Zeide

Tonight* my wife will light a memorial candle for her father. Her sister Robyn will do the same. Tonight will mark the anniversary of his death, in both the Jewish calendar and the secular. The two dates coincide only once in nineteen years; this is the second time they’ve concurred; Zeide died thirty-five years ago.

My father-in-law wore any number of names. In Russian he was Grigori (he’d sign loveletters to his children with “Gregory”), his wife called him Harry, friends called him Hershel, my children called him Zeide, and he asked me to call him Dad. That wasn’t difficult: it wasn’t hard to love a man who never had a son and who treated his sons in law like his own.
Harry adored his grandchildren. He was a natural grandfather. He had a gift for it. He showed me how I might do it, when the time for it would come.
Harry Novic burned with love of family. He loved Italian food, Italian clothes, Latin music. Harry loved his friends and he loved his Chesterfield cigarettes. His tobacconist alone knew how many he smoked and he assured Harry, when importation was to be halted, ‘You’re a very special customer. I’ll make sure you have them.” He told his daughters, ‘If you ever smoke I’ll break every one of your fingers.”
One day Zeide confided to his sister, ‘I think I’ve got “that thing”‘. He used the yiddish to name the un-namable, a tribal practice, as if to name it might be to bring it on. The medical name of the un-namable was mesothelioma. In less than a year Zeide had died.
Months later Zeide missed his first grandchild’s Batmitzvah. He missed two more batmitzvahs and three barmitzvahs, as well his grandchildrens’ many weddings. He never saw a grandchild graduate, he never knew his fourteen great-grandchildren. He died and he never saw his generations bud and flower.
The family grows and grows. We miss him – as my son remarked today – at every celebration, at every milestone..
What would Zeide think, If he were to come back tonight, if he were to stand alongside the evergreen Helen who was his bride, who became his wife, whom he made his widow? What would he say, what amazement would be his!
I think what I learn is how grandchildren need their grandfather, how a grandfather might be missed, how his memory is  a candle that burns.
*written just over a week ago

Walking with my Father*, after all this Time

Most Saturdays I walk with my father. Saturday is shabbat, when I go to shule (synagogue) in the morning and walk home alone afterwards. It is this walk that I take with Dad. It works like this: services at the shule of my choice finish around noon-thirty – precisely the time my family will be gathering at home. No-one wants to risk coming between a Goldenberg and her food at meal time; too dangerous. So just a few moments before the congregation sings the concluding hymn, Adon Olam, I duck out of shule and hurry homeward.

 
When it comes to a prayer or a song a Goldenberg is not one to short-change his Maker. So, striding like my father before me, I sing that song as I walk, feeling anew the melody I sang with my father through our decades of shule-going together. In fact, Dad and I shared two different melodies to Adon Olam, one of them quite beautiful, the other even lovelier – or should I say – slower, sweeter, more expressive of longing. We loved them both, I love them still, and so I sing – first one of the two, then the second.
 
When I was a timid child I attached myself devoutly to the final lines of this song:
Into His hand, I entrust my soul
While I sleep and when I awaken;
And while ever my soul remains with me –
The Lord is with me – I will not fear.
 
But of course I did fear. First I feared the wolves and the bears that would come for me in my bedroom from the grim tales of Europe; later I felt afraid of snakes, of adults who shouted at me, of the world. I felt safe with Mum and with my dreadnought father, and – more perilously – with my risk-taking brother Dennis. I did a lot of fearing and I seized needily at the comforting closing line of Adon Olam. I’d sing it to myself when I walked alone in the dark.
 
***
 
Dad sang sweetly, his light tenor voice rising high above the circumambient baritone drone of fellow worshippers. He’d look intent as he sang, for music spoke to Dad more truly than words. Dad always claimed he didn’t like poetry, but he loved song. Music reached Dad in his secret places of abiding anxiety, it inspired him and carried his hopes, his love of life, his belief in beauty.
 
It was late in Dad’s life that he surprised me, speaking once of Adon Olam: Whenever in my life I’ve felt afraid, that last line has come to me. As a child I’d sing it to myself when I was walking alone in the dark.
 
