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.
December 18, 1969. A large moon rises before me in the geriatric wing of the Royal Hobart Hospital. This is unexpected as we are indoors and it is noon. The moon shines across the room in my direction. Beneath the bright disc sits a white clerical collar. Just below the disc’s equator a set of white teeth smiles widely. The smile advances, a pink fleshy hand extends and a voice says, ‘Hello. I’m Father Jim. I’m a chaplain here. Call me Jim.’ The hand is warm and kind. I am a new doctor. Today is my first day in my first job. All around me old people drool and gibber in a manner to overwhelm a new doctor.
The moonfaced Friar Tuck is delighted to meet Howard Goldenberg. He says, ‘You’re new here Howard? Welcome to the Royal. I hope you’ll be very happy here.’
Fifty metres distant stands the weatherboard shack which houses the new doctor and his new wife. The new doctor says, ‘Jim, will you join my wife and me for lunch? We’re going to eat soon. Fish…it’s an Indonesian recipe.’ Jim would love to. Thirty minutes later Jim and his new friends Annette and Howard are seated in the shack eating a luncheon of fish bones and curry. Jim fossicks for flesh among the fine bones, eats up and does not complain. And Annette and I have made the first new friend of our married lives.
April 6, 2016. My Facebook-facing daughter forwards the following:
Dear Howard, I am sorry to have to post a message like this via Facebook but I am sad to say that your good friend Jim Smith has died this week, here in London. My name is John and I am his partner, Jim & I met you in North London when you were visiting your family, I think in 2014. Jim had a stroke last year and I was caring for him at home, he had to go into hospital with a pulmonary embolus and then had complications which led to his death on Sunday. I know he always enjoyed his conversations with you, if you have any special memories you would like to send me I can include them in a JimMemory book I intend to put together. I will let you know when the funeral is, if you would like to light a candle and say a prayer for him.
PS RIP Jim! He was quite comfortable and free of pain (he had some back trouble) at the last. John
Jim is dead. Faster than tears an image flashes before me. I see a black and white photo in a family album of a moon-faced man seated outside our rustic house in a village outside Melbourne. The large face is crowned with a white handkerchief knotted at its corners. Upon the lap of the large man sits a small child, our angel Raphael, aged not many months. A perfectly ordinary image: no collar, no ecclesiasticals, no pretence; just a man nurturing a child. The image says enough. A man, a child. Poignant as a Pieta the image drives me from my screen to Annette. My voice disintegrates as I tell her the news. I ring my daughter who is tearful too.
Father Jim Smith married hundreds of heathen nurses to hundreds of pagan doctors in his days at the Royal. All those unbelievers flocked to this man who seemed to personify something missing from the lives of those science-infested people. But around 1990 Jim quit marrying. He said, ‘I marry them, they make vows, then they divorce.’ He felt the losses, each by each, personally. ‘It’s as if their marriage meant more to me than to them’, he said.
Father Jim introduced us to his partner in goodness, Jim Turley. Now we had two Father Jim friends. The two – together with a non-priest – created what might have been Australia’s first refuge. They called it St Michael’s Priory and to it flocked beaten wives, beaten children, lonely people, people mad and broken. All were taken in, housed and fed, and where possible, repaired.
The Priory rested upon the slender incomes of the three and upon donations from parishioners, who brought laying hens, a milch cow, produce – and a pair of Nubian goats. The Jims took us down to shed and showed us two sleekly beautiful creatures. Their coats of Nugget Dark Tan shone on the backs of their aristocratic bodies. Shy, their slender faces darting, their small ears rising and turning to sound, they looked like deer. ‘Meet the Goldenbergs’, said Jim Smith. He was addressing Annette and me, not the goats: ‘This one is Ruth and this is Naomi. They’re pedigreed. We were told we should register them. You could register them by name, so we chose from the Bible. Then Jim and I said, “Ruth and Naomi are Jewish names. Let’s give them Jewish surnames”. So we called them Goldenberg, after our Jewish friends.’
Years later Annette and I gave our third child a Biblical name. She became Naomi Goldenberg, named after a relative at St Michael’s Priory in Hobart.
