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.

An Inlet, a Lagoon


In a tsunami of reports about health, that arrive in an age of anxiety,

in a rising ocean of uncertainty

that’s inundating our islands of calm, while families driven from Idlib watch their babies freezing to death for want of shelter,

as oil becomes cheap,

as savings are savaged,

as panic feeds on panic,

as the old lack all words to comfort,

as the young tremble for the future,

as the future overtakes the moment –
some thing good,

some moment of balm, some relief, an inlet, a lagoon of quiet joy:
this baby this entire new person this changer of lives
three kilograms and a handful of grams – of life

make her great-grandmother squeal

and squeal again, and again

with astonishment

Nana, surely you know by now, babies are born!

Nana, you had two of your own,

They each had three of their own, The day came when those six

Brought forth babies of their own.

Nana, why do you squeal,

what’s to astonish an old lady of ninety-three?

A baby, that’s to astonish

That’s to amaze, to heal, to comfort, to inspire,to thank God –

and to love.

The Cruelty of Children


 

My elder brother is six. He goes to school and I stay at home. I stand inside the front gate and wait for him at lunchtime. Our front gate is a loose mesh of plaited green wire. It’s not so much a barrier as a hint of private property. I stand inside the gate and wait.

 

 

Some merry schoolgirls approach, big kids of six or seven.

Hello little boy, says one. What’s your name.

Howard.

Poke out your finger, little boy.

I poke my finger out through a gap in the gate..

Suddenly my fingertip hurts.

Ow! – I yell.

I catch a glimpse of a pin in the hand of the girl who told me to poke out my finger. The girls all laugh loudly.

The speaker finishes laughing and says again, Put out your finger, little boy.

No. You’ll hurt it again.

No I won’t. Put out your finger. Nothing bad will happen.

I poke out my finger.

It hurts again.

I start to cry as the girls laugh loudly again, and run down the street, past the Catholic Church, in the direction of the Courthouse.

 

 

 

Every afternoon we swim in the town pool which is filled with water from the irrigation channel in the street outside. The water is warm and brown but it tastes okay. There are lots of leeches in the canal, and plenty of them dine on our blood while we swim in the pool. We learn to catch them; there’s a simple technique which we master quickly.

 

What to do with a captured leech?

 

You find a bobby pin on the ground near the Girls’ Changerooms and you thread the leech onto the pin, inserting it in the leech’s back end. This turns the leech inside out.

 

What to do with an inside-out leech?

 

 

The walls of the change rooms are built of galvanized iron. Those tin sheds heat up considerably in the summer sun. You press the the everted body of the leech against the hot metal and its mucoid flesh quickly adheres and fries in the afternoon sun.

 

 

 

I don’t remember this, but Mum told me the story often enough:

When she brought her second son into the household, the firstborn, Dennis, loved his baby brother so much he piled all of his toys into the pram on top of the new baby.

 

I’ve seen a photo of that pram, a sizable conveyance constructed of wood panels and wheels as big as those you see on adult’s bike. The pram dwarfs my elder brother captured in the picture, standing next to it.

 

 

As Mum tells the story, Dennis would push the pram in the garden and it would overturn, spilling the baby brother Dennis so much loved onto the concrete path. I gather this happened more than once. 

 

 

 

We travel from Leeton to Melbourne to observe the High Holydays of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. We stay at my grandparents’ house, which is big and dark. It’s scary at night. The house has a downstairs and an upstairs.

 

 

A lady comes to the house to clean before the festivals, She hoovers the carpets with her noisy machine. Dennis and I sit on the top stair and watch the lady as she hoovers. Her name, we learn, is Mrs Briggs. One of us discovers Briggs rhymes with pigs.

Dennis and I create a chant:

MISSUS BRIGGS IS A PIGS

MISSUS BRIGGS IS A PIGS

 

The Hoovers sings loudly and we sing too. Mrs Briggs Hoovers on. Now she turns the machine off. She hears us as we sing:

 

MISSUS BRIGGS IS A PIGS

MISSUS BRIGGS IS A PIGS

 

 

Mrs Briggs appears highly annoyed. She tells us to stop.