Now a man walks home alone. Approaching threescore and ten he walks, still vigorously, as his father walked. He sings softly as he walks. Adon Olam swells in his throat. His voice slows to climb the penultimate arc of old melody, he holds that high note, then allows his voice to fall, to slide peacefully, into peace.

The man walks home alone but never alone.
 
· *’Walking with my Father’ was a chapter title in my first book, ‘My Father’s Compass’ (Hybrid, 2007). That memoir recorded my life with my father that had ended with death at a great age, a few years earlier. It was that book in which I first went public with my (possibly regressive) ancestor worship.

What the Eye Will See

A friend has published a memoir of his late father. When my own father passed away I wrote a memoir and published it.
The entire process was rewarding: I had honoured my father, I had told his story ‘that a later generation might know’. And I had managed my grief.
My friend Michael Komesaroff has achieved all those things with his memoir, “What the Eye Will See”. What stands out in the personality of Willie Komesaroff  (the author’s father) is his jealous protection of his good name, his deep to the bone integrity.
In addition to this private story the author has brought to bear the meticulous research skills that he employs as a visiting professor, consultant and journalist in his professional field, which is Asian mineral investment. The result is a small book with a big story. It is a very Australian story – the story of the Komesaroffs, a Jewish clan from the Ukraine; of their immigration to Australia during the years of the Russian Revolution at a time when Australian government policy expressly excluded migrants from that area.
How government policy was waived and how the Komesaroffs responded in the host country are the stuff of unseen greatness. This country’s gentile politicians who overcame public prejudice and government policy; the Moses figure of the Komesaroff clan who plucked his family from peril and set them up here; the manner in which that clan buckled down, worked hard, prospered, multiplied and rewarded Australia; this is the story of Australian migration success, writ large – but written as it were – in invisible ink. Such is the characteristic modesty and self-effacement of the Komesaroffs (noisy scion Michael conspicuously excepted) that although the clan is Melbourne’s biggest Jewish family and its members are giants of professions, they stay away from limelight.
“What the Eye Will See” allows us all to see and appreciate elements of the greatness of this country and the hidden greatness of some of its quieter achievers.
Michael invites my readers to the launch of the book. It will be a good afternoon.

What the Eye Will See launch invitation

What the Eye Will See launch invitation

Whale Mourning at Wilson’s Prom

My father walked these hills and steeps:

Woke early ever, walked rugged rockstrewn track

To the lookout, and back. Now he sleeps

Forever; and I rise with the sun

 

On this second day of the last new moon,

Of the dying year;

And sound the shofar, the ram’s horn warning*,

Then go for a run on a crystal morning.

 

My Father walked till his dying year; I follow his track

Across the bridge,

Then up the hill and over a ridge –

Then back; pausing to view a sapphire sea.

 

High here, on air, at Wamoom**, this southern

End of a continent,

Comes remembrance, a fifth element:

Midst earth and water I stand, content,

 

Basking in the gentle fire of an early sun

Then turn

To start the slog and gasp and sweat – up hills

And tracks on the ridge of the returning run.

 

Stop! – cries the voice of my companion

And turn!

And look out to sea, and see – there’s a whale!

I stop and turn and look – and sight the sail-

 

Shaped fin, the hump of back, the mammalian

Brown-black, a bruise

On the blue face of the sea. Now it sinks again

And as I smile, give thanks, and muse

 

It surfaces and plays, and sprays its spume

At the end of the dying year.

Another whale was here, beached, dead; while with my father

A decade ago, I saw it. We paid homage at its sandy tomb.

 

* Through the month of Ellul, Jews sound the ram’s horn, as a call to repent before the solemn days of the High Holydays.

**”Wamoom” is the Aboriginal name of Wilson’s Promontory.

Excerpt from My Fathers Compass by Howard Goldenberg. Hybrid 2007, 2008.

Nonmother’s Day

Apparently Mother’s Day is neither a public holiday nor a religious holy day. Anyone who is not a believer is nevertheless a moral outcast. Even Al Capone loved his mum, one day of the year. Mother’s Day is not ancient, rather it is the brainchild of a marketing opportunist at a greetings card company. The same is true of Father’s Day.

