayers and I pronounce the name Cah-nah-ahn. And when I go to Mister Jones’ class I am not gracious.

“So, Toby, now, all these years later, I’d like to be gracious. More than that, I’d like Noel Henry Jones to know I remember him. I’d like him to know I remember his kindness and his gentleness.””Saba , have you contacted him? ‘I’ve tried, Toby. I rang the Leeton Public School and asked for the Headmistress. I told her the story and requested the contact information of my old teacher. But the school held no records. I rang the Leeton District Hospital and spoke to the Medical Records Librarian. I told her the story. She said, ‘Mister Jones? He taught me in Fourth Class, back in 1980. He retired the next year.’ I told her how a baby girl was born in 1955 to a Missus and Mister Jones. ‘They called her Amelia Bodelia Jones’, I said.The librarian checked her records. ‘No luck’, she said.

“Finally, Toby, I’ve decided to ask the Internet.”’You can’t ask the Internet a question, Saba. You have to use a search engine.””What’s that, Toby?””Google is a search engine. Firefox is one. Safari is another.””I don’t think my computer has a Google, darling.””I’ll show you Saba.”Toby showed me. I googled ”Noel Henry Jones” and I found a jam manufacturer. I googled ”N.H. Jones, school teacher”, and I found a Latin teacher in Portland, Oregon. He was born in 1991. I remembered Mr Jones played the drums in the Leeton Drum, Pipe and Fife Band. I googled, ”Noel Henry Jones, drummer”. Google showed me the picture of a Rastafarian in Jamaica, who played the drums. He looked about thirty. He had too much hair and too few years to be my old teacher.

“Toby, I am an old man, seeking grace. As a last resort I’m asking my friends on my blog. Perhaps a reader might happen to know the whereabouts of my old teacher. Perhaps someone can tell me whether he is conscious and taking nutrition.  

Anyone with any knowledge is asked to please respond in this blog, or by email to doffanpaz@gmail.com

How High is Mount Sinai?

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.

Helen from Danzig

Helen is ninety-three now. When she left Danzig in 1938, she was twelve. Every one of Helen’s grandchildren has quizzed her about Danzig for their roots projects and none of them has got much out of her. No happy memories, not a single friendship, nothing pleasant, Helen speaks of the place bleakly. Now adults, some of the grandchildren urge their grandmother to travel with them to visit her childhood places in Danzig. Helen rejects the idea categorically. No, she says dully, there’ll be nothing there. Nothing to see. No point.

Helen didn’t reach her present great age in such radiant good health by negativity. She’s creative and lively, she’s joyful company, fully engaged in her life and in the lives of all her generations here. It’s as if life began for Helen only on leaving Danzig. Australia embraced Helen and she embraced Australia. Helen’s Danzig was, it seems, a place of no life.

Sometimes Helen went to school in Danzig. Sometimes she didn’t go. She’d stay home where she wouldn’t be teased and frightened and humiliated. She’d stay home to feel safe. We asked her once, Didn’t you have any gentile friends?

I thought I did, she said. There was one girl. She was kind to us.

You need to understand. Mum helped Dad in the shop, every day. They needed someone to look after us girls, me and Mary. They found a family in the country who wanted their girl to move to the city, where she’d have greater opportunities. So she came. She learned to cook the kosher way. Mum taught her to sew and embroider. She became a daughter alongside us.

She worked in our house, helping Mum. Sometimes she took us to her own house in the village. We ate fresh bread there, with lard. We never had bread like that at home. When she married, we had the ceremony in our house. Mary and I were her flower girls. Then her husband joined the Nazi Party. Our friend left us. You couldn’t work for Jews…

I never learned anything in Danzig. School there was terrible. It wasn’t a place to learn.

***

Last night Helen put down the book she’d been reading, Her face was ashen. I looked and I saw ninety-three years of pain. She spoke: That’s a terrible story.

I asked what it was she’d been reading. She showed me the book:

‘Idiots First’, short stories by Bernard Malamud. The book belongs to me. I know some of the stories. I asked Helen, What story were you reading?

‘The German Refugee’. That’s a terrible story.

She spoke slowly: the word ‘terrible’ never had so many syllables before.

I waited but Helen added nothing. Her beautiful face slumped, her features collapsed. I searched her face for tears. Nothing. She looked down at nothing.

I held her for a while. The old lady grasped my arm, hard, as one might who is holding on. I asked her, What’s the story about?

It’s the story of a man from Danzig. He escapes, but he takes his life. Helen shook her head slowly. After what he loses in Danzig, he can’t live.

