Mother’s One Hundredth Birthday Party 

I’ll invite my brother and his family and Mum’s nephews and nieces, her great-nephews and great-nieces, and my children and their children, as well as some of my friends who were also Mum’s friends. But Aly Ong won’t be there. He’ll be back on the plantation in Malaya. My sister Margot won’t be with us; she lives in New York so she’s excused. It was all Margot’s idea, really, this idea of a family party. She’s inviting her kids from New Rochelle and Philadelphia and Boston and all their children and they’ll tell stories and eat pavlova in Margot’s pavilion by the Hudson. And we in Melbourne will feast and reminisce by the Yarra. Well, within cooee of that river.
 
 
In their generation Mum and her younger sister Doreen were masters of the pavlova, grandmasters really. The meringue edge was firm, the interior light and mallow, the whole edifice of air stupendously high. When Dennis ran his restaurant he turned to Mum to bake pavlovas which he’d serve in massive slices topped with whipped cream and passionfruit and strawberries …. and lust. Now the mantle has passed to Margot.
 
 
Will it spoil the party that Mum won’t be coming? Well, it would be lovely if she were to attend, but it’s big ask. Mum will be there, though. She never really left.
 
 
(Let me tell you about Mum and Aly Ong. Back in the ’sixties Aly came to Melbourne under the Colombo Scheme, a government initiative whereby Australia would educate Asian students and send them back home to become leaders in their own, developing countries. Aly studied Accounting with my brother Dennis and the two were close friends. That meant Aly became an habitue at number 15 Atkinson Street, Oakleigh, eating pavlova and Mum’s form of fried rice that must have made him laugh. But Aly was too polite to laugh.
 
Aly was shy. Left to himself he’d never have raised the courage to ask Mum for the loan of her car. But having Dennis as a friend meant you were not left to yourself. ‘Mum, Aly needs to borrow your car tonight. He’s got a date.’
Aly blushed: ‘Oh, no Mrs Goldenberg, I really don’t need…’
‘Of course you can use the car Aly. With pleasure.’
So Aly took the car.
 
He returned a few hours later, looking shaken. I asked him what was wrong. He shook his head, saying nothing. I saw tears forming. ‘I must speak to Mrs Goldenberg, was all I could get out of him. Mum was in bed upstairs, in one or other of her various states of partial consciousness. I told Mum Aly needed to see her. He was in some distress.
 
 
Mum descended: ‘Hello Aly darling. Did you have a nice time?’
‘Mrs Goldenberg, something terrible has happened. I crashed your car!’
‘Oh, Aly, are you hurt?’
‘No, Mrs Goldenberg, but the car…’
‘Are you sure you’re alright, Aly? And your friend? Is she alright?’
‘’Yes, thank you Mrs Goldenberg, quite sure. But I’ve smashed your car.’
Mum’s car was new, brand new. It was a Holden Premier, top of the range, with iridescent green duco and beautiful tan leather seats, Holden’s first foray into luxury.
‘Oh, never mind about the car, Aly. Sit down and have a cup of tea and some pavlova.’)
 
 
Mum was born on June 8, 1917, and she did not have to wait very long to become acquainted with death. Her father died when she was twelve and she lost her mother three years later. Falling happily into the care of Gar, their miraculously liberated and liberating grandmother, the girls thrived. After her parents died Mum accepted the reality of death. On visits to Melbourne Mum would drive us past the Brighton Cemetery and remark, ‘Mummy and daddy are in there.’ It took me a while to work out what and who was ‘in there’, and why. It was disorienting to hear ‘mummy’ and ‘daddy’, words I attached to living, loving, parents, indispensable supports of my being. But Mum’s tone was blithe. Death held no fears for her. Not personally, not for herself.
 
 
But for Doreen, Mum trembled. In her middle and later life Aunty Doreen fell sick often and fell hard. Once or twice I found Mum in tears: ‘I’ve told Dor I have to peg out first.’ In the event Aunty Doreen did Peg out before Mum, dying in her late eighties of heart disease that exhausted her will to live on. Then Dad died, and my younger brother Barry said, ‘Don’t you go getting any fancy ideas, Mum.’ Only two years later Dennis died, Mum’s firstborn and first loved. Mum said, ‘I’ve always known death is part of life.’ And I said, ‘Mum, don’t think you’re allowed to die.’
‘I’ll do my best not to, darling. I’ve never died yet.’
 