There is a problem with both Days: where to place the apostrophe. Is it the day of the one and only mother you happen to be celebrating? If so, it is Mother’s Day. But if all mothers, from the Madonna onwards, are celebrated, it becomes Mothers’ Day. But as mothers become more numerous, sentiment is diluted. Unless you are a politician gift wrapping pre-election pork for the barrel, you can’t get teary over every mother in the cosmos.

What should make us tearful is the abuse of the apostrophe. In the fruit shop – Lovely Navel’s; in the supermarket – New Seasons Spud’s; at the pharmacy – Retread your Old Condom’s Here.

Spring is Here – Get Ready for Summer

Great Britain, April, 2013.

There is news of a sighting. More precisely, there’s a report that someone in Bristol claims a sighting. It might even be true – perhaps the someone did sight the sun in Bristol, briefly, the day before yesterday. The day before I arrived.

In Whiteladies Road, Bristol, a sandwich board is full of sunny optimism: SPRING IS HERE, it sings, GET READY FOR SUMMER. The advice that follows makes alarming reading:

FULL LEG 10 pounds

BIKINI 15 pounds

BRAZILIAN 18 pounds

No-one in Bristol should shed nature’s protective fur. For that matter, no-one anywhere in Britain ought to follow that advice.

***

Gippsland Lakes, Victoria, Australia, March, 1990.

A lady, middle-aged, bellows across the water from the deck of her rented yacht. She projects her fruity English accents in the direction of Dad’s boat. My aged uncle sits on Dad’s deck, enjoying the day’s end.

The early evening has turned decidedly cool. Dad and his crew shelter below decks, while Uncle sits above, nodding pleasantly from time to time in the English lady’s direction. As dusk descends, Uncle, who is deaf, drinks in the peace.

The English lady and Uncle have not been introduced. The lady is pleased to share her life story with Uncle. She tells him about her travels and her maritime experiences.

Visiting the daughter, actually. Lives here in Orstraliah. Married here, what?

Uncle nods, smiles.

Always enjoyed boating, all of us. Cowes Regatta, what not. Husband’s vice commodore there.

Another nod.

Cool evening. Reminds one of a coolish time at Cowes. Husband and I went for a quiet evening sail. Left the club, tooled around till dark, turned for home. Monster squall blew up. Caught us unawares – below decks taking cocktails. As one might – moon above the yardarm, what?

Uncle – watching a pelican gracefully spilling air, gliding, teasing his sight in slow, elegant inevitability – misses his cue, fails to nod.

His locutor raises her voice helpfully.

Nasty Squall. Tipped the bally boat over. Husband and I took to the dinghy. Squall passed. Squalls do. Boat out of sight, had to row to land.

Uncle, enjoying the first stars behind the lady, looks attentive. From time to time, as her jaws come to rest, Uncle obliges with another nod.

Rowed all night. Dashed cool by morning. Rowed right up to the jetty at the Club, there’s Reginald, Club Commodore, strolling along the pier. Calls out to us: “Lovely morning for an early row.”

One had to explain: ”Not rowing for fun, Reggie. Bally shipwrecked. Learned something from the experience, though: never knew the purpose of hairs on one’s pussy, Reggie – keep one warm in a shipwreck.”

Copyright, Howard Goldenberg, 7 April, 2013

Silent Companion

I approach as the sun withdraws. There are only two of us, the Rock and me. I glance upwards: gorgeous parabolas of stone, ferrous waterways etched in rust.  One convex curve of curtained rock is fretted and tinted, purnu, an Aboriginal wood carving.

Around me all is still. I feel as I did as a child when I intruded into my grandparents’ bedroom. No-one found me, but the stillness nearly undid me.

I park the car, hide my keys, and set out, running clockwise. The rock is my companion, watching me, looking down from steeps and heights, not austerely, not unkindly nor yet tenderly. Keeping me in sight, keeping an eye on me.

Everywhere I go on earth I run; I feel the place then, I connect with its earth. I breathe its air. Well, no, not quite everywhere: not in sacred places – not on the Temple Mount, not at the Shrine of Remembrance.

The first time I came to Uluru, I drove here with my Dad. I parked and leaped from the car, crying, See you soon, Dad. Just going for a run to the top.  Continue reading