After a time she spoke again. I had an uncle in Danzig. He was very prosperous. We called him Uncle David. He had a mistress in Danzig. She wasn’t Jewish. When the Nazis came, she told Uncle she was breaking it off. It wasn’t safe. She ended it.

Uncle David hanged himself.

Helen stopped speaking. She looked at me, a child of twelve, wonderstruck by the evil of the world, remembering her uncle, remembering all the lost uncles. Out of her depth once more,

in her sea of sorrow.

Dead Girl Comes Home


The Director of Nursing smiles and shakes my hand in welcome. She’s younger than I, taller and wider. I’m drawn to her bucktoothed grin and her informal look. ‘You’ve arrived at a sensitive time’, she says. ‘The body of a young woman who died a few months ago returned on the same plane as yours. She was very young, eighteen years, and she died here, suddenly, of unsuspected heart disease. It was a coroner’s case of course. Now she’s back, the community will all view the body this afternoon. Some here – only a few – blame the hospital. Best keep well clear of the mortuary today.’ The boss sweeps her hand, indicating the morgue. It stands directly on the path between my quarters and the hospital. On arrival I noted with distaste the sturdy steel mesh that encloses the doctors’ house. Protection of that order speaks of past violence.

 

 

 

***

 

 

I start work in Emergency. ‘Hello, my name’s Howard. What’s yours?’

The woman looks up from her phone. She gives me that information without warmth.

‘How can I help you?’

‘He’s sick.’ The woman indicates the chubby baby stretched out on her shoulder, asleep.

I ask for details.

‘He’s been sick for a week, coughing.’

I touch the child. His face burns.

I lift the shirt: the round tummy rises and falls fast, with rib muscles sucked in with every inbreath.

 

 

Nurses attach a metallic clasp to a little finger. Numbers appear on a screen: his oxygen saturation is normal at 98 percent, but he’s working hard to maintain it.

‘Has he been drinking normally today?’

‘What?’ – head bent over the phone.

‘Has he taken fluids normally?’

‘Not much.’

‘Can you give me an idea how much?’

‘He doesn’t want to drink.’ – defiantly.

‘Has he had any medicine for the fever?’

A shrug: ‘We ran out.’

‘Has he wet nappies normally today?

I suppose so – somewhat grumpily, as if questions were accusations.

I ask a nurse to give the baby some Panadol.

I pull out my stethoscope and retreat to the baby’s chest. I can’t hear much, none of the squeaking or rattling that might give answers.

 

 

I draw a breath.

More figures appear on the screen.  The baby – I learn from his chart his name’s Oscar and he’s fifteen months old – breathes too fast and his heart is beating too fast. I don’t know how long he’s battled like this or how long he can keep it up. And I don’t know what’s wrong. I don’t have enough information. Oscar and I have been together for fifteen minutes and I’ve haven’t heard a cough. A cough itself would be information. Mother is a woman in her thirties. Her manner is combative, she doesn’t waste her smiles, she’s thrifty with eye contact.

 

 

‘Has Oscar ever had breathing problems before?’

‘What?’

‘Has he ever been treated for bronchiolitis? Or croup?’

‘He always gets bronchiolitis. He was flown out just a month ago. Still not better.’

‘Flown out’ would have been to the regional hospital, six hours drive and eight thousand dollars’ flight away. If this is bronchiolitis again, why can’t I hear the fine rustling crepitations in his chest? I decide to treat Oscar with a steroid, which can be helpful in his age group. But the steroid won’t work quickly and Oscar needs help now. We set up an asthma pump to deliver a mist of molecules that might open up narrowed breathing tubes.

 

 

We apply a mask to Oscar’s face.

‘No!’ – says Mum, pulling it away – ‘He doesn’t like it.’

Instead Oscar’s mother holds the mask at a close remove. The mist drifts to his face and he breathes surrounded by a white cloud of medicated mist that drifts uselessly away.

 

 

 

At this distance any benefit he’ll receive will vary inversely as the square of the distance between mask and face. In other words, the treatment is sabotaged and I’m worried. I know this, but to share this knowledge will require a collision of wills, a struggle for authority. Wondering what experience with doctors or hospitals has created Oscar’s mother’s mistrust, I apply the stethoscope again. This time I’m able to hear sounds, moist sounds at the base of Oscar’s left lung. We have an answer: Oscar has pneumonia, dangerous enough in any person, especially so in an Aboriginal child. I order a powerful antibiotic.

 

 

An hour passes, two, and Oscar’s breathing remains fast. But his temperature has fallen and his racing heart has slowed. We give him some formula and he drinks it greedily.

I ask Mum would she like a cup of tea.

‘What?’ She looks up from the phone. She’s been playing Patience.