 
One week before her ninety-second birthday Mum’s best was no longer sufficient. She won’t be at her one hundredth birthday party, but we will excuse her dying. She can be forgiven one lapse.
 

Sadie

The baby slid into our lives one day earlier this month. I can’t recall exactly which particular day, but the day was particular for the sliding.

Doctors inspect, find all parts present and correct, a girl. Parents check: not simply present and correct, but perfect, their girl child. 

Grandparents arrive, enter the dimmed room, quieting exultation. They sight the child, suppressing gasps of joy. 

They behold, astonished by smallness, their newest beloved. Already, immediately beloved.  

Lips a circlet of pink, the baby in stillness. Parents drained – but for now – electric with joy, unaware of their deepening sleep deficit, aware only of baby, baby, baby, miracle, fact, miracle.  

What is this love that bursts into being? This finer, purer love, this love that seeks nothing of the child, this love that demands nothing beyond that she be? This love, this agape? The grandparents are certainly agape. At this child, this miracle, fact, miracle.

In the quiet and stillness, in this room, tenderness has her domain. This room contains a new human person who sleeps, whose lips flicker and semaphore mystically. She sleeps and she teaches love.

 

 
 

 

Once Upon a Poem 


Once, when two persons were walking together at day’s end, the elder of the two remarked on the sunset. He spoke and said:

 

the sky is burning

in my mind

 

Once Upon a Story

 

Once, when two were walking on the beach the younger saw a rock that looked like Leviathan and she said:

 

Last night I was here and that rock wasn’t a rock.

Last night I saw it move from the sea. It moved up the beach and it came towards me. It was a whale. It chased me up the sand and I ran and I ran and I didn’t stop running until I got home.

 

Once Upon a Song

 

Once, when two walked together a song drifted towards them. The song had no words. The sounds of the song reached them from somewhere higher or darker or hidden. The sound surrounded them. The flapping of wings, the whoosh of flight, made them think of birds. And the drift and drone, the rise and fall, the start and pause, mad them think of a breathing. Perhaps a person. Perhaps their planet.
Once and Always

 

The poem and the story and the song came and went, went and came, always different, ever the same. The song and the story and the poem bound the younger to the elder and both of them to all who came after and to all who came before.

 

Sometimes the two remembered or wondered or dreamed or knew: the song and the poem and the story had been there before they were, before the sunset, before the rock. Perhaps song, poem and story had brought the sunset and the rock and the flapping wings into being.

 

The two knew they could exist only in a world of story and poem and song.

 

 

 

December Seventh

As I left my house this morning, my hand drifted up, as it often does on my leaving home, to touch the mezuzah on the doorpost. I kissed my fingers, as I often do, but this time quite consciously. I was visited by unexpected thoughts: I hope this house is still here when I return. Will I find my loved ones safe and well this evening?

 

 

Musing, I walked to the tram.

 

 

It’s December seventh today. Indelible date. A baby in my arms, born three months ago, named Aviva for the season. Small, pink, warm, her lips a rosebud. We return from a week in the wilderness, wife, the two older children and the baby, two days ago. Back at home the hot water tap runs cold. And stays cold. We call the plumber, he calls the electrician, he replaces the thermostat.

 

 

December seven I am up first. I go to wash for the dawn prayers; a clanking in the pipes, steam issuing from the hot tap. I think little of it. Back in the bedroom I remove the wedding ring that bears Annette’s inscription: ‘Howard, with love, Annette. I enfold myself in ritual gear and recite sleepy prayers. The family is up now. Annette sits in an armchair, breastfeeding springtime baby, while the three-year old and the five-year old sit and wait for Sesame Street. Kisses goodbye and I am off to work, leaving my wedding ring on the dressing table. The hands on the bedside clock point to 0745. 

 

 

Work is busy, absorbing. Quickly I slip into country doctoring. Families, wives, children, snot, cut legs, bruised feelings, breaking hearts, then a phone call from our neighbour: ‘Howard, I think you’d better come up home. There’s been a small explosion.’ I know the neighbour, an excitable person. There’s no rush. I see a few more patients before a voice says ‘go home’. I do so.

 

 

It’s sunny and pleasant. The warmth beguiles me as I drive up the unmade road that twists and turns on the way to number 43, Deering Street.

