Dennis, Twelve Years On


 

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

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

 

 

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

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

 

My Mum

My mother is dead. This is not news to me nor to an attentive reader of my musings on the net; Mum’s been dead since 2009. But the fact precedes the realisation. I feel the pleasure of being her son every time I think of her. That pleasure persists, felt it in the present tense. Especially today.

  To know my Mum was to smile. She was both vague and humorous, almost daffy, at least in respect of the weight of the world.

Mum knew sorrow. She lost both parents to natural causes in her childhood. She survived the death of her husband (‘he was a lovely man’) and a few years later, the death of her firstborn son, who lived, it seemed, solely to bring pleasure to Mum’s last years. A few days before her ninety-second birthday, battling the heart failure that would kill her only a few days later, Mum literally laughed at death. Already breathless, with fluid pooling suddenly in her lungs, she suffered a coughing fit, gasped, gasped more deeply, turned grey and slumped. A few milligrams of hero molecules and some litres of oxygen later, Mum awoke and grinned. From behind her mask she chuckled and gasped: ‘They thought I was going to croak, but I didn’t!’

Dad’s heart started to play up in the months preceding his demise. I felt a doctor son should warn my unworrying mother: ‘Dad’s heart disease could kill him, Mum.’

‘I know that darling. That happens to old people.’ And to comfort and prepare me, she added, ‘Death is part of life.’ 

Mum’s acquaintance with sorrow seemed to leave her unharmed. Events always had their brighter side. You could always laugh.

I wondered about this. This was not a shallowness. Mum loved generously in a way that would be reckless in any normal person. She’d invest in love, lose the entire capital and somehow end up liquid.

What was her secret?

Did she learn something early in life that helped her to surf, ever buoyant, upon the waves and dumpers?
All I have to account for my mother’s lightness of being are my memories and her stories.

Of her father: ‘Daddy was at sea on his lugger for weeks at a time. He’d spend the idle hours carving mother of pearl and tortoise shell to make jewellery for Mummy.’

‘Daddy used to give concerts at the Town Hall on his one-stringed violin. He was very artistic.’

Mum’s face is alight as she speaks. Her father is always ‘Daddy’, the affectionate diminutive bright in a daughter’s smile and lilt of voice. ‘When Daddy was dying the nuns asked the whole school to pray for him.’

‘Daddy carved this brooch from the mother of pearl and pearls he brought from the bottom of the sea. He made it for Mummy when they were sweethearts.’

‘During the Depression Daddy went bankrupt. He worked for a real estate agency after that.’ Mum points to a black and white photograph of the staff of the Agency. Four stiff middle-aged men and one commanding matron stare at the camera. As old as any but much the youngest in facial expression, my grandfather smiles impishly.

‘Then he got lung cancer and died.’

Driving past Brighton Cemetery, with a wave of a hand, ‘Daddy and Mummy are in there – just next to John Monash.’ A six year old boy cannot reconcile that champagne voice with the terrible intelligence of the death of parents. I wonder at first if ‘Mummy and Daddy’ might by some magic still live, ‘in there’.

Mum pronounces the famous surname, ‘Moanash.’

In my university years I need to correct her; ’Mum, it’s Monnash, not Moanash.’

‘No darling, it’s Moanash.’

‘Mum, three thousand people go to Monash Uni every day and they all pronounce it Monnash!’
‘Do they darling? I must be wrong then. It’s just we knew the family and they pronounced it Moanash.’
Of her mother: ‘Mummy died three years and three days after Daddy. She died of a broken heart.’ For Mum rheumatic heart disease is translated to a love that killed but never died.
‘Mummy was extremely elegant. She made her own clothes. If you look at her pictures you’ll see she always wears a half sleeve. Mummy’s arm was burned above the elbow and she always covered the scars.’ 

