Blue Label

My brother Dennis presented me with a blue carton containing a bottle of whiskey. I had never heard of Johnny Walker Blue Label. Whiskey did not interest me. All I knew was I couldn’t afford good whiskey, I didn’t like cheap whiskey and I couldn’t tell the difference between cheap and uncheap. 

Dennis died ten years ago but the box and the bottle survive, unopened. Dennis died poor and intestate after forty-five years working in Finance. Dennis didn’t drink whiskey either. Strong drink was not his weakness. His loves were his weaknesses. One of his loves was for this brother, the one who survives him, healthy and unpoor.

 

I picture my firstborn brother in an airport palace of luxury items for sale duty free. He looks around for something good, something precious to buy for his loved brother. His instinct draws him to the most expensive items. A man of the world, Dennis recognises the blue label. He takes the box in one arm, reaches for his credit card, approaches the cashier. He makes the purchase he cannot afford, with funds he does not yet own, for the brother who will see no occasion to drink it.

 

To paraphrase O Henry’s closing remarks in ‘The Gift of the Magi’:

 

The magi, as you know, were wise men—wonderfully wise men—who brought gifts to the Babe in the manger. They invented the art of giving presents. Being wise, their gifts were no doubt wise ones, possibly bearing the privilege of exchange in case of duplication. And here I have lamely related to you the uneventful chronicle of an unwise child who most unwisely sacrificed for the brother other the greatest treasures of his house. But in a last word to the wise of these days let it be said that of all who give gifts these were the wisest. O all who give and receive gifts, such as they are wisest. Everywhere they are wisest. They are the magi.
 

Two Recipes for a Long Life

Recipe One
(Yvonne Mayer Goldenberg, 8 June, 1917- 7 June, 2009)

  
Eat only foods rich in butter and cream. Avoid any food that requires chewing, especially vegetables. (My mother was frightened by a vegetable as a child and never came near one again.)

Relax. Do not rush. Shun punctuality.

A lady who possesses the skill of changing a flat tyre should conceal such knowledge. ‘Why deprive some gentleman of the opportunity to behave chivalrously?’
(Mum believed in chivalry. As a child when instructed by her teacher to use the word ‘frugal’ in a sentence, Mum understood ‘frugal’ to mean one who saves. She wrote: ‘A lady was walking by the sea. A strong wind lifted her up and flung her into the waves. She could not swim. She saw a man on a white horse: “Frugal me! Frugal me!”, she cried. So the man leapt into the waves and frugalled her. And they lived happily ever after.’)

Rejoice in your kin; they are life’s benison to you. You will not have them forever. (Mum’s parents died in her childhood. Left with her younger sister in the care of her beloved grandmother, Mum cherished all her descendants with promiscuous undiscrimination.)

Smile. Nothing is so serious that it should furrow your brow – unless it hurt your little ones.

Talk to strangers, visit their countries. Walk the earth without fear. People are good.

Forgive your children their naughtiness. Indulge your adolescent children in their self-absorbtion. They owe you nothing; they give you all.

What you cannot cure you must endure – with a smile. (Mum’s hip was shattered in her twenties. For forty years she walked in pain, with a marked limp. She did not think to complain. Pain did not interest her. Likewise the disabling strokes she suffered in her last decades. ‘A stroke is boring’, she said.)

Decorate your life. Eat every day from your best china; use the good cutlery. (Which day will be better than today? Who better than the family to enjoy these things?)

Raise your boys to help. (‘Why should I be your kitchen slave? There is no pride in being a parasite.’)

Sex is good, sexual pleasure very good. Never boast of your conquests. Use a condom. (These last two dicta were delivered to her sons before the age of nine.)

Feminism is a mistaken impulse. (It arises from the absurd notion held by some that a woman could possibly be inferior to a man in any particular.)

Never open someone else’s mail.

Read. Meet new words. Look up every one in the dictionary. Read everything – the classics, the junk mail, the cornflakes packet.