The Jims used to come to our shack in Gore Street, for Shabbat dinner on Friday nights. They’d stand silently in their yarmulkes while I’d recite Kiddush. Afterwards they’d make a fair fist of translating odd phrases from the Hebrew, to which they’d been introduced during their studies in Divinity. One Shabbat eve one of the Jims – I don’t remember who – challenged the second: ‘Jim, I don’t sense you are making any effort at all to convert the Goldenbergs.’ The other Jim confessed: ‘That’s true.’ And the second Jim nodded and admitted he too was remiss. And one said: ‘I don’t feel any call to change the Goldenbergs.’ That moment love shimmered before us at our Shabbat table: two men of God had each found grace sufficient to deny abstract vocation in favour of human feeling.
Eventually Jim Smith left the Royal, left Hobart, said goodbye to the Priory and to his celibate brethren. It might, for all we knew, have felt like dereliction. Today I picture it as burnout, as an escape from accumulating vicarious trauma.
Jim took a job in Melbourne as chaplain at Pentridge. There his parishioners were prisoners and warders. He sat and he listened to their confessions and to their unconfessions, their lies and their rationalisations. One godless murderer habitually visited Jim on the pretext of spiritual need where he simply craved intelligent conversation. That man had forced his way into a hairdressing salon where he splashed lighter fluid over his rejecting girlfriend before igniting it. The woman survived her horrible burns. Her hairdresser did not.
An equally godless, notoriously brutal warder used to seek Jim out in the Officers’ Mess. He’d ask Jim, ‘Do you mind if I join you?’ Jim decidedly did mind but avowed the reverse. The man, loathsome and unctuous, habitually chose Jim as his companion. Jim couldn’t say which of the two – the murderer or the officer – he liked less.
On one occasion the murderer made a singular confession: boastfully he declared, ‘When we want to punish a warder, we do. We have our ways.’ Jim, genuinely curious, asked –‘How?’ He regretted the question instantly. The prisoner said, ‘We piss in their tea.’
Some time later Jim went to the Officers’ Mess for lunch, took his seat at an isolated table and said, ‘Yes, of course’ when the warder asked to join him. Shortly a prisoner arrived to take their meal orders. Jim ordered his lunch, the warder ordered, the prisoner noted their requests, then asked, ‘Beverages, gentlemen?’ Jim requested tea, the warder said, ‘Same for me.’
Jim sat and enjoyed the warder’s conversation until a second prisoner arrived bearing their food and drink. This prisoner was none other than the murderer. He handed Jim his food, passed the officer his, then said, ‘Here’s your tea, Father.’ He walked around the table and, standing a little to the side and behind the warder, passed him a second mug. Winking hugely at Jim he said, ‘And this is yours, sir.’ Jim sat and watched and kept his peace.
Once again Jim and we were living in the same city. Often he’d would join us at our Shabbat table and at Passover Seder and he’d report on what he called, ‘my time in gaol.’
Later, with his usual genius for vocation among the desperate, among those who were losing and those who were lost, Jim became chaplain to Intensive Care at a major Melbourne hospital. In ICU something like one patient dies of every four who enter. The rates of loss are higher than in a theatre of war.
Eventually Jim retired. Amazing us all, since he’d been resolutely republican and a pronounced proletarian, Jim settled in Britain. Here he found love, a partner in John, and diabetes – the lot of many Friar Tucks.
Every Passover and every Jewish New Year a letter would arrive addressed and written in the child’s block lettering that was the Jim Smith calligraphy. The letters told us of the Jewish roots of Jim’s belief. They’d include clippings from the newspaper columns of ‘my favourite religious writer, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks’, soon to become Chief Rabbi of the British Commonwealth. In his long London epoch Jim read widely and deepened his sense of following a Jewish Jesus. His pleasure in our friendship grew deeper and eventually he crossed the world to attend our eldest daughter’s wedding in Melbourne.
Jim lived with John, sharing travel with him as well as musical theatre, which he loved. A man great in his levity, Jim radiated a softness that healed, attaching him to old friend and to new. When I visited my daughter Naomi (the goat’s child) and her husband and children during their domicile in London, Jim, frailer now, crossed the great city with John for a visit. It was Shabbat and space and time had shrunk. Here was Jim, here were his old friends, here were our tender little ones. Jim was still Jim. The spark of joy still shone. But I wondered if we’d meet again. The moments passed.
And now Jim is dead.
Driving my sister to the airport earlythis autumn morning I looked about me and took in the mists and the mellow fruitfulness. My younger sister is not young. Shortly we would embrace, say goodbye, we’d look forward to next time and we’d both know, ‘next time carries no guarantee’.