Of her philandering uncle; ‘Harold should never have married Grace. They lived perfectly happily while he kept her as his mistress. Once they married, Grace couldn’t tolerate his lady friends. After Harold took one lady friend on a cruise to Tahiti Grace never forgave him.’ Mum’s voice expresses wonder at the anger of a woman scorned. ‘So she tried to poison him by tampering with his heart medication. When that failed she removed the tacks from the carpet at the top of the stairs. Harold fell all the way down but he wasn’t hurt.’

Lots of stories, lots of memories, all recounted lightly. Did Mum have no bad memories? Or did she simply lack that faculty when to remember would create sorrow?

There was one. When Mum told me this in my own early childhood I felt swamped in vicarious grief. We were walking at the top of Pine Avenue in my home town of Leeton Mum paused outside the toy shop. ‘Howard I want to buy you a present. It’s important. You have to let me buy you something.’

Surprised by this; I didn’t need to be persuaded.

Mum went on: ‘When I was a little girl I didn’t allow Daddy to do that. He wanted it so much and I didn’t let him. It was a doll. Daddy took me into the toyshop and we both saw her. She was nearly as big as I was. I saw her and I loved her and I wanted her. I wanted her enough to burst. Daddy said, “Would you like that big doll, Yvonne?”

I wanted her so badly I felt it must be greedy to say yes. I shook my head. “Really?” – said Daddy. “I’d like to buy it for you. Say ‘yes.’” But I couldn’t say yes. Because I’d already said no. If I said yes now Daddy might think I was only pretending not to be greedy. He’d think I was greedy and bad for not saying what I truly wanted.

Daddy kept trying to persuade me. I kept shaking my head. Daddy looked hurt. My pride hurt Daddy and my foolishness hurt me. We left the shop, Daddy sad and confused and I too sad to cry. We left and I knew I would never have the dolly.’

One clear memory of sorrow. Clear, sharp, unbearable for the listening child. I said nothing because the sadness was stronger than my words. The only story of sadness I ever heard from my mother’s lips. All the rest – one day short of ninety-two years – is sunlight.

 
 
In an era where corporal punishment of children was everywhere and unremarked, Mum only ever smacked me on the bottom on two occasions. Afraid she’d hurt me, she didn’t have her heart in the job. On the second – and final – occasion Mum gave up when both she and I were overcome and helpless with laughter.
 
Here’s my best guess: her father (‘Daddy’) dies after a horrible illness; her mother (‘Mummy’) dies after a long, long illness. Aged fifteen she looks about her life. She sees Doreen, her younger sister, and ‘Gar’, her mother’s mother who moved in after ‘Daddy’ died. If that’s the worst life can do to her, she decides, life is worthwhile. There is still love.
In this all-female domesticity Mum learns from the example of Gar – herself an emancipated widow – that a woman ought be confident and fearless – of men (who are lovable and inferior) and of death. And Gar’s dictum, ‘what I cannot cure, I must endure,’ shapes the girl’s life.
 
Less than a decade later the girl will lose family in the Holocaust. In her seventies and eighties she will suffer stroke after stroke, culminating in a haemorrhage that tears her brain; she will lose fluency and clarity of speech, she’ll inhale perilously as she swallows, her gait will be shattered and continence lost. She will tell this son, ‘I’ve never been happier because I’m surrounded by people who love me.’ And as an afterthought, ‘I really think I could still drive, darling.’
 
She reviews her life: ‘I’ve never achieved any status, never followed a profession, never been well-known for anything. But I have four children who love me and that means something.’
Each one of the four feels so truly and well loved, we all feel morally certain we must be the favourite. All four of Mum’s children inherit, to a greater or lesser degree, Mum’s temperament. Of the four, it is Dennis whose life is most difficult, but he lives through loss and disappointment, ill health and frustration, buoyantly.
 
 
Today is Mum’s ‘yahrzeit’, the anniversary of her dying. In the Synagogue last night and again at dawn this morning, this son – this unmourning orphan – leads the congregation in prayer, recites Kaddish, and lights the memorial candle. He sheds no tears in remembering but he gives thanks.

