Dennis

 

 

When I was born my elder brother was two years and two months old. When my brother died he was sixty-two. Tonight my younger brother and I will remember our firstborn brother. We’ll recite Kaddish together in his memory.

 

 

 

When I was newly born Dennis filled my baby carriage with all of his toys, submerging me. I didn’t recall that; our mother told me of it. She said Dennis loved his new brother so much he wanted me to have all his toys. All of our lives Dennis gave away everything that was his.

 

 

 

Dennis and I always bathed together. When I was five years of age, and trusting, Dennis conned me into an act of fellatio in which he pissed in my mouth. I recall that clearly.

 

 

 

I’ll light a memorial candle tonight. The candle burns longer than twenty-four hours. When I walk into my night kitchen the small flame takes me by surprise. I stop and I remember. The small flame flickers and falls. It looks about to die, but then it rises and burns brightly.

 

 

I sit alone in the kitchen and the truth comes to me anew: we all flicker before we die. But Dennis! Dennis had such a force of life. I see him pushing Mum in her wheelchair along a steep winding path, pushing her up, up, to catch the sea view from a peak at Wilson’s Promontory. The tyres sink deeply into the sand but Dennis, by sheer force of will, propels Mum forward and upward.

 

 

 

Dennis the fearless. Dennis undaunted, never defeated. When his affairs took a reverse I’d worry for him, but he’d say, ‘It’s always darkest before the dawn.’  Dennis meant that, he believed it, he lived by it.

 

 

 

Life brought ease to the second brother, a harder path to the firstborn. Dennis rejoiced for me in all my little successes. He knew no envy, never felt usurped by the younger brother who got the birthright. He bought me a holy book and inscribed it with his heart’s blood: ‘For my brother Howard. God must be proud of you.’

 

 

 

Dennis had the gregariousness of the deeply lonely. I sit and leaf through his address book, an odd keepsake. The crammed pages teem with names, so many names, names of down and out people he’d find and succour. These people, themselves lonely, found in my brother a man who’d give away all his own toys. 

 

 

 

Dennis decided to undergo major surgery, hazardous surgery. I misgave. But he said, ‘Doff, It will cure my diabetes, I’ll get my life back.’  He had the surgery, his flame flickered and he died.

 

 

Eini, eini, yorda mayyim

My eye, my eye runs with water.

 

 

 

Ellul, 17-18, 5779.

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?