Don’t fear death. Speak of it freely. (‘Death is a part of life, darling.’)

Do not fear harm. Fate is kind. Clothe your young in love but do not over-wrap them. Harm probably won’t befall them. Entrust them to the care of the universe.

Do not fear at all.

Recipe Two
(Myer Goldenberg, 5 December, 1909 – 10 September, 2003)

  
Fear everything. (Dad witnessed his friend die of electrocution when the stays of his yacht struck power lines. He operated on trauma patients without number. These events made him warn his children of the injuries that result from inattention or lack of care. One warning would never suffice. No number of warnings could suffice.)

Do everything. But take care. Sail, drive, use power tools. Never wave a knife around. Safety first. Safety last.

Fear nothing and no-one. No task is beyond you, no skill too hard to master, no knowledge beyond your reach, no person to be feared.

Eat vegetables. Overboil them first.

Be firm with children. Demand they meet your own high standards. Don’t coddle them in their minor ills. But if real harm come near, cross the country to protect or repair them.

Don’t let your children off lightly. But protect them ferociously from attack by an outsider.

Cherish your kin. Honour your parents. Honour your ancestry.

Honour your work.

Work hard. Keep going. Do not weaken.

Do not run marathons.

Be worthy. (Dad idolised his parents, particularly his father. Through his long life Dad wished always ‘to be worthy’. He meant worthy of his own father. Even in his eighties Dad fretted he was not worthy. I ached when I heard him speak so.)

Forgive. Never hold a grudge. Speak your anger then reconcile.

Never forget or forgive one who hurts your young.

Keep your words clean. Do not say ‘bum’, never say ‘bloody’. Forget ‘dick’. When you belt your thumb with a hammer, allow yourself ‘YOU BITCH!’

Exercise. Where you could drive, choose to walk. Walk fast. Your children can run to keep pace.

People are good. Life is good, health a blessing. Protect it with injections.

Do not fret about germs. They build resistance.

Breast feed. (‘They’re not just there to fill jumpers’).

Cuddle your children. Kiss them – the boys too. And not just in private.

Pass on your faith. Drill your young in ancient ritual and practice.

Tell the children Bible stories. Read those stories with passion and conviction. Pass on your heritage with love and pride.

Be proud. You are as good as anyone else. And no better.

Be authentic. Do not fear being different. Respect yourself and others will respect you.

Love your children. Succour them in your old age as you did lifelong when the need was real.

Show tenderness. A man can be soft and still be strong.

Tell the truth. Demand the truth. Nothing is more sacred than your word. Nothing nourishes better than trust.

Don’t arrive on time. Arrive early.

Never open someone else’s mail.

Work hard. Save for a rainy day. (Dad worked very hard. He practised medicine to the age for ninety-two and a half. To the end of his life he saved for a rainy day, never feeling the heavy rain upon him, never knowing the time had come to take shelter.)

Sing. Sing loudly. Sing with your children. Sing table hymns with your children on Shabbat; sing loudly in synagogue; sing sea shanties, sing nonsense songs. Opera is grand but Gilbert and Sullivan are brighter, more fun.

The compass needle on your boat flickers; at the poles the compass fails. Know your own True North. Follow it.

Embrace the sea. Sail, fish, and sing. Travel by boat at night, navigating by stars, chart and compass. Do not fear the sea. Never take it for granted.

Be vigilant. Experience the rapture of your mastery of an alien element.

Do not fear. Relax. Never relax your vigilance.

See the beauty, smell the ozone, relish this given world.

Thrill to the cresting wave, the heeling sailboat.

Surrender to the windless calm. Experience tranquillity.
Feel the caress of the sun, the bracing breeze. Both are good.

Give thanks. Be thankful.

Love your kin. Nourish them, work for them protect them, nurture them. Demand resilience.

Be brave. Be true.

When all is said remember the love.