My Sister Margot


May thirteen 1949 my sister emerged as the sun set and the sabbath arrived.


The doctor from the next town, nineteen miles distant, did not arrive – the Murrumbidgee had broken its banks and a sea separated Narranderra from our town of Leeton.

Dad was an accomplished accoucher.  The other doctors in our town did not come up to his standards so Mum had to give birth to her firstborn and to me in the City.  Third time around Dad had chosen that doctor in Narranderra – apparently he was competent enough to bring Dad’s children into the world.

But the waters held him distant.

So Dad delivered my parents’ third child, their first – and as it turned out – their only daughter.


She had red hair and she grew freckles, but my parents overlooked those abnormalities and rejoiced.

The baby’s name was Margot.

I look at the watercolour portrait of Margot that we grew up with and I see now she really was beautiful.

 

I could not see her beauty back then. She attached herself to her older brothers and wanted to go everywhere with them. One day when she was fifteen months old Dennis and I had urgent business at Iano’s Milk Bar. Margot, mother naked, wanted to come. We said no, closed the gate behind us and set off, ignoring her cries. 

At Iano’s someone said: Is that little girl your sister?

Margot had run across wide Wade Avenue and chased us three hundred metres. Here she was, unclothed in her girl way, and embarrassing. 

I said, I’ve never seen her before.

 

Margot grew taller and her golden hair grew longer. Eventually it hanged down to her freckled bum. The photographer from Melbourne Herald sighted all that flowing splendour and the photo appeared on the front page of the paper.

 

Margot married. In her innocence she was unaware her husband was a genius. She could not foresee how his talent would drain them from Australia to America where successive chairs in neuropsychopharmacology awaited his brains.


When Margot removed to New York our mother did the maths: a year was a twelvemonth; Mum had four children. Twelve divided by four equals three. Mum would spend three months of every twelve with Margot and the tribe she was creating in America. 

Dad stayed at home and worked and missed his freckled girl.


In my novel, ‘Carrots and Jaffas’ I create a titian-haired woman with freckled, sinewy legs who lives by the Hudson in Riverdale, New York. She runs like the wind and never tires. She is good to her brother.

 

She’ll turn sixty-six this may thirteenth.

A Musing

At first hearing the term “blog” feels slightly ingenious (web log – right, I get it). More than that the word falls heavily upon the ear, unsubtle, ugly and crude – the more so since in the vernacular of childhood the bog was the lavatory. When we visited the lavatory whatever solids we deposited there were collectively a ‘bog.’ The term remains current but not predominant.

Initially I disdained the term ‘blog’. I knew instinctively that a blogger must be vain and unselfconsciously vulgar. I knew I would never write one; I would never be one.

Yet here we are. Of course I am flattered that over  two hundred and fifty persons have managed to overcome these unpleasant redolences and ‘follow’ these postings. Yet, two or more years after embarking on the practice I remain unreconciled to blogs and blogging. The words suggest turds.

So what are we sharing? I think this is Howard Goldenberg’s column, too occasional to constitute a diary, yet intimate enough to be that. This is Howard thinking aloud, thinking personally. Self-absorbed in tone, vain in ambition, unexpectedly enriching to the writer in its fruitful exchanges.

Being now FED UP, I resolve that so long as I remain a bogger, I’ll no longer be a blogger. When King George V lay on his death bed a friend visited and remarked encouragingly, ‘You’ll soon be up and about and able to take your annual holiday at Bognor.’ To which the king replied: ‘Bugger Bognor!’ – and died.

As for me, Bugger Blogger! I am glad to announce this blogger has died, executed, the punishment for linguistic ugliness well overdue.

Good morning, welcome now and henceforth to the occasional musings of Howard Goldenberg.

