Love: A Beautiful Magnet

Life takes its own route and survival isn’t guaranteed. My memories of my first love, our marriage, children and divorce.

Advertisements
aaa
Photo: fanpop. com

A beautiful magnet once installed itself into my sixteen year old heart.  I had never felt anything like it before.  The magnet’s strong pull drew me to one particular gentle soul and I didn’t want to look any further.  The beautiful magnet made my heart skip a beat when The Gentle Soul walked into the room and it made me yearn for him when he walked out of the room.  My ears pricked up to love songs on the radio and I sang along with wild abandonment.

Having this magnet in my heart and The Gentle Soul in my life made me laugh more often, my step much lighter, my smile more permanent and gave me direction.  This strong sense of love made me feel like I belonged in this man’s heart and that he belonged in mine.

The beautiful magnet glowed warmly in my nineteen year old chest as I walked down the aisle of a country church to marry the gentle, kind soul who had fallen in love with me.  Our first seven years were no less than perfect as we travelled with his work, learned new sports together, met new people and enjoyed one another’s company more than anyone else.

Wedding rings
Photo: equalityweddings .com.au

Late in the 10th year of this magnet residing in my heart, the little baby growing inside me managed the impossible – she doubled the strength of my magnet.  This magnet intensified my love for my husband and also extended to somebody else – our baby.  I swam in the exquisite sense of meaning and purpose that suddenly enveloped our lives.

Sleep deprivation; anxiety; motherly work; guilt and self-hatred for having to go back to paid work when she was just nine weeks old made me emotionally unavailable to hear the complaints of the gentle soul I had married. Our life had changed and he felt powerless in his quest to win me back from the parenting magnet.

Two and a half years and a little more travel passed before our magnets regained some strength.  The Gentle Soul’s job moved us to a house by the sea, which was therapeutic and gave us the link of togetherness that we had been hoping for.

During the 14th year of the beautiful and powerful magnet residing in my heart we decided our three year old should have a sister. The magnets in both of our hearts swelled and strengthened as we pulled together as a family and went through sleep deprivation and anxieties again. Again, he expressed frustration and powerlessness as the parenting magnet demanded I tend to a crying baby instead of staying by his side to nurture one another’s magnets.

Babies grew to toddlers, who grew to children, who grew to teenagers and we both felt the powerful charge of our magnets had weakened a little.  The perfect relationship we had shared in the beginning had become filled with negative emotions, words and events that can’t be written about in a list of weakness and intolerances because they are personal, private and painful. We both continued to work hard at tolerating one another but the damage had been done.  We pushed forward one day at a time, holding a good day close and putting a bad day behind us, always hoping the next day might be better.

During the 24th year I realised that the beautiful magnet in my chest had faded along with The Gentle Soul’s interest in our everyday life.  I wondered, “How did this happen?  How do other people have families and grow together?” but I couldn’t find the answers.  Somehow I knew he wondered the same thing and he found no answers either.  He had become a bundle of resentment and I had become a bundle of anger and despair.

During the 24th year I decided that life doesn’t always turn out the way you hope it will and that now was time to say goodbye.  There was no shouting, no hate, just resignation to the fact we couldn’t find our way back.

In what would have been our 30th year we had been divorced for five years when I realised that my magnet had finally lost its strength. The joyful, sweet, dancing love that we felt so intensely in those first years had now shifted to friendship. The magnet had gone.

This would have been our 35th year together and I now wonder if our early days is how love feels for everyone?  My 51 year old self wonders, can love be that intense the second time around, and do people fall in love like that at my age?  Once the beautiful magnet has been through this – can it ever recover?

– / –

My Just Desserts.

When you’re under attack from the fiercest person in the street and your mother strides up and takes a bullet for you. That’s a hero, right there. (Well, not a bullet – but you get the idea.)

I grew up in the same house in the same street where my dad grew up.  Our beautiful little street was lined with well-mown lawns and a giant Oak tree outside every second house.  We knew they were planted in the early 1930s because Ina moved in to her house in 1935 and she said the City Council put little saplings in during that same year.

Climbing these trees took great skill for my 7 year old self as the lowest limbs were out of our reach at 6 or 7 feet from the ground.   My brother’s dragster was the biggest bike in the street and we positioned it up against the tallest tree so that it became our ladder.  When standing on the bike seat, our arms stretched up so that we could hug the lowest limb.  A quick kick off the bike seat and swing of the hips brought one leg up over the limb we were holding.  The inside of our forearms and thighs always had lines of scabs and scratches from heaving ourselves up and over the first branch like that.  There was always an unspoken hierarchy of climbing the tree.  First my brother, and the other older boys – who showed off by going right up the top; then the girls; and finally the littlest ones who stayed on the lowest branches.

