Whittawer

Reading Maggie O’Farrell’s acclaimed ‘Hamnet’ this afternoon, I was intrigued to come across an unfamiliar word. I like it when an author teaches me a new word; this one was whittawer. I reached for the nearest dictionary, The Concise Oxford. Whittawer did not appear.

I wasn’t surprised. The word looked archaic.

Next, I went to the Chambers Dictionary, a chunk of a volume, the fullest dictionary of its size that I know. Chambers offered saddler.

Later, a larger Oxford improved on the Chambers with, a person who makes whitleather. In later use also: a saddler or harness-maker, (from white plus tawer, i.e. a tanner who treats animal skins with alum or lime, which required an apprenticeship of at least seven years).

I put the dictionaries aside and I returned to ‘Hamnet’, where Hamnet’s twin laments his death of the Black Death at the age of eight years. The dying of the child and the grief that follows occupy much of pages 200 to 300. The death and the grief constitute the emotional heft of the novel. Both are particularised minutely. What might take a telegram, (Hamnet Dies, Judith cries), goes on and on, with awesome tread. For this reader not a word is wasted. The pace is meet. A death is one of the two great facts of all that lives. And every death is particular. 

I looked up, seeking perhaps, respite from sorrow. There lay the Concise Oxford, the volume seventy years old, splitting now at its spine. Mum bought this book for her firstborn, Dennis. (She presented similar volumes to each of us three children who followed Dennis into the world of books and new words. To each of us Mum said, Look it up in your dictionary, Darling. That way you’ll remember the new word.) 

I held Dennis’ Oxford in my palm. I had plucked that volume from Dennis’ large library of brainy books after he died at the age of sixty-three. Dennis’ Oxford is of singular construction, with a little demisphere of space excised from the page margin, in twenty-six places, creating a small lacuna for each letter of the alphabet. Mum’s four kids were guided by this ‘thumb index’ into the right spot in our dictionary for every word we sought. Today, in my search for whittawer, my thumb followed Dennis’. It led me back to that gigantic love of that son for his mother. At the physical tip of a bodily extremity I sensed my brother.

I returned to O’Farrell’s story. She gives her reader the bewilderment of the sibling, bereft: Judith puts out a hand and touches the cheek of her twin. Tears course down her face, chasing each other… such enormous tears, like heavy pearls, quite at odds with the lightness of her frame. She shakes her head, hard, once, twice. Then she says, ‘Will he never come back?’

And later, the child’s search for a self-concept in a family transformed by absence:What is the word, Judith asks her mother, for someone who was a twin and is no longer a twin? If you were a wife, Judith continues, and your husband dies, then you are a widow. And if its parents die, a child becomes an orphan. But what is the word for what I am?

I don’t know, her mother says.

(Judith): Maybe there isn’t one…

Fourteen years have passed since I succeeded to Dennis’ Concise Oxford. The thumb indices admit the edge of the pulp of my thumb. Fourteen years, and notwithstanding my wide collection of dictionaries, I still lack a word for ‘surviving brother’.

Drawn Toward the Portals

I’m seventy-five. Seventy-five, a thankful number, and a thinkful one. Anyone who reaches this stage knows – with me – that we are closer here to the exit than the entry. Anyone who follows my writing will note how my mind drifts toward death, dying and the dead; toward memory and memorial.

A friend observed thirty years ago, ‘You know Howard, all this writing you are doing is a just means of coming to terms with your mortality.’

I hadn’t a clue what he was talking about. 

I smiled the kindly smile you give to the clueless friend who means well.

I know now my friend was right, dead right.

When I was a child the fact of death frightened me. To be annihilated – unthinkable! Literally, I was unable to think what the world could be like without Howard Jonathan Goldenberg. In my adult life I’ve experienced a similar disability of thinking: I find myself simply unable to think of an afterlife. I don’t deny the possibility, I just can’t relate to the concept.

So I live this life as if it’s my only one. I think now that death is a good idea. I don’t feel frightened anymore of annihilation. It’s my loved ones who fear my death, especially the grandchildren. The more I love them, the more they love me, the more vulnerable I make them. That’s a dilemma for me. I have felt at times, almost irresponsible, for becoming close and precious to children whose frailty I know so well. For myself, I can reflect how this planet, our species, did alright before Howard Jonathan Goldenberg arrived; once he’s gone, there’ll be one polluter fewer.

But just as the exit has always exercised my mind, the opposite portal called me irresistibly. As my own life ebbs, at the opposite portal an opposite tide of new life always rises. That portal has admitted nine grandchildren into life, into my life. The nine have broadened and deepened my late years. Those years feel more intense, more vivid, more life-stained than the years before.