A Visit to the Dentist

You could say it’s all my mother’s fault. It was Mum who made me go to the dentist. It was Mum who made me wash. Like many mothers Mum had a religious belief in soap and water.
When I was a small child Mum took me to the dentist, Mister Mc Auliffe. In those days dentists were Mister and doctors were Doctor. Mum tried to make it sound like a treat: ‘Afterwards we’ll go across the street to Mr Iano’s shop and I’ll buy you the biggest apple he’s got.’ I had better reasons, anti-dental reasons, for going to Iano’s. As well as being the fruit shop it was the milk bar: you could buy lollies there. Mum said, ‘Afterwards we’ll get the biggest and brightest and greenest apple in the whole shop.’ Afterwards! I heard a rat. What would happen in-betweenwards?

In between the honeyed talk and the greenest apple was the climb up to Mr Mc Auliffe’s second-floor surgery. From there I had an excellent view of Iano’s lolly shop. Inside that narrow chamber I smelt smells, I heard sounds, I felt vibrations, all novel, all taking place within my mouth. The drill moved with all the speed and softness of a peak-hour cable tram. My teeth were the rails. I felt smoke but could not cry ‘Fire!’
Afterwards, as promised, there was the apple.

Five years later, attending my expensive new school in Melbourne, I stood on the top step of the slide. A pushing-in kid, hostile to this newcomer, tried to push in. I stood my ground. Push came to shove in the back, I fell face-first onto the steel side rail of the slide, arresting my fall with my right front upper incisor. I left part of that upper front tooth in the Mount Scopus playground in St Kilda Road. My parents decided I looked odd and sent me to a dentist. A Melbourne dentist, I discovered, had modern methods of preventing pain by causing pain. The dentist – still mister – squirted local anaesthetic into the nerve nearest the front upper tooth. He said, ‘This will stop you feeling pain.’ Perhaps it did do that, but the injection hurt in a way that was new to me. Mister dentist asked me, ‘Do you want a gold filling?’ I didn’t want anything more this man might do to me. But I didn’t say no so I left those premises unaware of the new vertical glint of gold in my smile. It was a long time before I smiled, longer still before I saw myself in a mirror.

Many decades later grandchildren arrived. They learned to speak. They looked at me, they looked at other humans, and they asked, ‘Saba, how come you got a gold tooth?’
I told them the truth of course. I told them how I fought a gold toothed dragon that no-one else would fight, how I’d killed it and kept one tooth as a trophy.
Every time they saw me, the grandboys would ask, ‘Tell us how you got that golden tooth, Saba.’ I told them how I’d swum into the deepest ocean and fought barehanded the Giant Shark, fought tooth to tooth, how I’d bitten out his black heart, how his blood-red tooth had bitten my gum, had lodged there and rusted and turned gold.’
And again, ‘Saba how did you get that gold tooth?’ I told them about the dinosaurs that caused so much wreckage in my childhood days. ‘You know how Tyrannosaurus wrecks, don’t you, kids?’ I was forced to tell them of my desperate struggle in the dark jungles of Paris, how I saved the Parisees, how Tyrannosaurus died, his black blood turning the dirt streets of Paris black, his last tooth taken as a souvenir – a French word I borrowed from the Parisees – how I had that tooth implanted in my own brave gums. ‘And, kids, today you never see any dinosaurs any more, not even in the dark jungles of Paris. And the streets of Paris are all black.’

All went well for some time. The gold tooth stories nourished hungry young minds, filling them with useful knowledge of geography, of history and of pre-history. The gold tooth gleamed modestly from behind my bulbous lip, a stamp of my enormous, self-effacing courage.

