On Turning Seventy

 

At some time on January 8, 1946, at St Andrews Hospital in East Melbourne, Yvonne Mayer Goldenberg (nee Coleman) gave birth to her second child, a son. The precise hour of the child’s birth is no longer known. St Andrews Hospital no longer exists and, sadly for this son, neither does Yvonne. Since the moment (unspecified) of his birth, that child has enjoyed an ambivalent relationship with Time. 

  
The temporal relationship was subjected to distorting stress even before the child was born. Although Myer Goldenberg delivered hundreds of other people’s babies every year in the Leeton District Hospital he determined his own children would be delivered by obstetric specialists in Melbourne. Two weeks before the second babe was due Myer drove Yvonne to Melbourne, dropped her at his parents’ house and returned to his patients in Leeton. Once Nature had taken its course he would return to meet the baby. Yvonne came into labour at night. Her father-in-law, Joseph Hyman Goldenberg, an excitable man and an erratic driver, bundled Yvonne into the car and raced towards East Melbourne. Joseph Hyman had no obstetric ambitions of his own: emphatically he did not wish to get down and bloody with Yvonne. He drove anxiously. In those days doctors erected a red light outside their medical premises to inform the passing trade. At every red light Joseph Hyman slowed to ask Yvonne, Should we stop here? Are you sure the baby is not coming? The pair passed from East St Kilda to Fitzroy Street, where red lights abounded: doctors were not the only practitioners with red lights. In this manner, slowing and accelerating by turns, the two proceeded to St Andrews where the child was born.

 

The parents named the child Adrian*. 

 

The baby was blessed with two distinct exemplars in the matter of Time. Myer Goldenberg was a stickler for punctuality. He tried to stickle his wife, but Mum wasn’t sticklish. So unpunctual was Mum, so indifferent to Time’s pursuit, Dad claimed:  Yvonne can’t tell the time. Mum’s riposte became famous: I can tell the time, I just don’t approve of it.

 

I took after Mum.

 

When I was nine years old I decided to become wealthy. Mum offered to pay me to shine shoes at one penny a shoe. Dad had about four pairs, Mum twice that number. I polished and I banked the proceeds. After shining two thousand, four hundred shoes I had accumulated ten pounds in my Commonwealth Bank account. I withdrew that sum and I bought a wristwatch. With that purchase I won my chance for mastery over Time.

I won it and I blew it.

 

School and life offered challenges, adult tasks, endless opportunity for a dysnumerate adolescent to strain his brain with numbers. Tomorrow always appealed. Later was better than now. Soon, Dad, soon.

 

After taking up middle distance running in my ‘teens I became interested in my pulse rate. I discovered my heart beat precisely sixty times a minute. I spent many lessons with my right index finger pulp resting over my left radial artery, counting the wrist minutes to the end of class.

 

My father had the impressive ability to awaken from sleep at a designated hour. He’d pack the boat at nine in the evening, we’d all climb into our bunks, and we’d sleep until the roar and throb of the marine engine told us Dad had awakened, as he’d planned, with the turn of the tide.  Such a skill seemed to me mystical. I know it now to be physiological, supported by a time-swollen prostate, the older man’s alarm clock.

 

Dad was always awake. I’d awaken and wonder why I had; or, more precisely, why now? And go back to sleep. I came to realise I could estimate the passing of time with remarkable accuracy. Let us say I heard the News on the ABC at seven AM and then went about my business through the day until mid-afternoon. I found I could stand still, rehearse the movements and actions of the intervening time, and calculate the hour. I’d say, I reckon it must be about four, or maybe a bit after. We’d hail someone wearing a watch who’d confirm it was five minutes after Four.

 

Curiously Time stalked me. I never chased it; it wasn’t particularly interesting to me. Now, at threescore years and ten I have discovered a new skill, equally unexpected: ask me when someone died, when someone else married or divorced or when she published her second-last book, I’ll declare, five or six years ago. Or, the Easter before last – and I’ll be right. Time has slipped through my hands. I never gripped it firmly but I have felt its mass, I can weigh it in my mind and give you the quantum of time that has passed.