Dennis and I sing on.  Mrs Briggs grabs the straw broom and rushes up the stairs, waving the broom at us in a violent manner. We retreat and slam the door in her face.

 

 

We stand on the other side of the door, panting and palpitating. Soon we hear the sound of the Hoover.

 

Dennis and I emerge and resume our song.

 

 

 

 

A cat wanders into our garden. It’s a bit smaller than I am. I don’t know the cat. My hand reaches out and grasps the cat’s tail. My hand hoists the cat in the air.

The cat yowls.

I am not used to cat sounds. My hand now swings the cat and the yowling is a siren that follows the Doppler effect.

My mother emerges from the house. Seeing what her small son is doing, she says: Stop doing that, Howard. That’s cruel.

 

I stop doing that.

Mum goes inside.

 

 

My hand reaches out. It grasps the cat’s tail. The hand whirls the cat in a circle, round and around.

The cat yowls.

 

My Brother Calls me an Agnostic

Brother: Tell me Howard, does God exist?

HG: Why ask me? Why would I know better than you?

Brother: But I don’t know. It’s a mystery.

HG: It is.

Brother: No No No. Not for you it’s not.

HG: Why not?

Brother: Hang on, Howard. I’m asking the questions here. You’re the religious one. Do you believe in God?

HG: A classmate in grade six wrote an essay that offended me. He said there’s no such thing as believe. Either you know or you don’t. I wasn’t ready for his rigour. But I can’t fault his position. Either you know something or you don’t.

Brother: Exactly. I don’t know. That’s why I’m asking you: Do you know?

HG: Sometimes.

Brother: Answer me. Do you know or don’t you?

HG: Both.

Brother: Don’t dodge the question.

HG: I’m not. Sometimes I do know.

Brother: And the rest of the time?

HG: Look, I am the victim of a scientific education. Nothing in science is proven. My education in science taught me Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle. Heisenberg was interested in knowability of the position of an electron, I seem to recall. I learned the difficulty in knowability of everything. You could say my position is uncertainty.

Brother: So you’re an agnostic.

HG: I don’t know.

Brother: I know why you’re dodging the question. As an observant Jew you’re embarrassed. I’ll ask you a different question, why do you pray?

HG: That’s easy. I need to.

Brother: Who do you pray to? When you don’t know if God exists?

HG: You mean whom.

Brother: Don’t dodge. Whom do you pray to?

HG: God.

Brother: That’s absurd, isn’t it? Talking to someone when you don’t know He’s there?

HG: I can tell you what I do believe in, all the time…

Brother: What?

HG: I believe in prayer.

Brother: That would be even more absurd, wouldn’t it? To pray to a being when you can’t say he exists; and to believe in prayer when you know prayers aren’t answered.

HG: What prayers aren’t answered?

Brother: When Dad was dying you prayed for him to be cured!

HG: Not exactly. I prayed for him to be healed. But I can explain what it is about prayer I believe in.

Brother: I don’t think I’m interested until you answer the big question.

HG: Humour me. I believe in prayer like I believe in breathing. I need to do it. I need to say thank You. I need to cry halleluya! I need to cry out in pain. I need to keep faith.

Brother: Keeping faith with a God whom – whom, notice – you don’t know exists!

HG: I do know sometimes.

Brother: That’s crazy. What happens to your other faith – I mean Science?

HG: Science actually means knowing. But it’s only one way of knowing.

Brother: Let me remind you, either you know or you don’t know. If you know, that must mean scientific knowing.

HG: Wrong! I know lots of things through my senses: I know hunger, thirst, pain. You certainly do too. You know when you’re randy.

Brother: That’s true.  But it’s not religious truth. That’s not absolute truth. God is absolute or He’s nothing.

HG: I do know an absolute. I know love.

Brother: What’s that got to do with it?