I used to work at the portal that admits newcomers to life. I delivered babies. I was the intimate outsider, the guest who was invited to attend the birth of a family. Looking back, gazing over my shoulder towards that portal, that screaming gateway, I see blood and shit and tears, I see babies who gasped and roared, I see other babies who had to be coaxed into breath, I see some who would never breathe. I see women shaken, transfigured by the sudden knowledge of their enormous power. I see placentas stuck, I see the lifeblood ebbing, I feel once again the terror…

Two portals long have drawn me, twin doorways of universal truth.

My day starts with prayer, followed by some tablets to lower my blood pressure washed down with strong coffee to raise it. I plug in my hearing aids, I put on my specs, I stretch my shrinking spine and try to stand straight. These small acts, the adjustments of a seventy-five year old, as he moves ever backward, ever closer to the portal marked Exit.

I remember a book my wife’s father gifted me, an anthology of sorts, with odd bits of writing. One story ran something like this: 

A man went for a walk in the high mountains. Entranced by the grandeur that he saw all around, he jumped when he heard a loud roar from behind him. Looking back, he saw a snow tiger. The giant creature would very soon overtake him. The man ran, and as the tiger sprang the man reached the summit and leaped. 

The man looked down at the valley floor far below. Turning in mid-air, he reached and just managed to grab an overhanging branch of the small sapling that grew at the edge of the fall. The man swung from the bough, his fall broken. Looking up he saw the slavering tiger regarding him. Looking down he saw the unbroken fall. The man heard a groaning sound. Looking behind, he saw the sapling slowly coming away from the peak. Swinging, he looked at the cliff face, and saw, just beneath the sapling, some strawberries growing there. The man’s free hand plucked some strawberries and he ate them. How good the strawberries tasted.

Suspended between the portals of truth, a seventy-five year old enjoys the taste of strawberries.

Jesse at Eighteen

The mother whom you are about to bring into being feels a pain in her belly. Your birth was due a couple of days ago but it doesn’t occur to the woman that she might be in labour. She phones her father, a doctor, soon to become a grandfather.

Dad, my tummy hurts. It’s been hurting all day. Could it be gastro?

Darling, you are pregnant. You have reached full term. Unless you have diarrhoea you’re probably in labour. Go to hospital.

The date is November 11, a date already doubly and indelibly significant for Australians. It’s the date you create a mother, a father, three grandparents, a great-grandmother, uncles, aunts, great-uncles, great-aunts. It’s the date you change our world.

All day you knock at life’s door. Day becomes night. In the Delivery Suite your mum-to-be squats and strains. In an adjacent waiting area, dimly lit, your yogi great-grandmother-designate squats and bears down, trying to birth you at a remove. The soon-to-be grandfather consults his wristwatch. This climactic second stage of labour has become prolonged. He knows a lengthy second stage imperils a baby. He sends a message to the obstetrician: Would you like an extra pair of hands in case the baby needs resuscitation?

The specialist says yes.

I enter and not long after, the door of life opens to you. You and I meet. You need no resuscitation. I hold you and I introduce you to the mother whom you have brought into being.

Thirty-six hours later I’m gazing at you, just a baby. You lie inside my pink cap. I’ve seen hundreds of babies, I’ve delivered hundreds, every one of them a miracle, every one of them scrutinised for irregularities by a clinical eye. You are no less imperfect than those hundreds. You are skinny, you look like an empty sock, your face isn’t quite symmetrical.

But some event or process, something visceral, something cosmic perhaps, is taking place and I am transmogrified: I am a grandfather; I love you. What is this joy? Your fingers curl and close around my finger and you grip me. 

On the eighth day of your life you rest on the lap of your great-grandfather, I remove some skin and bring you into a Covenant. A drop of wine pacifies you. Your tribe jubilates. We know our long back story. Behold you! We see you and we behold our futurity.

Years pass, your parents send you to this grandfather to learn rituals, traditional melodies, ancient texts. At thirteen you are barmitzvah. Once again your clan rejoices and this time you can share it. You sense the power, the force field of love that is your extended family, the depth of our feeling. Profoundly you know belonging.

Life takes you through ups and downs. At eleven you walk with me, up, down, up and again down, to a distant lighthouse. A boy who buries strong feelings, you struggle and you achieve. You declare, I love you Saba. Later you say, I’ll bring my kids on this walk. And you add, I love you Saba.

Six years later, life is still up and down. We do that same walk again. This time it is the boy who stops and waits, and allows an aging Saba to catch up. Your words are few but they have not changed. The miles, the steeps, the struggle weld us once again.