One at a time we all got up the tree.  There were lots of branches to wander about and sit on and we could go as high as thirty feet high.  There was plenty of room for all eight of us and the only sign that we were up the tree was the lone dragster propped up against it, down below.  Besides escaping from the grown-ups, the tree was also a good vantage point for watching them, and there was normally plenty to see.

We spied on Fred, who lived in a red brick house with a red brick fence and was visited by young, big busted, sexy looking ladies in very, very short dresses and platform shoes.  We whispered our secret chant, ‘Shave your head… Just like Fred!’  Fred was an unfriendly man with a mysterious lifestyle, so all we got to know was that he lived alone, he was old and bald.

Fred died when I was ten years old.  The adults in the street were gathered around the ambulance, speculating on the fact that he had died on the couch while entertaining one of his lady visitors.  Hmmm, we didn’t even notice he had a visitor!  Then the ambulance officers asked our parents to take the kids inside while they brought the body out to the ambulance.  George and his little brother lived next door to Fred and saw what the mystery was all about from their sunroom window.  He reported that the lady was either a spy or a murderer, because she was handcuffed to Fred’s dead body and had to get into the ambulance with Fred.  We all thought the ambulance officers were really clever to detain the murderer by handcuffing her to the body.  Mum gave us the true version of events when we were old enough to understand.

Perched high up in our trees, we could also see over Otto’s high fence, which was further along and opposite to Fred’s house.  Otto was the only neighbour with a bitter disposition, so he was the only other neighbour we knew absolutely nothing about.  We sat up our tree, looking over his very high fence – but never caught sight of any of the cricket balls or footies we’d lost to his high security.  He was a self-confessed child hater, who lived alone in a house we could hardly catch a glimpse of behind his very tall, black fence.  Otto discouraged us from playing anywhere near his place by denying knowledge of any of our balls landing in his yard.  It took us too many years to figure out not to kick the footy near Otto’s house.

Our favourite tree was near the corner of the street, outside the house of an ancient lady we called Queenie. She also lived alone and she never, ever had visitors.  She wasn’t bitter but she was sad, lonely, and usually drunk.  We watched, captivated, as she wandered around her front yard in all sorts of dress – and undress.  Years went by and I doubt I ever saw her sober.

Queenie was on her worst behaviour on hot summer evenings.  After drinking all day, she stood at her broken down picket fence wearing her summer nightie, calling obscenities to get the attention of who ever happened to be passing by. She even shouted when there was nobody about.  We children were impressed by her vocabulary of swear words and curious to see her ‘vulgar ways’, as my nana called them.

Queenie didn’t often see our gang lurking in the bushes, but her hearing was perfect.  It didn’t take long for one of the younger kids to giggle and Queenie fell silent, moving her head from side to side like radar, trying to pick up the slightest sound of a stray child.  The young kids ran home, screaming (she was in their nightmares).  We older children didn’t want to be scaredy cats, so we stayed hidden for as long as she stayed inside her front fence.  Once she staggered out through her front gate we scattered and met up outside my house – which was the furtherest away from Queenie’s house.  None of us ever wanted to find out what Queenie would do with a child once she had caught one, but one awful day I was the poor child who found out.

One afternoon I was alone, up the tree out front of Queenie’s place, talking to Janine on the walkie-talkie set.  Janine was up the tree across the road, outside her own house. She sent me a whispered warning, “CQ CQ I’ve eyeballed Queenie, front garden.”  I knew I’d be safe if I kept quiet, but my brother’s bike at the base of my tree was a dead give-away. I was a goner, and had no choice but to sit tight. I moved to behind the thick, upright, central limb.

Queenie began to water her garden, and then she watered her lawn.  This was taking forever and I became bored, so relaxed back into the cradling branches of my familiar tree.  The water began to sound really nice.  The strong sunlight shone around the leaves of my tree, giving each one a bright halo and illuminating the leaf’s thick veins.  My eyes were getting sunburnt, so I closed them.

Janine’s voice broke the beautiful serenity with a frantic scream over the walkie-talkie:  “CQ Shit. Susan!  Look out!  She’s gunna get you!”