She takes the drink from my hand without words. Oscar remains in his perch, sitting up now and looking around. His hair is dark and wavy, quite beautiful. He has the face of a cherub. But still his chest heaves as he breathes.

 

 

The hour is late in the Emergency Department. Baby Oscar sleeps on his mother.

‘I think we should keep you both in hospital until Oscar’s better.’

‘You said he was better an hour ago.’

‘Yes, he is better than he was, but he’s still not breathing easily.’

‘Why didn’t you say so an hour ago?’

A sigh escapes my pursed lips.

Mother accepts our hospitality.

 

 

Next morning I’m in the ward checking on Oscar at 6.00. He sleeps and he breathes, lying in the arc of his mother who enfolds him in her sleep. It’s a comforting sight.

 

 

I return at 10.00. Both mother and infant sleep on.

 

 

At noon mother is up and restless: ‘We’re going home now.’

Oscar sits astride their bed, his face buried in a Vegemite sandwich, an upturned bottle, drained of formula, rests on the bed beside him. Before him on a dish lie the remains of mince and mashed potato. I gather from the cutlery these were his mother’s lunch.

 

Eating well and drinking well are unspoken testimony. You can’t suck and swallow, chew and swallow, if you’re a baby and you’re too short of breath. Oscar’s temperature and oxygen levels and heart rate have remained normal and stable. But he still breathes fast and still I hear the rustling sound of air moving through infected mucus.

 

 

‘We need to wait for an x-ray’, I say.

‘When will that be?’

‘At 3.00’.

‘Why not now?’ – belligerently.

‘The x-ray person won’t be here until then’ – placatingly.

 

 

 

At 3.00 the chest x-ray shows opacity where mucus is filling a corner of the lungfield. I show the film to Oscar’s mother: ‘Germs have got into Oscar’s chest there. We’re giving him antibiotics by mouth to kill those germs. He’ll need that medicine twice a day for five days, maybe longer. His next dose is due at 7.00 this evening’.

‘We’re going home.’

‘We can’t make you stay here, but if you go, please be sure to give Oscar his medicine at seven tonight and seven in the morning. It’s very important.’

 

 

It occurs to me I haven’t seen Oscar’s mother give him Panadol or his antibiotic. She hasn’t given him bottles or changed a nappy. She stands back and nurses act. This is a mother who has waged war on the nurses who care for Oscar, and against the doctor. Clearly militant towards us, she keeps herself distant from him. Do we make her feel self-conscious? Does she lack confidence? A clever nurse asks, ‘Would you like us to give the medicine this evening?’

Mother nods. She’ll leave the medicine with us for safekeeping.

 

 

 

Seven o’clock comes, but no mother, no Oscar.

At 7.00 next morning, no show. We don’t know Oscar’s whereabouts. His medicine remains uselessly here with us.
We phone mother’s mobile, but there’s no answer.

No answer that evening, none the next morning.

 

 

A nurse asks me, ‘Do you think Oscar is at risk?’

‘I do.’

As I speak these words I know what they mean. From the time of Oscar’s first, belated arrival three evenings ago I’ve felt a heaviness, a sinking. In advance of any decision I might make, I’ve felt a self-accusation. It falls to me to make Oscar safe, and the legal means is to refer the family to Child Protection. Child Protection is, of course, a heavy instrument and a blunt one. Child protection is the present incarnation of State, the lineal descendant of governments that stole children ‘for their own good.’ That same state massacred people in this district during the 19th and 20th centuries. There’s a weight of history here. Additionally, I realise I don’t like Oscar’s mother. I know those are the reasons I’ve delayed taking action.

 

 

I tuck a note beneath the door of my bucktoothed boss: I’m worried about Oscar. I don’t think he’s safe. Can we talk about local resources to help his family? Some informal arrangement?

 

 

I return home and prepare for the day, the second-last of this week-long locum placement. Around mid-morning I come across Oscar and his mother in the waiting area. The Police have located her and asked her to come in. I see Mother before she sees me. She’s talking on her phone, while Oscar toddles at free range. I note he’s managing to walk without gasping.

 

 

 

I stand before Oscar’s mother, waiting for her conversation to finish. She looks up and continues talking. I stand quietly for some minutes while the conversation continues. From time to time Mother’s eyes registers me in her face. She speaks to her interlocutor: ‘OK, see you later.’

My turn to speak: ‘Hello, it’s good to see you both.’

A stare, no response.

‘How’s Oscar today?’

‘Alright. He’s still coughing.’

I examine Oscar. He is indeed alright. He’s not hot, his breathing is comfortable and the moist sounds of his pneumonia are quieter.

‘Oscar’s much better, isn’t he?’