Then my Mum stepped in. Not physically, but in habit ingrained and indoctrinated, Mum’s habit of soap and water, a habit I am embarrassed to admit survives her, years after her death: I showered. And while showering I ran my idle tongue along the inside of my upper teeth, where that slippery pink rasp felt something that was not there: my tooth, my gold tooth, had gone!
That’s life, I said to myself. Sixty years a gold-toothed person, now ungolden. I grinned at myself in the mirror. I looked like a failed terrorist. Something gleamed from the floor of the shower recess. I picked it up and placed it in a urine jar.
I asked the nurses, ‘Is there a dentist in this small town?’ There was, there is. And the dentist’s receptionist had more bad news, ‘You can see him today.’
So I went. The dentist is Doctor now. But he was not the real, dinkum, authentic dentist of my childhood. He covered my eyes to protect me from my own germs. He showed me a horror show on the screen above me: the images were those of my own teeth, my receding gums, my doomed dentition. He did things inside my mouth, asking me questions I never heard in childhood: ‘Does that hurt? Please tell me if I hurt you.’ He used a drill and he didn’t hurt. I think he doesn’t know how. He glued back my bit of gold. I lost my terrorist’s grin.

Nowadays a dentist has lost those old skills, those old black arts; now that a dentist is a Doctor it’s only your wallet that hurts. So a dentist who is a Doctor employs a failed dentist and calls her a hygienist. And she knows how to hurt.

The Reunion

We met in the grounds of our old school. Cars drew up, old faces emerged, old bodies, sagging here and there, supported by stiffening joints. Faces lit in recognition or knitted in puzzlement – I can’t place you – then opened upon discovery. Older faces, stiffer frames – these were teachers, old and treasured. The pleasure was of a novel sort: it was as if one discovered an aged aunt or uncle not seen for fifty years; and the aged one was as delighted we were at the encounter.
Fifty years. A large chunk of time in anyone’s lifetime, an epoch unimaginable when we left in 1963.
We toured the school, the new and the old. The dunnies hadn’t changed except they were clean.
Afterwards we gathered in the dining hall.
I volunteered to speak about the lost eleven of our classmates. I didn’t want the ninety survivors of the class of 1963 to bee-suck on nostalgia and leave the dead unsung. So I read the following:

Here we are fifty years on.
We have become, I realise, walking memorials to those we have lost.
We travel the roads and the paths of our lives and our minds register: Aunty Sylvie lived in this street…Dennis used to walk his dog in this park…that’s the Shule Dad and his bothers walked to when they were kids…this is the street where my grandparents lived…

Now, gathered here at Scopus again, in this dining hall, beneath this roof, shadows of old friends, old rivals, flash across memory. Teachers we loathed, teachers we revered, those we mocked, those we feared, all move across the mind in their chalky academic gowns. They lived, they did their work and they passed on. And we – we who were once seventeen, eighteen years old and full of wonder about the future – we approach threescore years and ten, full of amazement about the years past.

But we have left some behind. I name them now.

Manny Olian, dead in 1964.
Faye Broons, dead only a few years later – in 1971.
Ephraim Bergner – died early – I haven’t been able to track down the year.
Leon Fust and Suzanne Gescheit in 2006;
Miriam Hamer, Norman Stern, Shareen Fremder – all in 2007;
Joe Serwetarz in 2008.
Zelda Slonim in 2009.
Michael Kowadlo, just over a year ago, in 2012.

The names are the bones. Some I can clothe in the flesh of concrete recollection.

Manny Olian.
Many memories, warm, smiling memories of a thin, manically funny boy, a stranger to malice, a friend who stood out from our glorious contemporaries for his originality of mind. Manny was the source of extraordinary insights that always astonished me. I see Manny holding a pen, grabbing a footy, his fingers spidering, hyperextending, exclamation marks at the extremities of a boy at the extreme.
Manny was a pioneer in death by drugs. During a trip on LSD, Manny stepped off a cliff in England and died.

In my imaginings I see Manny’s parents in 1946, at the time of his birth. They look upon their firstborn and they choose a name. The parents see their child before them and put the unspeakable past behind them. They called him Menachem, “comfort”. Eighteen years later, in 1964 – what comfort do they find?