I jumped so hard that my walkie-talkie went crashing down to the grass below.  I stood stiffly on the big branch, hugging the main central branch and looked down in time to see a powerful stream of water coming at my face from the firmly adjusted nozzle of Queenie’s hose.   The most terrified sound came lurching from my lungs, which turned out to be a scream for Mum.

Most of the oldies in our street rushed from their homes and stood at their gates, looking in the direction of my screaming and saw Queenie.  Then they looked toward my place – for a sign of mum. Panicked, Janine stood in the middle of the road, not knowing where to go or what to do. My screaming continued until I saw Mum striding up the footpath, she heard my screams but couldn’t see where I was.  She saw Janine pointing up the tree.

Queenie stood with her feet shoulder-width apart, bellowing out her usual obscenities while trying to shoot me down from the tree with the blast of water.  My wet hands got slippery, and I thought I was a goner until I heard Mum shouting something as she rushed towards Queenie.  Mum stood on the footpath beside the tree, obviously angry, and said, “What the bloody hell do you think you’re doing?”

The water cannon was suddenly directed to the footpath just in front of Mum, and it splashed Mum’s orange slacks.  Swear words flowed from Queenie’s mouth as freely as the water flowed from her hose.

Mimicking Queenie’s stance, Mum also stood with her feet apart and hands on her hips and I thought she looked like Superman.  Mum stood in silence, probably summing up what to do.  I stood up in the tree, hugging the limb, thinking about how fantastic Mum looked down there however, neither Queenie nor Mum seemed to know what to do next.

Mum then stepped forward into the flow, and water pounded onto her feet quite hard.  Unfazed, Queenie moved the hose up, so it was hitting mum’s thighs.   Mum stepped forward again.  Queenie directed the hose up again, this time squirting mum in the guts.

Queenie was standing right at the bottom of my tree, using the handlebars of my brother’s bike to steady herself. I had climbed up as high as I could go, with no plans of coming down just yet.  The neighbours seemed quite entertained by this unique standoff and watched our scene in anticipation.

Janine crept through Queenie’s front fence and turned off the tap and sprinted her way clear of Queenie’s front yard and across the street again in no time, standing safely next to some of our audience.

Mum took advantage of Queenie’s stunned silence and wagged her finger and cursed at the poor old woman while I climbed down from the tree.  We turned for home when Queenie staggered back towards her tap, threatening to give us our just desserts.  Poor Queenie never knew when to call it quits.

Mum was dripping wet and shaking.  So was I.  Our place was only eight houses away, but this short walk felt very long. Our audience complimented us on our bravery, and a job well done as we took the walk back home.

I felt glad to have such a heroic friend in Janine and a champion Supermum.

aged 8 years old

Death and dying.

The day we said goodbye to our much loved Newfoundland dogs.

Years ago, when I was still married, my husband’s dog, Boots, had a heart attack.  For some reason I’d always assumed that people had heart attacks and animals had animal problems. Boots didn’t die and was put onto heart tablets, morning and night.

The vet said that my dog, Shellie, had arthritis and watching my 11-year-old Newfoundlands get about, one with a limp and one a heart problem, was a sweet but sad sight.

Boots and Shellie had never been sick before and we muddled over the kindest thing to do.  Boots was fine while he took his tablets.  But, during the previous winter, Shellie had trouble getting up on to her feet.  It was now late autumn and she was obviously finding it difficult to move about comfortably.

One Friday, I was eating vegemite on toast for breakfast when I noticed that our food-loving dog, Shellie, wasn’t at the back door, drooling at me.  I scanned the patio to see Boots hovering over her as she struggled to get up onto her feet. Her head and neck strained while her front legs half-propped her up, but the rest of her body wouldn’t follow.  Boots leaned forward, nudged at her chest and stepped back.  She just couldn’t get up.

Next, something happened that I’d never seen before. Boots made a silent bark toward her.  Looking at the way his head thrust forward, and the way his lung full of air shook his floppy jowls, I expected to hear a very loud woof but it was more of a whispered ‘yip’.  He was confused or worried or perhaps both and, apparently, he didn’t want to bark loudly.

I helped Shellie to her feet.  She was a heavy dog, easily weighing 65 kilograms (140 pounds).  Once I had her up and mobile her legs worked pretty well.  The thoughts going through my mind were hard to stomach. I mean, she looked so happy for a silly, old dog in pain.