I recalled a trip I took to that airport with Mum. I described it to my sister: “This all happened before Mum suffered her strokes. She was not young but could still travel independently. My plane to the outback was due to depart at 10.00. Mum’s inter-city flight was scheduled an hour later. I dropped Mum off at her lounge in a shower of kisses and embraces, and raced to my own lounge. Over the Public Address I heard, ‘The flight to Woop Woop has been delayed. We expect to board passengers at 11.00 and to take off soon after. We regret the inconv…’ I raced back to Mum.
‘Hello darling. How lovely to see you!’ Mum’s face was lit by a smile of mild astonishment. Time’s exigencies always surprised Mum. I began to explain and she took my hand and began to stroke my volar forearm. She said, ‘Aren’t we lucky, darling.’
I felt lucky: here we were, quiet together among the hubbub, heads bent to each other, tasting our found time. A thought came to me: ‘Mum, we two have always been sitting in our Departure Lounges, waiting for our separate flights. We both know one day we’ll have to leave, we just don’t know when. And we can’t really know who’ll leave first.’
Mum nodded. Her walking fingers patrolled from my wrist to the inside of my elbow, back to the wrist then back again. Her touch was light. I thought of early memories of Mum’s touch, of the times when she bathed Dennis and me. We both spoke at once; ‘Your skin feels so soft and smooth.’
As our hour melted away we didn’t say much.
The Public Address commanded us to part. Knowing and accepting, we parted in gentler shower of kissing and holding. Knowing and accepting and feeling very lucky, we took our separate flights.”
Word reached me, and when it came, it came obliquely. My writer friend in England, Hilary Custance Green, forwarded a letter that had reached her by way of one or another of the virtual media. ‘I wasn’t certain what to do with this,’ she wrote, ‘I thought it might be spam, but I decided to forward it, just in case.’ The writer of the letter asked Hilary if she could forward it to her old doctor. The letter bore strong feelings that had brewed and bubbled within the writer over years.
‘Dear Dr Goldenberg, I don’t know if you remember me but I remember you and I have wanted to contact you for a long time.’ There followed the remarkable declaration that my actions had saved the writer, now aged fifty-five, when she was a girl of seventeen. She owed her present happy life, she wrote, to my intervention, as well as the help of some others around that time.
The letter, and the memories it evoked, thudded, jolted within me. Yes I did remember the girl, firstborn of three, trapped in a hell where her violent alcoholic father abused all in the home. I remember the face, fair skinned, the coronet of fair hair. And her brave, fugitive smile.
I read on, and as I read the girl’s name came to me, a diminutive in the Australian way, never Anna but ‘Annie.’ Annie’s father was a helpless, hopeless drunk, and when drunk prone to unpredictable extremity. Annie would await his return from the pub with dread, hoping he’d keep away, hoping helplessly her mother and sisters would be safe. She’d have fled the family home long before but father had screamed and waved his gun at her. His words – ‘If you try to leave I’ll shoot you and the others and myself’ – shocked me. Uselessly, helplessly, I trembled for the child. The child confided she never brought a friend into that house, for fear of the shame. She told me these things, forty years ago, and I recognised a further shame, even deeper, Annie’s self-disgrace to be ashamed of her own father.
In her letter Annie reminded me of the Saturday night she finally escaped. Father had drunk all that day and into the night. Annie sheltered in her bedroom but when father burst in she ran from him, wearing only her nightclothes. Father screamed behind her, ‘You’ll never come back into this house, girl!’ The girl walked through the early hours, avoiding exposed places. She found herself in the deep dark of a railway culvert and, terrified in that blackness she decided, ‘This is where I’ll have to sleep from now on.’
Annie wrote, ‘I walked to the clinic and laid down and waited there for you to arrive. You’d always been kind and understanding. I knew you worked the Sunday mornings. I didn’t have anywhere else. You took me in when you arrived and after work you drove me home so I could safely collect some clothes. Then you drove me to a refuge.’
Annie’s account of that last-first morning was only dimly familiar. I felt small stirrings of pride, and a tenderness for the girl in the nightdress. Much stronger was my shock as I realised I had not thought of her since the ‘rescue.’ Annie had disappeared from the days of those busy years. She had lived, thrived, suffered reverses, sought salvation, recovered, blossomed, become the assertive woman her mother could never be, married happily and raised children, good citizens, and now saw grandchildren. Forty years and no thought by her wonderful caring doctor. That child had come into her own and that doctor had reached his prime and passed it.