Fay Broons.
I hardly knew Fay. I wonder how many did know her. Pretty, quiet, shy, ladylike, almost ephemeral at school, Fay was a mother of three little kids by 1971. She started the last weekend of her life in good health and was dead 48 hours later – of fulminating infection, or a brain haemorrhage? – even her family does not know to this day.

Ephraim Bergner.
Ephraim, Effy – that gifted, creative, wild child. Those fabulous good looks, that innocent disconnect from the rules, from the mundane, from consequences.
Our class’s James Dean.
Who was surprised that Ephraim’s life ended early?
Only the exact year, and the precise drug escape me.
What shadows, what secrets, what ghosts, was Ephraim escaping?

Leon Fust, skinny, nimble, fearless on the footy field, subtle and gentle in his thought; I last saw him in an Australian bank in Piccadilly, in an impeccable suit and a bowler. Leon looked the epitome of an English gentleman.
Never sighted again, what did Leon die of? Whom did he leave to mourn him?

Sue Gescheit, her kidneys failing after decades fighting off her viciously severe diabetes; Miriam Hamer, marrying for the first time at sixty, marrying for love, knowing her lung cancer had already spread to her brain; Norman Stern, one so jovial, often an innocent magnet for mischance, Norman, whom I had not sighted since school; he and Joe Serwetarz – the tall, the gregarious, the good looking, athlete – both of them, following just before or soon after Miriam and Sue.

Zelda Slonim – I think I knew her. Did I know her?

Shareen Fremder – I’m sure I didn’t know Shareen.

What does it mean that one passes and passes unknown?
Who knows? Who mourns?
Who carries their memory?

Finally, Michael Kowadlo, passing in 2012.

My first memory of Scopus is of Michael. This big friendly kid takes this very lost, very strange new kid –Howard Someone – from the country! – under his wing.
A week or so later I am climbing the steps of the slide when a bunch of interlopers races up the steps, pushing me aside. My face collides with the steel rail, a tooth chips, my mouth fills with blood and Michael, Big Michael, steps in and pushes the interlopers away. I take my turn and slide down. I meet and enrich a dentist. I become closest of friends with the principal slide aggressor – great to see you again Tommy – and Michael becomes a dentist.
The last 100 times I saw Michael occurred when we both spent a year reciting kaddish in memory of loved ones.

I want to recite kaddish now, and I invite everyone to stand and join with me, in memory of all our lost friends. In memory of Manny – “after the first death there is no other’’, as Dylan Thomas reminds us – in memory of youth, in memory – and in forgiveness – of our lost selves…

Yitgadal ve’yitkaddash sh’mei rabah…

***

After I delivered that sombre material, my voice dying at the end, I looked up. Fifty serious faces looked down. My schoolmates, silent for the first time in our twelve school years and in the following fifty years, did not meet my gaze. Gone was the buzz, the gaiety of moments ago. I had spoiled our evening. Or so I feared.

Mount Scopus College was born in Melbourne just after the end of the War. Fiercely partisan community leaders in their congregations and their factions came to historic agreement to bury difference and to create a school. The compromise they made was without precedent or subsequent. The leaders, the secular with the devout, the Yiddishists with the Hebraists, the political with the cultural, agreed on one thing: this ragged remnant of Jewry must educate its children if Jewry were to survive. So Mount Scopus was born at the same historic moment that we, the class of ’63, were born.
What did we know of the Shoah, what did we learn? Precious little at Scopus, only dark and unspoken shapes and silences from our parents. We did not realize until later that ours was a generation without grandparents.
Our Jewish teachers, burning with an intensity that burned us, cared unaccountably that we learn, that we incorporate the burden of their scholarship; while we, dull and distractible, remained unforgivably innocent, even indifferent to the heritage they were transplanting. Only in Rabbi Schwartz was truth writ clear in the body: his throat, a terrible terrain of wound and scar, remained red and swollen these years later. Somehow we all knew – the Nazis had pulled out his beard.
We are the result, their fruits, this class of 67-year olds, gathered again in the old Scopus dining hall that was also assembly hall and concert hall and community banquet room. Was I the only one to gaze about the room and to marvel at the achievement of Scopus, at the fruits of our parents’ sacrifice? The room crawled with professors, with doctors a dime a dozen, with lawyers, teachers, psychologists, with businesswomen, artists, computer greats. I could see how middle-of-the-roaders in our Scopus class rose to enduring distinction in the wider world. Truly the fires of the fathers had kindled huge drive in the children. Starved parents raised a generation hungry for success. We took our opportunities. Some seized the future, becoming pioneers and creators. We flamed, we made our mark.
Most of us had married Jews and produced Jews. Many of us had sent our kids to Mount Scopus. Making the real sacrifices needed for this costly schooling we endorsed the vision of the founders. Some of us had grandchildren at Scopus.