‘That’s what I said.’

‘Have you given him his antibiotic medicine this morning?’

‘No. How could I? You had it here.’

‘That’s a worry. We’ve been worried about Oscar. He’s missed all his treatments. That’s not safe.’

‘He’s better. You said so yourself.’

‘Yes, he is better. That’s good… You know we couldn’t find you. We had to send the Police.’

‘No you never. He’s been safe with me.’

‘I’m really happy to see how much better he is. But you promised to bring him back two nights ago and you didn’t.’

‘Not my fault… Family things.’

While a nurse gives Oscar his antibiotic, mother returns to her phone.

 

 

 

The Director of Nursing describes an informal service in the community which provides support to families. A nurse shows parents how to give medicines and how to use a thermometer. The nurse visits in the days after discharge from hospital, and contacts the family every week to chat and quietly keep an eye on a child’s wellbeing.

 

 

 

I like the sound of support and tactful surveillance. I look past the Boss and out her window, out towards the mortuary. The girl who arrived back here when I did, one week ago, died of unsuspected heart disease. Her sorry business continues. The hospital didn’t know how ill she was, the community nurse didn’t know, social supports never knew. My mind comes back to Oscar. He’s making a remarkable recovery on the strength of a single dose of antibiotic, but he’s not yet cured. He’ll need a further X-ray, he’ll need to see specialists at the regional hospital, he’ll need lung scans and breathing tests. He’s likely to need close medical surveillance through his childhood, possibly life-long.

 

 

I make my decision. I return to my office and call Child Protection. We speak for a long time. I complete the forms and return to Oscar and his mother.  She’s engaged with the phone. I reckon she’s spent most of our numerous hours together face-down and screen-bent. The face rises to me, tightly closed. I speak: ‘I’ve been thinking about Oscar and how to make sure he gets better and he stays better. I think it’s too hard for you and us together to keep him safe. We need help so I’ve notified Child Protection.’

Mother sits up straight: ‘What?’

‘I told them he has breathing problems and it’s too hard for his family to keep him safe without help.’

Mother looks shocked. She summons strength, looks defiant: I’ll talk to Child protection. Don’t you worry. I’ll tell them.’

Her long hard stare seems intended to threaten.



It’s time for me to leave the hospital. I’ll only just manage to catch the plane out. Before we part, I need to join with Oscar’s mother. I tell her my simple truth: ‘You and I want the same thing for Oscar: we both want him to be healthy.’ My simple truth leaves no impression on the wrathful mother. I leave and I fly away, and I cannot know whether I have done Oscar good or ill. 

Solving an Ancient Problem

The grandson arrives and heads straight to the kitchen. He takes a pear and bites great chunks from it. Then he puts it down. It is not like him to stop in mid-pear.

Minutes later he slumps onto the couch, where he lies, squirming from time to time. He rises, approaches and says:Saba, my stomach feels awful.

Is it sore, darling?

No, just awful*. It feels like a washing machine.

He clutches his belly and groans: It feels like when you’ve been sent to the Headmaster’s office and you’re waiting there, expecting something bad… My stomach is in turmoil.

 

Nice word selection, thinks I, pretty good for a 14-year old.

 

He leaps to his feet and runs to the toilet.

 

Not long after, he returns. I did a monster poo* – all water. What’s wrong with me, Saba?

I examine his abdomen. I say he probably has a stomach bug.

 

He races away again, returns and repeats his earlier announcement. Shortly after he runs, returns and describes his work.

Do you feel better, after you’ve been to the toilet, darling?

 

There is no answer. I look over to the couch, where he sits, slouching, head bent towards his lap.

I turn to attend to kitchen tasks, when a strangled sound disturbs me. The boy’s voice crosses the room, indistinct: Saba

I turn, seeing nothing new.

More gargling, then: Saba, I vomited.

Between the boy’s feet, atop the Persian rug, a heap of hot vegetal matter lies steaming.

I’m sorry Saba. I’m… 

More gargling, and the heap is larger.

 

 

The boy looks stricken. I give him a bowl to catch any third helping, clean him and take him to bed. I lay a towel at his lap and the bowl before him. His face creases as he searches for words as strong as his feeling: Thank you Saba. I love you Saba. 

 

The Persian rug lies there and stares at me. What do you do when your Isfahan rug has suffered such a colourful assault?

 

 I lug it to the bathroom and give it a shower. The rug lies drenched on the floor and stares at me. What do you do when your rug has been for a swim?

 

I lug it to the wall-mounted heated towel rail and manage to fold and hang it in place. 

 

I look into the shower recess. A vegan’s banquet stares back at me. I wonder what my wife will say when she enters to take her shower in the morning.