Perturbed, I wrote to Hilary to thank her for sending word, for her gift.
The word found me in the outback. I wrote to Annie, giving my phone number and told her I was anxious to speak to her. My phone rang as I rode my bike across the railway line. I dismounted and answered and the voice said it was Annie and for twenty minutes I listened to her narration of the events of a turbulent life. We agreed we’d meet after my return from the outback.
In the exchange of emails that followed a second voice entered, followed by a third, then a fourth. Later a fifth and a sixth made contact. The writers, all roughly contemporaries, had been my patients in their teenage years. Each bore a burden of recollection which pressed now to be discharged.
Three women, matrons now, waited for me at the restaurant. I opened the door to faces that shone. I saw three faces of girls in their teens. I stepped forward and found myself clasped. Lined faces kissed mine, ample bodies held me close.
We sat. The women said how young I looked, I said how good they looked. The past was with us, the past with its beauty and its horror. The past, reverberating with friendships I had forgotten and the three had remembered.
How had I forgotten?
The waitress came, hovered, departed. Again she came and we promised we’d soon choose and order. It was not soon. Forty years here, twenty there, so much event, so much life. Babies – it turned out I had delivered them – were now adults, some even parents.
The waitress returned. Jerked into the present we ordered.
Girls Numbers Two and Three are sisters. I asked after their parents, immigrants, older than me by ten years, proud people, beavers in the general community and within their own. Mum was alive, still vibrant – ‘and fat, like all of us!’ Shrieks of laughter. And Dad?
‘Dad’s fat too, and dementing. The grog; it’s Korsakov’s.’ The speaker is Number Two, now a nurse. In the care of their aging parents she’s the officer commanding Number Three and their brothers.
Both Three and Two were married when I last knew them. They’d married matching buffoons, agreeable blokes when sober, not often sober, not often enough agreeable. Three spoke: ‘Even before we married I saw how my father in law treated his wife. He’d tell her she was stupid, shout at her to shut up when she spoke. One time I saw him belting into her – he was full as usual. I froze. We never saw that. Mum and Dad would drink a couple of gins after work but they never got nasty. Not like that.’
Memories returned to me of the mother in law. A tall trembling lady, her face pink and scarred, she’d address me in a soft trembly voice, describing symptoms I could never fathom, never cure. Now I understood.
‘It wasn’t too long before Robbie was getting aggressive like his Dad. He’d go to the pub after work, get full, drive home drunk. I had my first girl, then the second. I thought, “No. This isn’t what I want for them, not what I want them to see.“ I rang Robbie and I said, “Don’t hurry home you drunken bum. Your wife and your kids have split.”’ Peals of laughter from Three, far the widest at our table. ‘Did he ever hit you?’ – I wondered. ‘Lot’s of times, but I’d belt him too!’ More jolly mirth. Three sits opposite me, her great arms a gallery of art in brilliant reds. Finer tattoos crawl upward from her bodice, another spiders around her neck.
‘Weren’t you scared, leaving him?’
‘No.’ The thought is a stranger to Three. She stares at my unexpected question. ‘There was no future there. I got up, took my girls and went.’
Did I raise an eyebrow? I certainly wondered at her resolve, her clarity. Her fearlessness. ‘Yeah, money was tight. I got a job and I worked and I looked after my girls. They’re good. Their blokes are lovely. And the three of us, we’re very close. Like me and sis here.’ The two women looked at each other and smiled.
Two reminded me: ‘I was a mother at nineteen. Got married. You delivered my babies, Howard. I was in labour, terrified, not knowing anything. You got up on the bed beside me and stroked my back.’ Did I? Nowadays the Medical Board would caution me for this sort of thing. They’d require me to undergo Education.
Two continued: ’You know everything about us. You’ve seen all our vaginas!’ Careless in their merriment the girls showed none of the self-consciousness that saw me look down and blush. ‘I’m diabetic now,’ continued Two. ‘But I’m good. After I left my husband I worked as a nurse, you know, State Enrolled. When my kids were adult and near-adult my partner encouraged me. He said, “You’ve always wanted to study. Do it.” So I did. I studied nursing at Melbourne University. Boy that’s a gap – from Victoria Uni to Melbourne. But I did well…’
‘Got Distinctions’, Three’s voice was proud.