HG: Possibly everything. When I worked at a Catholic hospital a nun said to me, God is love. I didn’t get it. I asked her to explain. She repeated, God is love, and she left me to puzzle over it. I thought it sounded profound, but mysterious. That was nearly fifty years ago. It’s still a mystery to me. But I can tell you what you believe in.

Brother: What?

HG: Love. You love your children.

Brother: You’re twisting words. You and your nun. If you believed in love as God, you’d worship love. You’d pray to it. You’d personify it. But you’re actually an agnostic. Probably a Godfearing agnostic.

 

HG: Fair enough. There is another angle on love and God. It’s in Les Mis: To love another person is to see the face of God.  Too banal for you? Let me tell you how I do know God is real.

Brother: How?

HG: I visited The Breakaway at Coober Pedy.

Brother: So?

HG: I stood there in that desert immensity. Silence. Vast emptiness. And the still soft voice that spoke without sound.

Brother: And God?

HG: I stood in creation and I knew the Creator.

Brother: Very nice. But unconvincing.

HG: I’m not trying to convince you. I’m searching on my own behalf. But I know you’ve stood in immensity and been overwhelmed.

Brother: When? Where?

HG: In Yosemite. At the foot of El Capitan. We stood there together, with Dad. The universe spoke to us all, no words, no sound, but a state of inspiration.

Brother: I didn’t see God there. Feeling overwhelmed, feeling uplifted like that, that’s not knowing. That’s something distinct from knowing.

HG: It is knowing, you just don’t recognise it. Let me tell you of your knowing that you don’t know to be knowing. Deep knowing, incontrovertible knowing, beyond argument, beyond doubt.

Brother: I’m all ears.

HG: When you listen to music, when you know its beauty is truth, when that knowing clinches in your being. Sometimes I know God like that.

Brother: You’re twisting again. You don’t now whether God exists. You’re an agnostic.

HG: You think you know that. Hold on to it as an article of faith if it helps you. But would you like to know why I pray when I’m in a non-knowing state?

Brother: Tell me.     

HG: When faith eludes me, I pray to keep faith. I keep faith with Dad. I keep faith with his father, with all the fathers – and with the mothers – who’ve prayed.

Brother: Perhaps your prayers are a request to God to please be.

HG: If God exists, that is The Great Fact. I can’t think of anything more prudent than praying to cover that possibility. But that’s not why I do it. I do it because I love it. It’s the marriage of words to existence.

Brother: What?  

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.

Letters to Mr Wilson

The boy is seventeen now.  We hiked these hills to the lighthouse once before, when he was only twelve. At that time he was a tough little martial artist. In the years since the boy has grazed in the lush meadows of high school and his muscles have lain fallow.

 

 

Weeks before we set out I warn him he’d better train those muscles with some long, hilly walks. It might be tougher this time, darling.

OK Saba.

In the event the boy studies hard and does not exercise. Adolescence is a place with few words. At least few words spoken directly to an ancestor, plenty into a phone. Sucked into silence the grandson has become scarcer, harder to feel.  

 

 

This grandson is the first of his generation, a dandling, darling of us all. In this epoch of change I think of those earlier times and I miss him. Does he miss us, I wonder? In the silence I’ve been remembering the vulnerable boy who walked here with me last time. At the time he showed me his naked wounds. Feeling uncertain whether he’d want to do the walk again, I asked: How would you feel about a hike to the lighthouse at the Prom, darling? Just the two of us?

I’d love it, Saba!

 

 

We start out at six, an hour neither congenial nor customary for the boy. The boy says, Can we stop somewhere for coffee, Saba? I point out the thermos at his feet and soon we’re both drinking happily. The boy can’t stop smiling. Neither can I. He says, I’m pretty excited, Saba. Through the open car windows warm air caresses our faces: It’ll be a hot day here in town, but it should be cooler in the hills. I speak as the elder, the experienced one, the sage. In the prevailing agreeability the teenager accepts all I say, challenging nothing.

 

 

In the city, through the suburbs, rush hour rushes ever earlier. We grind our way among vehicles that fling themselves forward against fate. For once I’m not drawn into the race. Time is our marshmallow.