 

 

I turn into the steep driveway. Ahead I see the carport, tall, stout, ugly. The carport is empty. To the left I see the brick walls of our home lying flat on the rough grass. Grey oblong bricks, Besser Bricks, they call them, I don’t know why. The wooden house frame hangs drunkenly, the roof sits skew-whiff above the frame. A moment of amazement. Then a warming, a drenching flood of relief. The carport is empty. No-one is home. Annette, the kids, they’re safe. We have lost a house but I have lost nothing.

 

 

In the hours that follow I trace Annette to her sister’s house and tell her. She has to drive, to arrive, to look, to sift through rubble before she understands the import of the excitable neighbour’s ‘small explosion.’ A mother has lost her children’s nest. Our son loses speech for the next six months. One goldfish has lost its life, the second survives in the millimetre of water that covers the floor next to the shattered fishbowl.

 

In the bedroom the bedside table is a shatter of toothpicks. Of my wedding ring, no trace. Ever.

Favourite Books

After he died, my brother Dennis’ lifetime collection of books was set out on tables and benches, in boxes and on shelves at our parents’ house, for family members to choose and keep. Revealed before us was a catalogue of the brilliant and searching mind of my big brother. Biographies, especially political, books on management, art books and book after book on music. And cooking books, books on sailing, on fishing. The study and the joys of a big appetite for life and ideas. Books of all sorts, but not much literature and very little fiction. 

 

Dennis always named his three favourite books as the biblical Book of Ecclesiastes, Kahlil Gibran’s, ‘The Prophet’, and Siddhartha’, by Hermann Hesse. I knew and loved the first of the three, I knew and liked (and mistrusted) the second, and – as for the third – I didn’t know Siddhartha from Hiawatha. 

 

Dennis would read my writings, shaking his head, unhappy with my obliquity and my complexity. ‘Read Siddhartha’, he’d say, ‘And learn the beauty of writing simply.’ Dennis admired narration that was free of ornament and artifice. ‘You make me think too much,’ he said. I felt flattered and confirmed in my path. And I did not take up Siddhartha.

 

‘Ecclesiastes,’ I read religiously, every year, entranced by The Preacher’s philosophic quest, as he tastes and tests every idea and temptation, as he broods and takes up and sets aside every sacred and profane thing. And the rhythms of the text, whether in Hebrew or in English, have always entranced: 

 

To every thing there is a season,

and a time to every purpose under the heaven:
a time to be born, and a time to die;
a time to plant, and a time to pluck up that which is planted;
a time to kill, and a time to heal;

a time to break down, and a time to build up; 
a time to weep, and a time to laugh;

a time to mourn, and a time to dance; 
a time to cast away stones,

and a time to gather stones together;

a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing;
a time to get, and a time to lose;

a time to keep, and a time to cast away;
a time to rend, and a time to sew;

a time to keep silence, and a time to speak;
a time to love, and a time to hate;
a time of war, and a time of peace.

 

 

Dennis’ birthday falls on November 22. Each year on that day the stated gap between our ages would open up from two years to three. On November 22, 2016, Dennis would have turned seventy-three. But he never reached even threescore years and ten. He died aged sixty-three. Ten years later I pick up Siddhartha and read it, to mark his birthday and to honour the wishes of the older brother who always willed me to be better in the particulars that he selected. I read the work, too, to learn more of my brother’s questing soul.

 

I need to digress here, to my misgivings about ‘The Prophet’. I find it calming, pleasing, gently uplifting. It is as smooth as gravy, as sweet as the dulce de leche upon which my Argentine relatives were weaned. That’s my problem: ‘The Prophet’ lacks grit. You read and you wallow. As an essayist remarks in the New Yorker: ‘In “The Prophet” Gibran (mixed) a warm, smooth, interconfessional soup that was perfect for twentieth-century readers, many of whom longed for the comforts of religion but did not wish to pledge allegiance to any church, let alone to any deity who might have left a record of how he wanted them to behave. It is no surprise that when those two trends—anti-authoritarianism and a nostalgia for sanctity—came together and produced the sixties, “The Prophet” ’s sales climaxed.’

 

 

Raised as we all were, in a strictly Orthodox Jewish family, Dennis chafed against God the father and against our godlike father. He found the courage – indeed the compulsion – to rebel, but he never ceased to feel the pull and the lull of the old-time religion of his early nurture. He tried to relinquish Jewish restriction but the ritual would not let him go. Hence the enduring attraction to him of ‘The Prophet’, with its ‘anti-authoritarianism and its nostalgia for sanctity’.