This week you sit your last school examination. Your schooldays are behind you. We behold you, the first of your generation. Eighteen years have passed, enriched and intensified by your being. Eighteen years ago you gripped me, never to let me go.

Dear Victoria

Dear Victoria,


They were normal people who stopped us about thirty kilometers along the Hume Highway. The soldier wore a mask. The police officers wore masks and guns and bullet-proof jackets. All was customary. The soldier said it was a lovely day.

It was. The sun shone, spring sprang. The soldier asked, where are you going?

Wodonga.

Why?

We’re going to Sydney.

Why?

We told him about the sickness and the surgeries and the complications and the pains and the parents and their children that needed our help. The soldier said he was sorry.

There was a pause.

My eyes stung a bit with his kindness. He said you wouldn’t have a Permit, would you?

We did. We showed him. The soldier said, go carefully. Go well.

In Wodonga the motel people were just the same, all masked. The familiar unfamiliarity was almost comforting.

Up early, still under curfew, we waited until 5.00 am before driving to the checkpoint at the border. More masks and guns and body armour, a roadblock, a fast car at the ready in case we made a break for it. All normal, familiar from the black and white war movie that is our life. We showed our papers. The officers – mine a female, Annette’s a male – photographed the barcode that isn’t a barcode but a blob, and told us to drive carefully.

So, Dear Victoria, we’ve been in New South Wales for twenty-four hours now. We had wondered how the people would be. We wondered how they’d react to our Victorian registration plates. Apart from the angry mob we encountered in Bathurst, people didn’t seem to mind. It turned out the Bathurst bunch were protesting about koalas. Some ratbag had suggested koalas be protected! We felt unsafe: they come for the koala today, tomorrow it can be the Victorian.We got out of there in a hurry. 

At petrol stations we saw humans closer up. We could tell there was something different about them. What was it?  Eventually it came to us: Noses! People here have noses. We remembered other people’s noses. We remembered the days when it was not only the persons in your household and persons in Renaissance paintings who had them. We remembered; four-year old Sadie probably would, but Marnie, aged only half a year would not. The old people who drop off food at her front door and wave at her, the old couple supposed to be her grandparents, are normal beings, noseless and masked.

While in quarantine here in the mountains, Annette and I will occupy ourselves with an online self-help book. We need to refresh old skills in preparation for grandparenting. The book is Cuddles, Hugs, Kisses: a Manual for Grandparents.

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

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 are You?

My friend wrote from the sunshine state. How are you doing in the pariah state? When it’s the caller from the electricity company asking how I am, I know she is not interested, so I answer simply and briefly, I’m dying. But when a friend asks I pause to think. He’s asking because he cares. How am I doing? In general I look about me for clues. How are my loved ones? If they are suffering, I know it before enquiring. I know it bodily. My waking thoughts and my restless dreams ache with loving futility.


Well, friend in the sunshine, my firstborn is about to undergo major surgery. The surgery will disable her for a couple of months. She’ll deal with pain whenever she moves her shoulder girdle. Merely to brush her teeth will hurt intolerably. Do you wish to know more? She won’t be able to care for her children. A sole breadwinner, she’ll be unable to win her bread. How’s she doing through it all? She’s dealing with thoughts of disfigurement. She’s alarmed by stories of unbearable pain. But she reminds us, ‘I’ve got the cancer gene, but this surgery is not cancer; it prevents cancer.’

My other children? Number two child has been locked down since February. He’s working from home and he’s loving his household of women, who range down in age from his wife, to his newest, aged four months. He lives in the joy of watching his offspring bloom, and he chafes that he cannot share his loved ones. He’s the bridge between generations. He wants to share his little ones with his elders. He grieves for deprived grandparents, for a great grandmother in her extreme age (‘How many years has Nana left to enjoy, to know her little ones?’); for his siblings too. He knows his little ones are deprived. He’s a bridge and a virus has closed the bridge.

Number three lives in Sydney. Six months have passed since she last saw or touched a parent or a sibling. Six months in the life of a person permanently in exile from family. During those months she’s been diagnosed with cancer, undergone surgery, been cured. In a few weeks she’ll undergo the same cancer-preventing surgery as the firstborn.She subsists with a dozen face time calls a day, but the loving flesh, the warmth of presence, the sharing and the feeding (we celebrate her as a baker and a chef), these she aches for. And as we plan and we cancel plans, and we plan again, the novel virus comes between us. In short she suffers minor cruelties daily; she’ll suffer major surgical cruelties shortly and, God willing, she too will be saved from the genetic cancers that haunt our womenfolk. Overall, good friend, too much detail? I apologise. Our children are brave and loving and they fret for their parents. For us. Golly! Perhaps that was your question. Perhaps you really asked, How are YOU doing? Once again I look about me. I see my wife, a Jewish mother responding to threat by overcatering. Between working at home and trouncing me at Scrabble, and caring for her mother, she overfeeds me and she cooks and packs endless meals for loved ones all about. I feel cared for and loved. I feel safe.