 

 

Into the green now, we’re starting to climb. The Strzleckis are shapely hills of green, alternately rolling and steep. The pastures draw the eye up, up, across, down. ‘Lucky cows, lucky sheep’, you think. And you think, ‘These hills, so easy on the eye, not so easy on the legs.’

 

 

Being as wise as I am, I lecture the boy on his studies, I lecture him on building his future, I lecture him on the value of studying hard through this long vacation. The boy listens to my wisdom, and says, without apparent irony, Yes, Saba. Outside the sun shines and the world warms.

 

 

The boy looks out: Smoke haze, Saba.

Really? – I wonder. We arrive at Wilson’s Promontory National Park where a Ranger says, Those bushfires are ’way to the east. This wind is blowing from the north. We’re alright here unless the wind changes and comes from the east. Good news – as far as it goes. I remember Black Sunday and the firestorms that tore through these forests. Last time, when the boy and I passed through silent hills of blackened boughs, there wasn’t a green shoot anywhere. The silence and the black haunted those flatlands. I spoke wisely about it all at the time.

 

 

‘Lightstation 19 KM ‘ reads the sign, ‘Six hours’ walk.’ Six hours for old people and children’, say I. ‘We’ll be quicker than that.

 

 

We set off at a smart pace. Our track is kind, chiefly leading us down long hills. After a few easy kilometres we pause for Saba to recite his morning payers while the boy eats and drinks. Hikers pass us in both directions, Good Morning! – they cry, then hide a double take at the old man in his ritual regalia. In the benevolent fellowship of the hike they march on without a backward look. I finish and I ask the boy, Did I embarrass you, darling?

No Saba, you look like a wizard in your white tallith. Gandalf of the mountains.

 

 

We pack the remains of our brekkie and start out again. Three steps on I freeze. Stop! Don’t walk! I point to the snake. It’s probably an adolescent, like the grandson, long and thin. Its back is coloured deepest brown, its belly a rich tan. Even an adolescent can hurt you. Snake makes his unhurried passage across our path. We stand and wait our turn. In the dignity of his passing I remember Lawrence’s snake in Sicily, with Etna smoking.

 

 

We walk on. Over our shoulders to the right are the creamy swathes of Oberon Bay. Below us we look down on a forest that covers the valley floor between our track and Oberon Bay. The grandson says, It’s eerie: we’re looking down on the tops of trees. Cool.

Cool and beautiful, this shivering green carpet of spring growth.

 

 

Last time, when the boy was small, I entertained him with letters of complaint penned in my head to Mister Wilson. I complained about the hills: 

 

Dear Mister Wilson,

 

Nice Promontory you have here. No need for all these uphills, though. We’re quite content with the flat, we have no complaint about the downhills. Please bear that in mind as we progess toward the Lighthouse.

 

 

Ahead of us, abrupt slopes of dark green draw the eye upwards. Beautiful, silent, strong – mountainous actually – more grounds (five years ago) for complaint to Mister Wilson. Slugging up those slopes back then, I wrote;

 

Dear Mister W,

 

Have you been paying attention? Too many hills, too steep! Put your hills away from the track, over to the side, where we can see them and we can admire your designs. No need to put your hills right here where we have to walk!  

 

 

At the time these letters of the mind seemed to ease the boy’s passage. He’d laugh and nod his head and agree with me, yes, Mister Bloody Wilson was a slow bloody learner. So slow was Mister Wilson to take heed, I found it necessary to raise my voice:

 

Hey Wilson!

 

What is this? A man and a boy are supposed to be having a holiday here. Why do you fling these great bloody alps all over the place. You’re tiring us out with your granite  and your gravel and your scree, and all these steeps.Go easy, Wilson, or we’ll have to report you.