 

Back to Siddhartha, another huge hit among those who were young adults in the seventies. When a book is so uncritically adored as this I start to feel uneasy. When I take up my newly purchased copy and discover that Paulo Coelho has written the introduction, my unease deepens. For – possibly alone among its millions of readers and adorers – I found the pretentious simplicism of ‘The Alchemist’ alienated me.

 

So you see, these works find me out as cynical.

 

But cynicism falls away as I read Hesse’s account of his searcher for enlightenment. Dennis sought enlightenment with his strong, rational mind. I recognise Dennis as the Buddha’s chastens Siddhartha: ‘You are clever…,’ said the Illustrious One; ‘you know how to speak cleverly, my friend. Be on your guard against too much cleverness.’

I see here Dennis, my too clever brother, the troubled searcher, endlessly testing his traditions, endlessly questing. This is the brother who embraced ‘Ecclesiastes’, in which The Preacher seeks but never finds a truth that satisfies. ‘Vanity of vanities, saith the preacher, all is vanity.’ It is an honest quest, brave and lonely. That was my brother Dennis, brave and lonely, longing, as his son remarked at the funeral, ‘to love and to be loved.’

 

But unlike the monk Siddhartha, Dennis did love: most particularly he loved our mother, and he loved me. And I loved him, and I miss him still.

 

 

 

 

A Lime

The doctor showed them the spine, the limbs, the minute digits. The heart in its cage, beating, beating, beating. Kidneys, liver, lungs, all manner of organs, organised and working against their day.
The watchers watched and listened and wondered. Their unborn, unknowing it was watched, moved, metabolised and grew. This watching, this lovecharged voyeurism through a window that opened only half a century ago. They saw their unborn, alone, confined, silent, breathing bathwater, drinking sewage, content withal. The watchers felt awe and hope. The man leaned over and held the woman and came away sticky with gel.
 
The doctor said, it’s the size of a lime. The man and the woman closed their palms against a mental lime. They saw with their hands how big, how small was their unborn. The woman giggled with delight.
 
They told me and I thought of the days I delivered babies – that age before ultrasound, when mother, father and doctor looked on the baby and the baby looked on them in equal discovery. Ultrasound alters human relation. Now fathering starts thirty –four weeks before the father is born into fatherhood.
 
I thought too of Judith Wright and her secret love and her poem:
Woman To Man
The eyeless labourer in the night,

the selfless, shapeless seed I hold,

builds for its resurrection day—

silent and swift and deep from sight

foresees the unimagined light.
This is no child with a child’s face;

this has no name to name it by;

yet you and I have known it well.

This is our hunter and our chase,

the third who lay in our embrace.
This is the strength that your arm knows,

the arc of flesh that is my breast,

the precise crystals of our eyes.

This is the blood’s wild tree that grows

the intricate and folded rose.
This is the maker and the made;

this is the question and reply;

the blind head butting at the dark,

the blaze of light along the blade.

Oh hold me, for I am afraid.
 

Blue Label

My brother Dennis presented me with a blue carton containing a bottle of whiskey. I had never heard of Johnny Walker Blue Label. Whiskey did not interest me. All I knew was I couldn’t afford good whiskey, I didn’t like cheap whiskey and I couldn’t tell the difference between cheap and uncheap. 

Dennis died ten years ago but the box and the bottle survive, unopened. Dennis died poor and intestate after forty-five years working in Finance. Dennis didn’t drink whiskey either. Strong drink was not his weakness. His loves were his weaknesses. One of his loves was for this brother, the one who survives him, healthy and unpoor.

 

I picture my firstborn brother in an airport palace of luxury items for sale duty free. He looks around for something good, something precious to buy for his loved brother. His instinct draws him to the most expensive items. A man of the world, Dennis recognises the blue label. He takes the box in one arm, reaches for his credit card, approaches the cashier. He makes the purchase he cannot afford, with funds he does not yet own, for the brother who will see no occasion to drink it.

 

To paraphrase O Henry’s closing remarks in ‘The Gift of the Magi’:

 

The magi, as you know, were wise men—wonderfully wise men—who brought gifts to the Babe in the manger. They invented the art of giving presents. Being wise, their gifts were no doubt wise ones, possibly bearing the privilege of exchange in case of duplication. And here I have lamely related to you the uneventful chronicle of an unwise child who most unwisely sacrificed for the brother other the greatest treasures of his house. But in a last word to the wise of these days let it be said that of all who give gifts these were the wisest. O all who give and receive gifts, such as they are wisest. Everywhere they are wisest. They are the magi.