I wondered how I could put my darling girl through the whole winter like this? Faced with a choice to have her struggle in obvious pain or ease her way to heaven a year earlier than she would naturally have passed; my mind was like one of those thousand-piece puzzles and I had no idea which choice to make. I didn’t want her to go, but I didn’t want her to suffer. I didn’t want Boots to have his first experience at ever being alone at age eleven because he was such a sook and relied on Shellie being his unfailing emotional support.  Do I let them pass away in comfortable, loving surroundings or leave it to nature?  Yes, I’d decided it would be them. If one was going – they were going together as I couldn’t put him through being alone for the very first time in his life at age 11.

The puzzle was slowly coming together and my decision was made while I bathed and dressed our two year old daughter, Hayley.  Today was the day we were saying farewell to my first two babies.  The sweet, little bundles of fur that loved me since they first came into our family when I was a teen, looked to us for their joy, comfort, love – and they gave back so much more than we ever gave to them.

My husband was already at work and I rang to ask him to agree that it’s now time. He was reluctant, but agreed with my reasoning.  And I wanted to do this immediately because at this moment the sadness was in my thoughts – not yet weighing down my heart. My decision was made knowing that if I left these feelings until they entered my heart I’d be a mess and the dogs would be confused. They always responded to my emotions; that’s what Newfoundlands are like.

I groomed and talked to Boots and Shellie as though it was an ordinary day.

Hayley was too young to understand death and dying, so I told her we were going to the vet to help the dogs and we talked about Boots’ tired heart and Shellie’s very sore bones.  We walked Boots in to the vet first, leaving Shellie in the car.  He was first because he’d never been alone before.  Not ever.

He was enormous, too big to lift onto the vet’s table.  I sat on the floor, cross-legged.  Hayley sat on my lap and Boots lay down beside us with his huge head on my thigh.  The large needle went into his shoulder and he didn’t even flinch. It’s as if he didn’t know it had even happened. The vet and her assistant took a step back while I rubbed his floppy, silky ear.  An eerie calm filled the room as I talked him to sleep.

“Bye, Boots.  We love you. Thank you for being our big boy.” I whispered.

“Bu-bye Bootie,” called Hayley as though he was going on a holiday.

Then, with his big, heavy head rested on my left knee, and my hand gently rubbing his ear, he closed his droopy eyelids and exhaled his final breath of air.

Using her stethescope to detect his heart beat, I noticed a tear rolling down the vet’s cheek. Her assistant was the same.  Gently, I placed Boots’ head onto the linoleum floor and went back to the car for Shellie; she was my dog.  When we returned with Shellie, Boots had been taken from the room and the ladies had regained their composure.

“Where’s Bootie, mum?” Hayley asked.

“He changed into an angel and flies around now.  That’s what happens when we finish living.  We can’t see him – but he can see us.”

She looked up at the ceiling and muttered, “Up there?” and gave a little wave. I nodded.

Sitting on the floor with Hayley again, Shellie gave a grunt as she lay herself down beside us, almost as if she instinctively knew what to do.  Shellie always had an intuitive communication style with me.  Ours was a silent conversation that took place through our body language and eye contact. I had glanced from her eyes to the floor and then gave two little hand pats onto the floor. She rested her big slobbery face onto my leg, just like Boots did – just like they always did when they lay beside me like that.  When the needle went in she looked right into my eyes, and I felt like a betrayer.  Who lays their best friend down to their death? Then again, who leaves their best friend to suffer a whole winter just to have them pass away of old age?  I vowed to never get another dog because this dilemma would haunt me for the rest of my life. Hayley broke the silence. Smiling at Shellie, she said, “You’re going to change into an invisible flying angel dog like Bootie.”

I whispered to Shellie, “Good bye my girl. Thank you for your love.”

Shellie closed her eyes and went peacefully to be with Boots, to wherever dogs go when they die.

She looked relaxed.  Even happy.  So did Hayley.  The vet and her assistant looked distraught and breaking down was imminent for us all. With my bottom lip starting to quiver, I paid the bill and left with Hayley in one hand and empty dog leads in the other.

I strapped Hayley into her little car seat, put some music on for her, walking to the back of the car I could just hear the Wiggles singing ‘Hot Potato Hot Potato!’  Placing the dogs’ leads into the back of the wagon, I then shut the door and cried.  I sobbed.  The vet was watching from her window for a moment and then left me to it.

