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.

Of Chillis and Medicine

It was early in my medical career when I first encountered the diabolical burn of the chilli pepper.
A Greek man ferried, carried, hurried his screaming child down the driveway of our home to the side door that admitted patients to Dad’s consulting room. The child’s round cheeks were red, his eyes streamed, his left upper and lower eyelids were scarlet. The father’s distress equalled the child’s: grief and fear contended in his broken speech: Is doctor house? Too much paining! My son, he burn… Terrified – I was fourteen, and although self-apprenticed to Dad, I knew I was out of my depth – I opened the door and stammered over my retreating shoulder, Doctor will come soon, I’ll tell Mum. The man wept, rocked his child, rocked himself, his tears fell, mixing with his son’s.

Mum hurried and said kind, calming things. She fetched damp cloths and wiped the boy’s eyelids and his lips, swollen like plums. Afterwards Doctor did come, gave an injection and peace returned.
Mum explained, The boy thought the red chilli pepper was some sort of lolly. When it burned his lips he cried. Then he wiped his left eye with his chilli hand. He must have rubbed the right eye with the other.

All that happened a long time ago. I was reminded of it today as I peeled and chopped mango for a lime and mango fruit salad. I sucked a lot of mango pips, I slurped the juicy flesh from mango peelings. And my fingers and palms began to tingle. My lips tingled too. Soon tingle turned to burn. I looked at my fingers, all red and juicy and I remembered the day I prepared mango mousse for twelve. That day a dozen mangoes bled onto my lips and hands; and today my skin remembered. I had disregarded the warning at the end of the recipe to protect my skin with rubber gloves. The recipe closed with the words, both the mango and the chilli originate in Latin America. They are botanically close.
The word recipe is one a doctor uses with every prescription: the large R stands for the instruction to the compounding pharmacist, Recipe – please make up the following recipe. I did some doctoring today as well as some cooking. I claim to be a bold cook, not a good one. My family are bold eaters and candid critics of my cooking, just as they are of my healing. They will tell me after dinner what they think of my recipe.

The Rubaiyat of Zoltan Klein

A Book of Verses beneath the Bough,
A Flask of Wine, a Loaf of Bread – and thou Beside me singing in the Wilderness –        And, Wilderness were Paradise enow!

I accepted the invitation to the launch event of ‘Bread, Wine & Thou’ without curiosity. But as the series of emails from the Event Manager mounted I sensed I should look a bit spiffy for the launch. So I wore my English Schoolboy Blazer. The addition of my backpack subtracted from the elegance of my outfit and together with my skullcap ensured I would look quite as odd as usual.

At the last moment I invited a friend, an art impresario held by all to be ineffably elegant.

The security man at the door, a gym giant in Armani, consulted a guest list longer than the Pentateuch. A show of expensive teeth: “Your names, gentlemen?”

“We are both Howard Goldenberg”, I said.

“Thank you sirs. Please take the elevator to the Second Floor.”

A disembodied voice from the rear of the elevator was heard: “Hi Howard”. It took a while to identify our host Yossi (also Zoltan Vinegar) Klein, obscured as he was by a cluster of tall, expensively draped women, mounted on very steep heels. Taller than all others in the lift a wide man with an interesting face stood next to Yossi. He did not speak.

The lift released us into the highly geometric womb of Cox Architecture, a space as inventive and unexpected in its proportions and planes and shapes as Federation Square. I had not previously heard of Cox, but I was given to understand its iconic condition.

Filling the space, throngs of elegant females and stylish males kissed a lot of air as they greeted each other with little shrieks and harmless hugs. I noted my companion and I were not the most expensively dressed persons present. Wine was sipped, quite exquisite looking entrees were served and everyone accepted a copy of ‘Bread, Wine and Thou.’

Eventually Zoltan took a microphone and spoke. For a time no-one noticed, for Yossi is, as his surname suggests, not tall. After a bit all fell silent. He spoke informally, disarmingly, unpretentiously. He said, “I wanted to create a literary magazine on the themes of food, wine and culture.” Those were precisely the words he used when he spoke to me a year earlier in ‘Batch’, the Kiwi coffee shop where he and I had sighted each other without speech over years. On that occasion Yossi said: “I’ve read your writing on Aboriginal Australia. I want you to write a piece on Aboriginal Cuisine for the first Number of ‘Bread, Wine & Thou.’ I can’t pay you.”

I accepted the commission and wrote something and turned up in my blazer and kippah and backpack. It must be clear from the harsh tone of my introductory remarks that I felt uncool, unfamous, outranked by the figures of beauty. But as Yossi spoke all that fell away. This man in his forties spoke of his dream and its fulfilment, the magazine – really a handsome book – that we held in our hands. Yossi opened with a joke about his Jewish mother. It was a good joke and we all laughed and Yossi relaxed. He thanked a legion of first names, burnishing each name with his deep appreciation. As Yossi spoke one hundred and fifty smart people from the uppermost echelons of food and wine stood, arrested. Cynicism and self-consciousness fell away. We were human together as Yossi stood, naked in his feeling. He said he was overcome. His voice cracked with emotion.

Later a Very Great Man accepted the microphone. He sat down and whispered, exercising the powers of greatness and of near-inaudibility over his audience. Just as Howard Goldenberg alone had never heard of Cox Architecture, neither had I recognised the Greatest Chef in the World, the tall wide man of the interesting features who rode the rising elevator at Yossi’s side.