‘I did all of it on scholarships. I had to perform. They can take the scholarship away if you get bare passes. Now I’m specializing in Mental Health, in charge of the ward. I love it.’
Three told me how she too had always worked in health, in administration. She described without bitterness how, after eighteen years, her institution had managed her out of her job and into retirement. ‘Now I write poetry. I go to Creative Writing classes. And every Wednesday I post a poem on Facebook. Wednesday is the hump of the week. I call my readers, my “humpies.” Here’s this week’s poem’. Three handed me her phone where I read her tidy quatrains. The verses spoke in anticipation of this gathering, in praise of the poet’s doctor, his kindness, his understanding. Blushing again I came across a ‘Like’ in response. The author of the Like was Four, another ex-teenager whose family I’d been close to. Four wrote, ‘I remember how Dr Howard comforted me when Karen died.’ Another thump.
I remembered Four, a striking girl with olive skin, tight black curls, a smile that made you feel like singing. I remembered Karen, Karen who was lost, that sparkling child. Karen was in the car that drove to the pub in the bush hamlet twenty kilometres distant from my country practice. The pub filled the young driver up with grog and watched him drive the carful of friends home. How many died when the car missed the bend? Four? Five? Karen was extinguished in that crash. I remember speaking afterwards with Four. Was she the only one I was trying to comfort? I think I was trying to comfort myself too. A year or so later another young driver killed himself driving home from the same pub. His passenger suffered a fractured neck, became quadriplegic. From that time until left I doctored the human wreckage. And my rage burned against that pub. I nursed a futile wish to close it down.
The girls spoke of the men in their present lives. Annie had formed a lasting union with Ian that prospers still. She showed me the album her family made for her fiftieth birthday. Here were Annie’s mum, Annie at fifteen, Annie’s own grown children, Annie with Ian. I saw a tall man, angular and strong-looking, with a craggy face. Two and Three spoke warmly of their own blokes. All three had known some duds but the ‘girls’ bore no hostility to the male race. When, at the conclusion of the evening, Ian turned up to drive Annie home he towered over me. My not-small hand was lost in his handclasp. Instantly likable, solid as a wall, he smiled and I felt gladdened for Annie.
Two asked Annie: ‘Have you ever seen your father again?’ Quietly came the reply: ‘I always vowed I never would. Then four years ago he wrote to me, to all of us, Mum, my sisters. He said he was dying, in Mallacoota. His heart was failing, from the grog. He wanted to see us. Mum wouldn’t come, neither would my sisters. But I thought, “He can’t hurt me now.” So I went. He talked and he talked, poured out his side of our lives. He lay on the bed and asked me to lay by him and cuddle him.’
I looked at Annie, my eyes wide.
‘I thought, “He can’t hurt me now. He’s old and he’s dying alone.” He’s got a partner but she’s not his blood. It’s not the same. I climbed up beside him and I held him. We laid there together for a good while. After a couple of days I went home. He died two weeks later.’
The Alice Springs Marathon takes place on the third Sunday in August. Forgetting how cold the nights are in the desert Melbourne people marvel: ‘Oh, how can you bear to run in that heat?’
The temperature at 0630 this morning is three degrees. I manage that terrible heat rather well. But by the time I finish the day is warm, gloriously warm. Is there a more lustrous town in winter than Alice? The skies are blue – I am searching for an adjective – a blue to banish the blues. In winter, no haze, just light. The Macdonell Ranges dominate every prospect. Rugged, richly red-brown, frequently blanketed heavily in green, the colours mutating with the changing light. From one side colossal heaps of burning honeycomb, from the far side purples mauving to pinks, greens to slake a thirsting soul.
You look up and up, the walls of colour so close, so steep above you; you feel like singing praises; you shake your head at these ridges that dominate a town. Such immensity, such liberality, so close!
We runners set off in the last of the dark. The rock still black and near-blacks that will kaleidoscope and explode as we run.