I know it was the right thing to do.  If I were a dog I’d like to have died like that.  Boots and Shellie were truly the best dogs in the world and I still cry whenever I see a Newfoundland.  We couldn’t get another dog until six years later, when we were compelled to rescued a very distressed Newfoundland from dreadful conditions. We gave her a happy and comfortable life before she died of natural causes eight years later – aged eleven, just like Boots and Shellie.

I’ll never get another Newfoundland because they each took a piece of my heart when they left.

aaaHayley and boots and shellie

Torture, arranged marriage and recovery.

Tragic and funny stories from my Iranian and Turkish colleagues show adaptation, resilience and the imporance of friends.

I once worked in an office with a very sensitive and kind man named Amir.  He was a single man of about forty years old and wrote beautiful poetry, which he occasionally shared with the rest of us.  Amir was quietly spoken man who had migrated from Iran. He had a gentle accent, lively brown eyes and a mass of black and grey frizzy hair, which stood straight up like the American boxing manager, Don King’s hair.

Amir was one of the most interesting people at work and everybody enjoyed his company. He was socially and politically astute and always had a wise story to share – which often helped somebody in the room. His words were always valued, highly regard and taken in with complete respect by anybody fortunate enough to come into contact with him.

One day, he arrived at work in a very excited mood. He told us that after spending over twelve months writing many letters and making many phone calls; he had finally secured the release of his brother from a political prison in Iran.  We didn’t know it, but Amir’s brother had been in an Iranian prison for eight years, and the entire office staff anticipated a joyful reunion for them both.

A few weeks later Amir set off to the airport to bring his brother home. His casual jeans were replaced with smart slacks, and his polo shirt replaced with a crisp, freshly ironed cotton shirt with the sleeves rolled up a little at the wrists.  His hair was slicked back, resembling a better organised mass of frizz and his body language was like that of a child on Christmas Eve.  Amir’s fingers fidgeted and he couldn’t stand still.  His face glowed and there was no pause to his persistent smile.  His emotions were like fireworks and nobody resisted the temptation of being swept along in his nervous excitement.

Amir didn’t know what to expect in meeting his brother.  The Embassy tried to prepare him but, despite their help, the humble shell of a man he met at the airport was a frightful shock. Amir recognized that the thin, dazed man was his brother, but he wasn’t the strong, feisty person Amir had seen 8 years ago. There was no eye contact when they met and no affectionate embrace.

The brother had been tortured and locked in a 3 x 3 metre prison cell for the entire 8 years. He had become unaccustomed to human touch, sunlight, conversation, relaxation, regular meals, helping himself to water when he was thirsty or sleeping.  They arrived at Amir’s home and the brother silently placed himself into the corner of the lounge room, pacing a 3 x 3 metre area, like he did in prison.  When Amir spoke to him, the poor brother stood to attention, muttered an obedient and submissive response, and continued pacing. Poor Amir didn’t know what to do with him. He took long service leave to stay with his brother.  The reunion wasn’t even close to being a loving embrace of long lost brothers – it was a confusion of identities.

Two months later Amir returned to work and, to our surprise, he was different.  His strong, square shoulders had slumped and his speech sounded monotonous, almost defeated. We imagined he might have been sad and that he wouldn’t be sharing any wonderful stories of his homeland or his brother.  We were all shocked to the core by the depth of the sadness.

Nobody knew what to say or how to behave, we just smiled in respectful acknowledgement and gave short, reassuring hugs.  We didn’t talk in our usual cheerful tone; we whispered in hushed tones like at a church or funeral. I felt guilty about having such an easy life – maybe we all did. An awkward hush filled the office.

Zoe broke the silence after lunch.  She had a mug of coffee in her hand and asked loudly, “who wants to hear a funny story?”

I thought she was taking a risk and wondered if her boisterous invitation was offensive to the grieving in the office.  We gathered around her computer terminal and waited for a response from Amir.  “Come on Amir!” she beckoned with enthusiasm.

He stood and made his way to the gathering of women.  Zoe was about 24 years old, and she had an innocence about the way she spoke. She began by telling us her story is about her hen’s party back in Turkey.

Amir looked distant, as if his thoughts were elsewhere. Rose put her arm across his back, around his shoulders, and his focus returned to Zoe. She was saying she was still in her teens and living in Turkey when her family announced they’d arranged her marriage and that Zoe’s godmother had organized a hen’s party for the following week, in her honour.