  
The room worshipped. Upon completing his remarks the man folded Yossi in an embrace that hoisted him from the floor. Evading believers*, he strode from the room, disappearing into the night.

That this personage should have descended to Melbourne for Yossi was felt to be an enormous compliment to our host. As I listened to the chef speak of his career at length and in breadth I felt increasingly the greatness of Yossi. And when you read Yossi’s magazine I think you will feel the same.

Although ‘Bread, Wine & Thou’ is accessible on-line, I urge you, do not go for the virtual book; for modest moneys you can acquire the real volume. Collectors will treasure this, the first edition, a thing of truth and beauty.

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* I stole this lovely phrase whole from Les Murray’s ‘ A Perfectly Ordinary Rainbow’.

Sour Dough Lady

The grandkids are baying for bread. The bakery looks promising – lots of crusty artisanal breads, the right smells, ladies in aprons waiting to serve. It’s not a premises certified kosher, but bread this good ought to be kosher. I need to rule out forbidden ingredients.
” Can you tell me which of your breads is vegan?”
” What?” Apron lady frowns as if I accused her of something.
I produce a placating smile and rephrased the question:” Do you have any breads without animal fats?”
Now apron lady knows I am out to trap her. “NO!”
The monosyllable is accented, Eastern European.
A super nice smile, lots of friendly teeth:” Do you think I can have a word with the baker? There’s a tribe of flour-annointed blokes in white hats and aprons baking away behind the shop assistant.
“Why?”
“Why what?”
“Why you want baker?” The floral apron is an iron curtain.
“I think the baker might have more…information.”

Information, informant, the lady shop assistant knows these things. She knows these things from the days of queuing for bread. This customer has reached the front of the queue. No information is necessary. Buy or go!
“I tell you already – NOT. You not speak to baker. I KNOW.”
“Thank you.”
I go.

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Return of the Pantry Moth

They’d visit every year, in late spring as I recall. And they’d stay until the end of summer. The pantry moths were our uninvited guests. “House guests are like fish”, as my cousin in Des Moines remarks, “They’re fine at first but they start to go off after three days.”

When they first arrive the moths are inoffensive in their delicate off-white coats. Standing upright, which I’ve never seen them do, they’d be a fraction taller than a centimetre; in full and fluttery flight their wingspan is about two-and –a half cm. I don’t mind them at first. Their numbers are few and they shun attention, nestling discreetly in the groynes of the kitchen’s plaster ceiling. What they are doing, I discovered, is waiting, plotting, fantasising. What is it that the moth’s minute brain contemplates high in the groynes? Sex, of course. Sex in our kitchen. This, I believe, ranks as an offence against hospitality.

Now I’ve never actually caught the moths at it. Perhaps they are too quick. Discreet they certainly are, as I observed earlier. But I know they do it. In the lines my late and beloved Uncle Abe loved to recite:

I can tell there’s been some pushin’
By the marks upon the cushion
And the footprints on the ceiling
Upside down…

In the case of the moths it’s their offspring that offend. Somehow they are born lengthier than their parents, at 1.3 cm. These pale plump maggots (I know, I know, they are pupae or something), these maggots drop from the ceiling onto the kitchen benchtops and worm silently, slowly, heading for some unseen bourne.
A few weeks after the arrival of the first of these obese spermatozoa we come across them in the pantry, within sealed jars of farinaceous foods. Their brains might be small but these fellers are all Houdini.
I have written previously of the obscure pleasure of discovering that the curious black crescents in my breakfast cereal I have just consumed are actually mice poo. Less charming somehow is the discovery of pupae in your oatmeal. After the first few of these vernal experiences we examine every package, every plastic container, every jar in our pantry and empty those infested into the bin. Then we buy some more and wait for next spring.

While still invaded and under plunderous attack, we counter-attack. Our weapon is chemical, doubtless banned by the Geneva Diet of Worms: the weapon is a Hovex Pantry Moth Trap. This consists of a small square of pink rubber steeped in some chemical pheromone that seduces the randy moth, who flies towards it in a state of high tumescence and lands on old fashioned fly paper, where cruelly affixed as if crucified in glue, the moth expires.

That’s how it used to be. Come spring, when

The flowers appear on the earth;
The time of the singing of birds is come,
And the voice of the turtle is heard in our land;

our fornicating moths would return.

But last September the moths failed. No flapping in the groynes, no wrigglers in the oatmeal. It felt lonely. It felt like environmental doom. I felt a shapeless guilt. Needing to apologise I wandered empty through my springtime kitchen looking for a maggot.
This environmental emptiness reminded me of the time on the dry land when the blowflies failed. On the lonely road to Bunninyong the words of the Preacher echoed obscurely:

Lest the evil days come
And the years draw nigh
When thou shalt say
“I have no pleasure in them.”

The world had changed ominously. Drought haunted the land.

But after a decade of drought the blowflies came back. And now, at the onset of winter, our pantry moths have returned. Unseasonal visitors, they are harbingers of environmental recovery.

Let all those souls who despair for perishing species visit our flapping, squirming kitchen. Or the blowfly haven of Bunninyong. Nature, it seems, loves the maggot.