As ever, on marathon eve, I made plans, plotted strategy, devised tactics. I wrote of these to John, my illustrious runner-in-law in New York: ‘This time I’m not running for survival, not running passively, aiming merely to finish. I’ll attack the marathon. I’ll run for a time: after my worsening Personal Worsts of Boston (five hours and nine minutes) and Traralgon (5.14), I want to beat five hours.’ I laid out my plans: dividing the 42.2 kilometres into four quarters, I would run as follows: first 11 kms in 70 minutes; second 11 km in 70 minutes; the next 10 kms in 75 minutes; and the final ten in 80 minutes. I concluded my letter to John with the words, ‘Man tracht, Gott lacht’ – ‘Man plans, God laughs.’
As in all my forty-six previous marathons I gave God a good chuckle today. He might have smiled as early as 2.48 AM, when sleep died and, with an excitable bladder, I arose early for early, and my day began.
My younger daughter Naomi invariably issues two instructions on the eve of my marathons: ‘Have a good run Dad, and don’t come back dead.’ This year she adds, ‘Know with every step how I love you.’ Her anxiety peeps out and shows itself as I age.
I knew I’d have to harden myself against pain and fatigue. I would remind myself, whenever the going got hard, ‘It’s meant to be hard. That’s why we do marathons.’
As usual the field was rich in tattered and scarred males, blokes weathered and tempered by marathons run all over the country; and young women, girls really, all looking too tender to be serious. Yet I knew from experience these girls from Alice, outwardly delicate, are inwardly wrought of gristle and gut; I knew of old how they’d whip me. And today the Army turned out. A contingent of soldiers entered the race.
Last year I was injured. In my absence from the race they changed the course. Too deaf to follow this morning’s briefing, I know I’ll be in trouble if I find myself leading. Prudently I avoid that pitfall. After the Race Director finishes whispering his instructions, he raises his pistol. Bang! I’m not too deaf to hear that and I set off near the tail of the bunch to attack the Alice Springs Marathon.
After only two hundred metres, my breaths come fast and hard. I recall my mantra: ‘It’s supposed to be hard. It’s a marathon.’ One after another, runners pass me, as they should. My place is at the tail of the field. But I keep up my attack. In the course of my first two ‘quarters’ it will not be my watch that guides me but my breathing. I resolve to run hard enough to remain always short of breath.
And so I do.
Have I mentioned the beauty of this place? After only six winding kilometres we have left behind the town of Alice and run through Emily’s Gap. Like Honeymoon Gap, the name sounds rude, but the rich deep chocolate rocks grab my spirit and I have no thought for anatomy, none even for respiration; it is glory that transports me.
Past the ten km mark, I search for the end of my first ‘quarter’. I say to myself – I conduct lots of self-conversations during a marathon – ‘That’s a quarter of the distance done.’ But I reckon I’ve spent much more than that fraction of my strength. I find no comfort in these calculations.
Around the 20 km mark a blur approaches at speed from the opposite direction. Is this a duststorm? A willy-willy? No it’s my midget colleague and new friend Roxi, motoring fast on the homeward leg. This kid can run. She completed the famed Comrades run in South Africa while pregnant. Now lactating, she carries her biology lightly.
You may scoff, human reader, but I, Rattus rattus – also known as black rat, ship rat, roof rat, house rat, Alexandrine rat, old English rat – I have my dreams.
I dream of a time without scoffing humans.
I dream of Old Hamelin, my home town, Hamelin to which I shall not return, not until the burghers beg forgiveness.
Meanwhile I live in the cleft of the rock, together with the lost children of Hamelin.
I dwell in Xanadu, of which you can only dream:
…that dome in air,
That sunny dome! those caves of ice!
And all who heard should see me there,
And all should cry, Beware! Beware!
His flashing eyes, his floating hair!
Weave a circle round him thrice,
And close your eyes with holy dread
For he on honey-dew hath fed,
And drunk the milk of Paradise.
I have a dream
that one day every valley shall be exalted, and every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places will be made straight; “and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed and all flesh shall see it together.
I dream with smiles
On my rodent lips;
I dream my dreams
Of sinking ships.
The rat dreams:
All day in the one chair
From dream to dream and rhyme to rhyme I have ranged
In rambling talk with an image of air:
Vague memories, nothing but memories.
Had I the heaven’s embroidered cloths,
Enwrought with golden and silver light,
The blue and the dim and the dark cloths
Of night and light and the half-light,
I would spread the cloths under your feet:
But I, being poor, have only my dreams;
I have spread my dreams under your feet;
Tread softly because you tread on my dreams.
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.
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.