Each guest arrived, handing Zoe a beautifully embroidered serviette.  She said she was confused about what to do with them, as they weren’t of a matching set.  She decided to ask her godmother’s advice.

“Godmother, why do they offer me these serviettes?  They are of no use because they are not matching.”

“Match?  Match with what?” replied the Godmother.

“A matching set.”

The Godmother smiled, reached her arms forward and squeezed the sides of Zoe’s face between her thumb and forefinger.  “My child, these are for the bedroom.  They are for cleaning up after….”  The Godmother’s hands gestured toward her own lap to complete the sentence.

“Do you mean after my husband and I have…?  Not to put on my tables?”

The godmother nodded and couldn’t wait to tell the other guests of how beautifully innocent and especially virginal her godchild was. Zoe said her face was so red that she swears some vessels burst near her left eye.

Zoe’s story lifted Amir’s spirits and, for the first time since leaving for the airport two months earlier, he laughed. Colour returned to his grey face, his eyes lit up and we caught a glimpse of that familiar smile.

Amir laughed too long, too hard, and too loud… we all did. The ice was broken. Life in the office began to return to normal after Zoe’s story.

(*Names have been changed to protect privacy)

(Photo from http://www.gamac.info)

A True War Story

Ask any war veteran what they remember of the war and they hesitate to say anything. One day a retired Australian soldier spoke to me about his time in the Vietnam War.

One summer afternoon Jacko dropped by to loan me a book. What he told me explains why war veterans rarely talk about what they’ve seen.  His memories haunted him and now they haunt me.

I felt touched and saddened by the look on his face, the movements of his hands and the appreciation for the Americans on that day back in the 1970s.  Here is Jacko’s story, as told to me in my kitchen one sunny, summer’s afternoon in Melbourne, Australia.

Our friend, Jacko, came to visit at lunch time and he was holding a book: ‘The Battle of Long Tan’. He placed it on my bench top and leaned against the wall oven in our kitchen with his hands in the pockets of his jeans, while I put the groceries away.

I paused to look at the book; it was about 15 x 25cm with a war painting on the cover – yuk! A tangle of soaking wet men lay with rifles to their eyes, peering through the rain. Some dead men lay in the deep puddle, which covered the jungle floor; their comrades lay alongside, fighting as if they expected to be next. The faces of the living told me the enemy was very close, and the red title of the book increased the bloody expectation of what was ahead in the reading.

‘It’s a good read,’ said Jacko, distracting me from studying the young faces on the cover.

‘Did you see action like that when you were in Vietnam?’ I asked, knowing it can be impolite to ask a returned serviceman such a thing.

Jacko’s hands lifted from his pockets and his arms folded across his chest.  He looked up and to the right, as if trying to think of a way to express himself. “Yeah, um… it wasn’t Long Tan though. We were in a bastard of a place. I was in a forward party, which means I co-ordinated the other platoons to where the fightin’ was.”

His hand went to the side of his face, like my daughter does when she pretends to be talking on the telephone. “I was positioned up front and used the radio set to call in the other platoons.”

I stood beside the plastic shopping bags trying to picture this big, red headed man in such a situation. Jacko is a tough looking 50 year old whose face bears the scars of skin cancer removals; his large fingers abnormally twisted by years of working with heavy artillery; and his light-blue eyes hold a thousand pictures that, thankfully, will never be seen by anyone else. His stories are from another time and another country. They are about frightening sights, fearsome battles and from the perspective of a 20-year-old boy.

Jacko’s voice was deep and carried a gentle rumble of older age, with calmness to it.

“This book is about a place called Long Tan. It’s full of military-talk and I hope that you being a civvy, you can understand what it’s about. I took part in a similar battle.”

I shoved the groceries aside and leaned against the bench. “Can you talk about it, or is it too painful to think about?”

“I only wish I could fully recall it,” he said, rubbing his chin wistfully.

“Maybe it’s good that you can’t.”

“I do remember the funny parts,” he said, grinning. Then his face changed and his eyes took on a glassy-gaze, similar to the boy in the mud on front cover of the book.  “There were dead and wounded all over the place, and I had to call the platoons in to where the action was.”

Jacko’s right hand opened and turned onto its side, and his arm straightened, indicating behind him and to his right; as if he was showing me where one of the platoons was. “I had number four coming from back there.”  His left hand indicated behind and to his left… “Number six from the left, and a couple more on their way from behind. It was loud and bloody, but I can’t remember the detail.”