 

 

Yes, five years ago I was a very funny grandfather. I’m still funny but I sense a seventeen-year old would find the uphills funnier than my humour. This time I hold my peace. I address no mental correspondence to the Eponym of the Prom. Instead, I devote my energies to breathing. We’ve passed half way; we’ve left behind the downhills that would lull the unwary; we’ve passed through the burned forest, now green again and lush, with soft gravel underfoot and the roadway undulating gently. Here on these hills, the sun blazes, there’s no shade, the gravel has given way to fine, retardant sand and this steep little bush track is really tough. The wise old weather prophet got it wrong: it’s very hot here at the Prom.

 

 

I breathe and breathe and follow my grandson.  He looks back and even though he slows I do not gain on him. He looks back again and pauses. Let’s have a drink, Saba. We sit and drink our warm water that was solid ice at six this morning.

 

 

We resume. The track winds upwards between low shrubs and ferns. Away to the right we can glimpse the blue of the sea. Beautiful. Mister Wilson got that one right. Above us our path reaches a crest, promise at last of a break. But no, the hilly little track turns a bend and leads on to higher perdition. I breathe and I think basic thoughts: How tough am I? How much more of this before a sclerotic old coronary artery occludes itself? 

 

 

The boy has stopped again. He waits for me. When I reach him he claps a hand on my shoulder. He smiles: I love you Saba. A moment of realisation: I have reached an extremity; this path has bested me. I’ll need to take lots of breaks. A further realisation: in the passing of time since first we two walked this track, I’m five years weaker, and grandson is five years stronger.

 

 

This aging is sweet. Who cares that we are not now that strength which in old days

Moved earth and heaven?

Here is my grandson, flesh born of flesh born of me, gazing towards me tenderly, and I am sufficient to him.

 

 

We struggle on and soon we break for a drink. Another, shorter struggle and a break for an energy bar. A briefer effort still, a couple of candies. A final assault and we crest the ridge and there lies the sea. Four undulating kilometers down hills, between ferns at shoulder height, and at every turn the sea smiles in the sunshine, winking at us.  And there, between trees and boulders, the white stone lighthouse stands proudly priapic and calls to us. 

 

 

We’re trotting now, our feet joyful. It’s hard to convey our jubilation. Emily Dickenson wrote: 

 

Exhiliration is 

The going out

Of an inland soul

To Sea 

 

 

Emily’s right.

 

 

A right-hand turn and Mr Wilson adds a massive final insult to four hours of injury: this is the last half killermeter of near-vertical climb. The boy looks at the slopes and he looks at me. He smiles, I smile back, and we both draw breath. We redouble our pace, we swing our arms, we mount our counterattack on Mr Wilson. Quickly, though,  our lungs are amazed; we pause and look at each other in wonder.

 

 

We overtake a teenage girl with fair braids. I notice the grandson noticing the girl. We hail her and pass. Grandfather slows and presses on dourly. Grandson breaks into a run and completes the trek with me far in his wake and the girl watching in a wild surmise.

 

 

No sooner in our lodging than I shower in cool cleansing water. Grandson pursues the acquaintance of the fair maiden. I have an early night, the young ones make an evening of it. When at a late hour grandson retires for the night, he asks, Saba, do we really have to get up at six?

We do, darling. Remember you told me before we left home you need to be back early. And so do I.

 

 

Early mornings don’t suit the young. But for the second morning in succession my grandson is up, ungrumpy and full of energy. Rain fell overnight. When we step out from our lodge we shiver at first. Soon into an easy loping stride, we find the morning chill delicious. Grandson looks around, takes in giant sculpted rocks, furtive little wallabies, enfolding hills, the sand underfoot, the singing breezes, the cockatoos at their screeching; his bony face fills with joy: I love you Saba. 

 

 

The six-hour walk that took us five laborious hours outwards takes us less than four hours on the return. Nothing Mr Wilson throws at us today dismays.

 

 

The final upslope. In wordless agreement we break into a jog. Running alongside the grandson I feel heroic. With a hundred metres to go, Grandson starts to sprint. He races away from me and it feels like a consummation.  

 

 Read about our previous hike here:

 https://howardgoldenberg.com/2015/07/10/and-the-two-walked-together/