Ushpizin*

The last time I took a photo in a public toilet it was to record the visit of unexpected guests. The occasion was a visit to the Men’s Banios at the Alhambra, in Granada in 2010.

Twenty years ago when I made a maiden visit to the toilet in my cabin in Broome, the gleaming green frog sitting contentedly in the white bowl caused me such aesthetic delight that it overthrew, for the time, the excretory impulse. I never took the beautiful creature’s photograph. Instead, like D H Lawrence chucking a stone at the snake drinking at his well in Sicily, I flushed away my serene guest. I never forgave myself; it was, as in Lawrence’s ‘Snake’, ‘something to expiate/a pettiness.’

These reminiscences surfaced a few moments ago when I visited the Men’s at my work. The cubicles, until now separated and enclosed by timber miniskirts, were guarded by maxis. I sat and mused. It felt how I imagined solitary confinement in the Kremlin, a dark, quiet, a place where man is alienated from his fellows. I missed the collegial sight of a pair of shoes arriving in the next cubicle. I missed the moment when the orientation of the newcomer’s shoes declares his intention and his need. Gone were the sounds, wordless but declarative of the action. I was alone.
I took some photos. Such a spiritually potent change in decor called for some record.
My workmates informed me the changes were made following the arrest by the police of a gentleman seated in a cubicle in the Ladies. It appears that the gent was an habitue of our female Conveniences, spending whole mornings in aesthetic delight, enjoying the reflected details of his lady neighbours on either side.

The opposite occurred to me in October 2010 when Nature summoned me to the Banios. There was one door for ingress and another at the far end for egress. On my right a number of cubicles with opal grey doors concealed their tenants; on my left a series of white porcelain appliances gleamed their welcome. I stood facing one of these, enjoying the slow movement that is the lot of a man in his sixties. I had reached that stage when the greater part of the volume has been discharged but the bulk of the time is still ahead. In other words I was still committed when the unmistakable tinkling sound of laughter announced the arrival of three teenage girls. The young ladies entered. They sighted us men and advanced. As they neared us it was every man for himself, one breaking off and hurrying away, the rest of us burrowing closer to the porcelain in some anxiety. The girls formed a line behind us and stood still. No-one spoke. Was this a quaint local custom? A welcome, perhaps? My Spanish was not good enough for me to essay an enquiry.
Eventually my hands were free, my clothing decently enclosing all, and I turned around. I found the new arrivals standing with backs resolutely towards us, facing the cubicles, waiting until one should be free. The arrivals behaved as if their presence were unremarkable. I turned to leave, looking back from the exit to gaze on the scene. I remembered I carried a camera. I took a shot of the males and the females standing back to back in that narrow rectangle and departed.

Five minutes later a ringing voice challenged me at the kiosk where they sell gelati. A girl’s voice, it shrilled its plaint in Spanish, then in English, with excited hand movements for emphasis: Why you take picture? You delete!
I didn’t reply. I didn’t delete. I lacked the skill to do either. But I’ve never opened the photo, never shown anyone. The ethics of lavatory photography come to one, like wisdom, slowly.
*Honoured Guests. Google if curious.

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Dalia Died

A friend wrote the other day to tell me Dalia died.

I met Dalia in 1972 at the nursing home she ran in Wattle Glen. You descended from the bitumen into a silvan retreat, the buildings concealed behind flowering native shrubs. A quiet path led to a doorway. Through the door you entered a different world: smells assailled you, disinfectant, cooking smells and behind them, always, the smell of urine, the smell of the elderly and incontinent.

Dalia greeted you, her voice musical, her fetching smile stretched over an uneven lower lip, the more fetching for assymetry, her accent French and very pleasing. The bushland at the entry and the greeting upon entering, these redeemed you amid the oppressive smells.