 

 

How do you remove freshly laundered gastric contents from a shower recess? I squat and stare. Everything seems so rich in texture. My fingers recoil. Kleenex tissues are not squeamish. They do not suffer aesthetic stress. I mop and aggregate. Then I stop. What is that black lump? Has the boy eaten eggplant? Black olive?

 

I look closer. The black bit assumes a familiar shape. It looks like a cockroach.

 

I call the boy’s name: Come! Come quickly. Bring your phone.

Why Saba? I’m in bed. I feel terrible.

Please come. Bring your phone.

 

He comes. He sees and he turns away. I don’t want to see that, Saba.

I take his phone and photograph the black matter. 

The boy says, That’s gross Saba. You don’t photograph vomit.

I say, Look at the black thing.

The boy looks and turns quickly away.

I say, It’s a cockroach.

This is not a time for joking, Saba.

I show him the photo.

His face falls open: No! That didn’t come out of me, Saba!

I say, That vomit isn’t mine.

The boy gulps. He looks horrified. He says, is that the bug I had inside my stomach? I had a cockerroach** inside me?

 

I say to him, Darling, next time you eat an insect, make sure it’s cooked properly.

I wouldn’t eat a cockerroach, Saba. They disgust me.

Well you did eat it darling. After all, you do eat boogers. It might have been an accident…

 

A thought occurs to me: Have you eaten any food your eldest brother prepared for you in the last twenty-four hours?

What are you talking about, Saba?

Darling, twice in the last month you’ve drunk a cup of tea he brought you. Twice he piddled into it and twice you drank it.

 

 

A worried look settles on the boy’s face. He thinks for a few moments: No, Saba, I definitely didn’t eat anything he gave me. He slept out last night and I haven’t seen him today.

 

 

And there the matter lies. The child has no knowledge of ingesting an arthropod. But he has, by accident, solved a question as old as human-cockroach cohabitation. The small black beasts have lived among us since we arrived on the planet. And we know they’d survive a nuclear war that would wipe out us human hosts. The question, how do you kill a cockroach, has been answered at last by my grandson.


______________________________________________________________________
* This is not a verbatim quote: the boy used a vulgar expression.

** The boy is an Hispanophone. Here his father’s Spanish, (cucaracha) collides with his mother’s English. Disgusting in any language. 
______________________________________________________________________

 

 

 

Dennis, Twelve Years On


 

I remember you today, Den, with the candle burning and with the prayers of mourning.

I remember you in our boyhood home in Leeton, where a life of risk called you always, and you’d drag me and I’d follow, with terror and tremor and delight. I remember you taking me into Dad’s Surgery, that forbidden room, where the ever-present smell of anaesthetic ether warned a boy of the consequences that would follow. You found Dad’s blood pressure machine and you showed me how you could squeeze the rubber bulb and inflate the bladder. You kept showing me, squeezing, pumping, and the mercury climbed above 200, 250, 290, until the bladder burst, and liquid mercury ran everywhere.

 

 

When you were eight you decided we should pay a visit on Miss Paull, my teacher, Leeton’s aristocrat, in her residence at the Hydro Hotel. I followed you up the long hill. I followed you up the sweeping drive. Bold as brass, you announced to the man in the black suit, who opened the door, ‘We have come to visit Mis Paull’, and the man showed us in, and Miss Paull emerged, all white and willowy and English, and she said, ‘Good morning Dennis, good morning Howard, how utterly delightful that you should come. Please join me for morning tea.’ And the man in the black suit sat us down and spread white linen squares over our laps, and I was in heaven, nearly wetting myself in excitement. On the way out you heeded the call of your own bladder and you peed on the Hydro’s flowerbeds.

 

I sit and I remember you, my big brother, how you protected me when we were small. I remember, when I was fourteen, Dad summoning me to the forbidden room and sitting me down for a serious talk. The tremors again, but this time I wasn’t in trouble. Dad said, Dennis doesn’t have as easy a path in life as yours. 

I didn’t want to hear this because I knew it to be true.

Dad continued: I want you to help him. My heart sank.

 

I did try, Den, but I lacked your boldness. When I saw other children bullying you I died twice. Others, children and adults and old people, loved you and cherished you, for the beauty of your soul, for your generosity.

 

You loved music with the abundance and the zest of all your loving. I remember you in ICU, in the room of your dying, and you lying there in your coma. Annette, your sister in law, played a Mozart CD for you, and you lifted your arms and you started to conduct. I hope that beauty stayed with you as you slipped away, Dennis.

 

 

It’s the 18th day of the month of Ellul, Den. I remember you and I miss you.