 

Of course my time with Time is limited. The psalm I recite every shabbat reminds me: the days of our years are threescore and ten…I’ve had my threescore and ten. I’ve spent them and enjoyed them. I have seen much, I have loved many. Many are the books I have read, many the teachers who showed me their light. But what of my books unread, my books unwritten? What of the cracks in my world I was going to fix? What of the love I owe and never paid? Happily my psalm offers an extension: but with heroic effort, eighty years… 
At medical school I came across a novel and striking notion: senescence proceeds from birth, hand in hand with growth. The processes continue. Like a plucked fruit I ripen and I decay. In the house at night you can hear me snoring. In a coffee shop the other day I sipped my cappuccino while peeking at the attractive barrista. My thigh felt suddenly hot. I turned from the young woman and saw my cup held on its side, coffee streaming onto my flesh. I realised I have come to a stage where I can no longer perve and drink coffee at the same time. On the anniversary of my birth the grandchildren celebrated me. One wrote: Saba, I love you more than mangoes. Another, We will put you in a Home.
In Time there will be time ample for sleep. For now I sleep less, as if to waste no moment of the light. I hear less but I appear to miss little. Deafness is my censor, filtering out much noise, admitting much signal. I taste Time and it remains fresh and sweet. It passes, slipping away, slipping, like a breath. New times will follow and, like all times, they will pass into memory, after that into a memory of memory, and finally into forgetting. 
I can feel Time passing by weightlessly. Time as quantum wields no heft, bears no moment: somewhere I have a wristwatch, capable of measuring time. I have set it aside: I just don’t approve of it. 

  

   
 
*The parents named their new baby Adrian. Years later my mother showed me the notice she and my father placed in ‘The Murrumbidgee Irrigator’: Myer and Yvonne Goldenberg are pleased to announce the birth in Melbourne of their second son, Adrian.

Over the following ten days of her confinement, Yvonne received a stream of visitors, all of whom asked the name of the newborn, and all of whom vomited. Presently their friends Ben and Ethel visited, bringing with them their son, Howard. After the vomiting my father looked at my mother, my mother looked at my father, they both turned to Ben and Ethel, asked did they mind, and Adrian became Howard. Baby Adrian was not consulted.

Homage to Catatonia

Cruising past the various checkout queues, I check them all out, looking for the shortest. I find it, shortest by a mile. Shortest, of course, need not equate with quickest. 

The sole lady ahead of me at this checkout has loaded her shopping onto the conveyor belt. Compared with the Friday mountains elsewhere in this supermarket this customer’s heap is a molehill. Shouldn’t take long. 

But it does take long. 
Later I understand sometimes the road less travelled is the road most avoided. Regular shoppers recognise this checkout person, a study in slow movement, and they join longer, quicker queues elsewhere.
Why is our checker-out so slow? She takes a cabbage in a paw, hoists it, regards it interrogatively, then caresses it into a bag part-laden with unkindred purchases. Next she takes a persimmon, ripe to bursting, holds it thoughtfully above the bag then drops it. Gravity speeds its fall.

Celery follows, then shoe polish, then a roll of foil, then eggs. Each item is chosen by a hovering hand, raised slowly to eye level, pondered then loaded at hazard.
I wonder about the checker. Why is she so slow? I wonder how she holds her job? I wonder are the items chosen by this particular customer are exotic, new to the market perhaps, or unscannable?
After some time, with my tub of ice cream racing into liquefaction, it is my turn. I greet my checker by tagged name: ‘Hello Lucy.’ Lucy turns head away, bends face forward fifteen degrees, and makes a sound. The sound is audible, too short for a word, it strains for syllable length. But it is conversation, all the conversation we will share today.
In the space of the next twenty minutes as my dozen items are selected, elevated, perused and lowered into my bag a number of further questions occur to me: ‘Why am I so short of patience?’ ‘What makes my minutes so precious?’

And – in place of my earlier questions – a dawning answer:’Perhaps it is precisely because Lucy is slow she won this job.’ And, ‘here is an employer who sees the value of a job to a person; who sees beyond the minutes of work to the life.’

Time, Kindly

The minute conceals the hour,

The hour conceals the day –

As minutely, hourly, passes our

Time of earthly toil and play.

 

The markers of time are hidden

Until we are called and bidden

To leave and come;

The minute conceals the hours

As time steals away our powers

Then kindly steals us away.


Time Keeper

My mother, Yvonne, was famously late for everything.
One day, her sister, Doreen, visited Mum; it was the day before Mum was to undergo surgery. In old age, the two sisters always got together on the eve of any hospitalization of either one of them, in case the patient ‘pegged out’, as they put it.

Doreen was examining the contents of Mum’s jewellery box; Mum was indicating which piece would go to whom if she were to peg out.
Doreen held up pretty pendant watch on a gold chain. She said, “Yvonne, this is lovely. You should wear this watch more often.”
Dad, hearing this and all too aware of Mum’s tardiness, laughed:” Yvonne doesn’t know how to tell the time.”

“Yes, I do”, said Mum, “I just don’t approve of it.”