December Seventh

As I left my house this morning, my hand drifted up, as it often does on my leaving home, to touch the mezuzah on the doorpost. I kissed my fingers, as I often do, but this time quite consciously. I was visited by unexpected thoughts: I hope this house is still here when I return. Will I find my loved ones safe and well this evening?



Musing, I walked to the tram.



It’s December seventh today. Indelible date. A baby in my arms, born three months ago, named Aviva for the season. Small, pink, warm, her lips a rosebud. We return from a week in the wilderness, wife, the two older children and the baby, two days ago. Back at home the hot water tap runs cold. And stays cold. We call the plumber, he calls the electrician, he replaces the thermostat.



December seven I am up first. I go to wash for the dawn prayers; a clanking in the pipes, steam issuing from the hot tap. I think little of it. Back in the bedroom I remove the wedding ring that bears Annette’s inscription: ‘Howard, with love, Annette. I enfold myself in ritual gear and recite sleepy prayers. The family is up now. Annette sits in an armchair, breastfeeding springtime baby, while the three-year old and the five-year old sit and wait for Sesame Street. Kisses goodbye and I am off to work, leaving my wedding ring on the dressing table. The hands on the bedside clock point to 0745. 



Work is busy, absorbing. Quickly I slip into country doctoring. Families, wives, children, snot, cut legs, bruised feelings, breaking hearts, then a phone call from our neighbour: ‘Howard, I think you’d better come up home. There’s been a small explosion.’ I know the neighbour, an excitable person. There’s no rush. I see a few more patients before a voice says ‘go home’. I do so.



It’s sunny and pleasant. The warmth beguiles me as I drive up the unmade road that twists and turns on the way to number 43, Deering Street.



I turn into the steep driveway. Ahead I see the carport, tall, stout, ugly. The carport is empty. To the left I see the brick walls of our home lying flat on the rough grass. Grey oblong bricks, Besser Bricks, they call them, I don’t know why. The wooden house frame hangs drunkenly, the roof sits skew-whiff above the frame. A moment of amazement. Then a warming, a drenching flood of relief. The carport is empty. No-one is home. Annette, the kids, they’re safe. We have lost a house but I have lost nothing.



In the hours that follow I trace Annette to her sister’s house and tell her. She has to drive, to arrive, to look, to sift through rubble before she understands the import of the excitable neighbour’s ‘small explosion.’ A mother has lost her children’s nest. Our son loses speech for the next six months. One goldfish has lost its life, the second survives in the millimetre of water that covers the floor next to the shattered fishbowl.


In the bedroom the bedside table is a shatter of toothpicks. Of my wedding ring, no trace. Ever.

Wedding Rings

A voice says will you marry me?

Annette looks up in surprise – I am a bit surprised myself: where did that voice come from?

Annette says are you joking?

The voice says no, Annette says yes, and a week or so later we are buying a ring to make the meaning of our voices concrete.

A few months later, our voices exchange promises before witnesses, and we exchange rings to cement the promises.

I have never worn a ring before. In my family, real men never wore rings – were we too modest, or simply too poor? – I don’t know. There was certainly a feeling of disdain for ostentatious jewellery. The ring that Annette gives me is a narrow band of white gold, quite weighty for its modest size. It is a discreet, silvery statement of love and commitment. It feels fine and it sends a message to all from Annette that she claims me. The inner surface of the ring is engraved with my name and the date, 3.12.69. This is the date that marks my movement from my family home and ways into a new way.

But surgical asepsis allows no concessions to love and marriage. I am newly wed also to medicine, so the ring comes off for every surgical scrub in the operating theatre and for the delivery of every baby in labour ward.

And I slip the ring off my finger every morning for the ceremonies of worship: I wash my naked fingers before prayer, then wind the leather strap of tefilin around my left fourth finger while reciting the threefold declaration of betrothal to the Creator.

After these rituals the finger is ready to resume its conjugal connection to Annette. I slip that silvery band back onto the finger with a feeling of conscious pleasure.

On the seventh morning of the month of December in 1976, I take that ring off for the last time. I place it on the shelf in our bedroom, wash and say my prayers. Hurrying away to work, I leave the ring on the shelf. I never see it again.

When I return to my destroyed house a few hours later, the exploding hot water service which sat for years in dutiful silence beneath our home has torn, enraged, through the floor, through the ceiling and through the fabric of our lives. The bedroom is unrecognizable: there are no horizontal surfaces, no shelves, no ring.

Annette and our children are intact, we are all intact, the three goldfish – Shimmy, Pizza and Coco-Pops are all intact. This is no time to grieve for a ring.

Twenty years pass, the children are adults and the goldfish have gone the way of all flesh, fowl and fin.

My finger itches again for the trappings of marriage, so I buy a slim band of white gold and wear it. The world at large makes no comment but Annette marks my wearing of the ring, and understands.

A few years later, the second ring falls while I am praying, onto the floor. My search for it is anxious then rapidly frantic. I find to my surprise that I am sobbing as I bend and scrabble on the floor for a small piece of absence surrounded by an annulus of gold.

That little circular symbol of the big fact of my life is never found. In its place is rediscovery of the intense nature of my commitment.

Some fingers never learn. After 32 years of marriage, the fourth finger on my left hand demands a third wedding ring. My friend Colin is on his third ring and his third wife: he has three mothers-in-law and he has earned his jewellery.

In my case, I still have Annette and I wish to show that fact to the world. So I buy a new ring.

This ring is heavier and tighter – harder to lose, but also harder to pull off and to put back on. This is no simple sensual pleasure, no slip off – slip on, but a struggle in which three fingers from the right wrestle with the left fourth. Before every scrub, before every morning wash and prayer, I shed some skin on the altar of marriage, a small sacrifice of my flesh. After twelve months of the third ring, my finger is scarred. There is a cicatrice, a ring of flesh which is permanent. This is a ring which no-one can remove and I can never lose.

It looks like I am married. For good.