But how am I? In myself? By temperament I tend to be cheerful, optimistic, sometimes vacuously so. But nowadays periods of gloom descend, circumambient fear visits me. My work sustains me with a rewarding sensation of being useful. I enjoy the glow of self-worth. I run a lot and I purge fear and gloom. And I drink plenty of strong coffee which transforms me into a cheery genius.It feels absurd to pity myself in a time when so many suffer so much worse. But if – as the Talmud asks – among the cedars the firestorm falls, what can avail the mosses of the wall? If happy howard is downcast, how much more suffer the cheerless many?

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.

Letter to an Old Friend

Friend,

I write to you from quarantine. My wife and I have been ordered to isolate ourselves. 

Old friend, you and I are old. We have passed the threescore and ten years of the Psalmist. A short time ago we were heading confidently full steam ahead for one hundred. So we proposed. So life seemed to promise. But now, this virus.  

Man proposes, Virus disposes. The virus has disposed of thousands. In Spain overnight, three hundred. Overnight in Italy, 800. I’ll write that more plainly. Three hundred persons. Eight hundred persons.At the start of the year all eleven hundred would have been steaming ahead. I imagine them looking confidently to the future as recently as the start of the month of March. By the close of the equinox all were dead. Few will be those who follow their caskets to their burial.

While going about my work in the past weeks I’ve found the most worried people have been those with the least to fear. Young parents have been terrified for their young children. Truly that suffering has been unnecessary. For most people younger than forty, COVID-19 is a milder illness than the ‘flu. I have heard of no deaths of children anywhere in the world. That should bring blessed relief, but although those facts are widely known, the fear for their young extinguishes parents’ peace of mind.

Curiously, we old ones need fear not so much for our young, as from them. The theory runs that children are unhygienic creatures that act as vectors for this novel virus (they certainly do that service for the influenza viruses), and they endanger and infect us older, more vulnerable subjects. That is why I am writing.

If you are over seventy, go inside now, close the door. Shun your children, ban the grandchildren. Ours is the age group in which most of those hundred of persons died. Ours is the sector at greatest risk of the pneumonia that fulminates and kills. Ours is the group who will not receive respirator treatment and Intensive Care when those services are rationed.

This is cautious advice that might later be seen to be over-cautious. As the W.H.O. Chief of the Ebola response advises, ‘Go early, go hard’ when it comes to responding to pandemic. There will be no second chances for us once we catch this catchiest of germs.

My wife and I passed a weekend of grotesque denial of the love between us and our grandchildren. Encounters were fleeting, spatial remoteness was enforced, no-one kissed, no-one cuddled. Time and again, puzzled children approached instinctively, loud voices repulsed them. Astonished, the children felt every instinct of love denied; and the deniers were precisely those wrinkled figures who ever doted and dandled. Suddenly loving behaviour was wrong.

My resolve wavered. My wife, the softest being in our family constellation, commanded austerity. One of my children has a newborn; we cannot visit, cannot cuddle, cannot relieve exhausted parents at 2.00 in any morning. Our daughters, both recovering from surgery, wait on us, rather than the reverse. The fibres of parenthood are warped and strained by fear of a new virus. And it is precisely those deprived adult children who direct us: go inside, stay inside, keep the world away. ‘‘We’d sooner miss out on you both for weeks or months than miss you forever.”

Old friend, I won’t be with you this Friday for lunch. We won’t see each other at the coffee shop in the mornings. Our house of worship is forbidden to us. Seeing each other as faces on a screen is a cold change after years, after decades of warm touch. I don’t know when we’ll be together in those old ways again. I reckon our best chance of those old pleasures again, some day on the far side of this fear and horror, is cold resolve today.

Until then, old friend, until then,

Yours at a distance,  

Howard

Moments of Reprieve

In times far, far darker than ours, Primo Levi called these, ‘moments of reprieve’. The Nazis set up the death camps as places where morality would be inverted. It was dangerous to be good. Every man for herself. We saw that here in the all-in toilet-paper wrestling.

But there’s a softening abroad, a gentling of human intercourse. We wash our hands today, not of each other, but for each other. Commerce has slowed, people have time, give each other time. Working here in the central business district of a great city, I find us breathing our minutes and our days as folk do in a country town.

In the foyer of a giant apartment building, in a far distant town, this notice appeared:

Its author is seven-year old Dash Unglik, of New York City.