Dalia moved with you from patient to patient. Almost all of them were women, aged, their men long dead, their families generally distant through geography or choice. This young doctor, oppressed by bodies that did not work, by diseases medicine would not cure, by alienating disfigurement and by disfiguring debility, by drooling helplessness, dementia, strange behaviours, this doctor nearing quiet moral panic, redeemed, redeemed always by Dalia. Dalia would proceed to the bedhead, cradle the neck of her charge, sing to the patient the glad news of the coming of the doctor: Here is Doctor to see you, darling. You remember, this is Doctor Howard. He comes to you every week.

Dalia was not alienated, never distanced. Dalia embraced her guests, kissed their foreheads, fixed their pillows, fussed over painless areas of red skin that she would not allow to break down. Dalia spoke to her speechless, apparently demented patient, as if she were wholebrained, fully alert, fully human. Only after taking doctor aside, out of hearing, away from the presence of the stricken, would Dalia allow any concession to incompleteness.
A secular person, she recognised tenderly the spiritual yearnings of her charges, old women born in an earlier age when churchgoing was a norm and a religious outlook sustaining. Poor Thelma, she weeps, she weeps because God has rejected her. She wants to die, she prays for death, and because death does not come, she believes her God will not have her in his heaven.

Now death has come for Dalia. She was ninety two years old.

Dalia left Wattle Glen and our paths did not cross again until a few years ago, when our respective writings brought us together. The accent was still there, the smile, the relentless action of her critical mind, unwilling to yield on any of her concerns. And all her concerns were for humans. I read her memoir, a work of humbling honesty, of emotional privation in Belgium in the middle years of last century, of falling in love, of the ending of love, of emotional collapse, of recovery, of growth, of a thirst for learning. Hers was a life of learning, of ever journeying in her wisdom towards greater wisdom. I thought of Cavafy’s ‘Ithaca”.

As you set out on the way to Ithaca
hope that the road is a long one,
filled with adventures, filled with understanding.
The Laestrygonians and the Cyclopes,
Poseidon in his anger: do not fear them,
you’ll never come across them on your way
as long as your mind stays aloft, and a choice
emotion touches your spirit and your body.
The Laestrygonians and the Cyclopes,
savage Poseidon; you’ll not encounter them
unless you carry them within your soul,
unless your soul sets them up before you.

Hope that the road is a long one.
Many may the summer mornings be
when—with what pleasure, with what joy—
you first put in to harbors new to your eyes;
may you stop at Phoenician trading posts
and there acquire fine goods:
mother-of-pearl and coral, amber and ebony,
and heady perfumes of every kind:
as many heady perfumes as you can.
To many Egyptian cities may you go
so you may learn, and go on learning, from their sages.

Always keep Ithaca in your mind;
to reach her is your destiny.
But do not rush your journey in the least.
Better that it last for many years;
that you drop anchor at the island an old man,
rich with all you’ve gotten on the way,
not expecting Ithaca to make you rich.

Ithaca gave to you the beautiful journey;
without her you’d not have set upon the road.
But she has nothing left to give you any more.

And if you find her poor, Ithaca did not deceive you.
As wise as you’ll have become, with so much experience,
you’ll have understood, by then, what these Ithacas mean.

Ultimately Dalia became a therapist. I thought how fortunate were her patients, what gifts of life she brought them from her lifelong travels to Ithaca.

Dalia became a little unwell a few weeks ago, persisting in her vigorous ways until her last days. When abruptly her blood pressure fell due to a prolapsed heart valve, she asked the doctors to perform the operation they’d ordinarily reserve for one decades younger. When they explained the risk of technical success with accidental brain damage, Dalia elected to die. She accepted a trial of hero molecules for twenty-four hours; when these duly failed, she embraced morphia, chatted with her loved ones and went to sleep, rich with all she’d gotten on the way, and arrived at last in her Ithaca.

Her believer friend, the young doctor of 1972, prays his God will give her rest. At this Dalia would smile her crooked smile and pat me on the head indulgently and forgive my wishful thinking.