***

The class of ’63 has been decimated in two quite different ways – one in ten has died; one in ten has emigrated, made aliya – literally ascended – to Israel. Of these latter, three classmates have journeyed here solely for this occasion. It is a long and costly trip; why have they come? Why have others travelled from Western Australia and Queensland? Why have the remaining fifty-odd Melbourne residents bothered?
In the course of our four hours together clusters form and drift. Old intimates greet each other but do not linger, instead moving on to find others less known, less loved. A genuine thirst for connection, a tenderness, a respect – the things we all needed and often begrudged in those rougher days.
In place of the empty phrases of everyday greeting, men and women shake, hug, regard; they take in faces that have ripened and withered and deepened; they see and they don’t need to ask; the face of the other is the face they see in the mirror, a face stricken, blessed, stripped by the years. No-one is measuring, no-one comparing: that which we are, we are…

Four hours, equivalent to half a school day, long enough to discover

Equally interesting to me: why have others chosen not to come?
Two, I know, are disabled by mental illness. A third, with whom I am closer now than fifty years ago, told me she could not imagine a more distressing experience than to return to the terrain and personnel of her schoolday trauma. Having rebuilt herself from her remains, she has retreated to another state where she rusticates and has some peace. She begged me not to press her to come. She forbade me to explain. The committee was to erase her contact information. This friend would be astonished to know how many missed her, how many wondered aloud about her. In the face of this goodwill it was difficult for me to hold my peace. I fed friends scraps: She’s doing well…she couldn’t make it…
In the course of the reunion, another – likewise closer in adult life than in school days – turned up unannounced and stood at the rear, listening to the few speeches. The longest speech was my elegy for the lost. Upon completion of kaddish my friend turned and left in silence.
Not everyone won academic laurels. Not everyone had a stellar career. Some of those present at the reunion, vibrantly present, knew their unsuccess didn’t signify. As we toured the school, one removed his adhesive lapel tag and placed it between the names on the Honour Board. There he was, Dux of Mount Scopus College, now, after fifty years. There he was among us, huge in his mirth and delight.
There would be some who decided not to attend, conscious of ‘failure’ – in career, in material status, in family – unaware that no-one measures any more, no-one judges. We missed them.

***

What is the measure of the years? After fifty years what does it mean? I imagine the survivor of the Shoah washing up on this godforsaken Jewish wilderness, this godspared paradise, looking around, looking forward, never backwards, no never back to those places, those times. He stands, he mates with another survivor. Together they work, they scrape, they venture, they struggle and persist. They raise a generation, often of one only child – the previous children lost, burned – they find the tuition fees, they send the child to Scopus…

The Scopus of today dazzles. I venture to suggest there exist university campuses in Australia which would envy the facilities and the faculty of this school.

In all the vivacity of this evening, the buzz, the energy of this still radiant class of ‘63, in all the softening, the love, there abides among us grandparents the uneasy understanding that a Scopus education is beyond the means of many of our children to provide. Some of my contemporaries, I know, quietly pay their grandkids’ fees. Others work for the school, raising funds for scholarships and bursaries.

What would the founders say? Would they count Scopus a success if the rising generation were locked out?