My civilian reply showed my inexperience in war-conversation: “That’s a good thing, right? Not remembering?”

“Yeah, a couple of blokes I knew have topped themselves over the years, but out of the original thirty there were twenty five at the reunion last year.”  The brief moment of silence felt like longer and I didn’t want to be the voice to break his moment of respect.

Jacko then threw his head back laughing as he held his hand up with two fingers crossed and suddenly his face dropped to a serious expression,  “We’re as close as that!” he exclaimed with obvious pride.  “We’ve been through all that shit together and nobody can get closer to us than that. When we get together at the reunions, we don’t go through the bad shit, we remember the funny stuff and laugh our guts out at it.”

I laughed with Jacko, enjoying his pleasure at remembering the last reunion. I want to know one of his funny stories, but it’s all too private to ask about. Instead, the kettle was put on and I offered him some lunch.

Jacko nodded and continued his story – maybe not for me now, but for himself. A lucky sense of privilege came over me for being there on that day.  “One bloke from our reunion was writing a book, and he asked me for some details.  I told him that I only remembered getting there, calling the first strike in and speaking to the Americans in the helicopter.”

He looked at his feet and slightly shook his head, as if in disbelief. “Our blokes wouldn’t come in to get the dead and wounded. It was too dangerous and we were all left for dead. The Yanks flew over, and they asked if they could help. I relayed the message to the boss and he says, ‘Yeah, bloody tell ‘em what’s going on and see what they can do.’ 

Jacko looked up. Not at my ceiling but at the visual memory of the American helicopter flying overhead. His hands raised to above his shoulders and his bent fingers spread as he described the helicopter scene, which appeared to be behind him and off to his left.

His eyes glanced behind and he continued.  “The Americans were hovering above and radioed me, asking about the dead and wounded. So I said we had four dead and eight wounded. They said, “we’ll take your wounded, but not the dead,” and I was bloody relieved because they had no hope. No hope at all out there where we were.”

The relief was written all over Jacko’s face as if he was back there, and I felt my own heart-rate change. We were silently standing in the kitchen, feeling the impact of the events. There I stood, not knowing how to converse about war – and him, probably wondering if he should continue the story.

Thankfully, he continued and his face and body language continued along with the story, “That Yankee helicopter stayed until all eight wounded were winched up.”

Jacko’s eyes followed his hands, which moved in a swift reaching movement extending from his left hip to above his head.  “The enemy fire onto that helicopter was amazing. You could see the tracers flying up to it; they were bombarding that helicopter with everything they had, but those blokes stayed to finish the job. After about 20 minutes it went off, but later crashed and the pilot was killed, poor bugger.” Jacko looked down and gave a small, disappointed shake of his head, like he did when he said the Australians wouldn’t retrieve the wounded.

He said, “That’s all I remember. I don’t remember the arrival of the Platoons that I directed or the actual fight.  Only the funny bits, as well as the Americans who came, and our dead who had really ugly injuries. Really ugly. And we don’t talk about it at our reunions. At our reunions we just laugh about the funny bits. Only the funny bits.”

Jacko took me to the jungle in Vietnam and scared me on that day. I felt guilty for not knowing more about this war and I felt sorry for him for knowing as much as he did.

~ Respect to our veterans and peace to the world ~

 

A Jewish Funeral.

A Christian at my first Jewish funeral was a confusing and scary experience – but what I learnt helped me to better understand differences and grow as a person living in a multicultural society.

I grew up in a cozy street in Melbourne where all the neighbours knew one another. In fact, the really old neighbours watched my Dad grow up in the 1930s, get married in the 1960s and then have us four kids.  The neighbours then watched us grow up, get married and move away; though we always stayed in touch – they were like family.

One of our older neighbours, Mrs Rockman, passed away and this is the story of my experience at her funeral.

Driving into the cemetery I saw a small, brick chapel, which was surrounded by graves with black granite headstones, engraved in both English and Hebrew languages. My family were gathered out the front of the chapel and my sister, Michelle, jumped down from the concrete foyer to show me an empty parking space.

Michelle told me about the seating arrangements while we made our way toward the gathering.  She whispered, “The men sit on one side of the room and women sit separately, on the other.”

I nodded.  There was no time for small talk and we entered the room. There were about a dozen mourners in there; the men seated to the right and the women to the left.  I scanned twice for the coffin – but it was nowhere to be seen. Signs were permanently secured to the yellow-brick sidewalls, which read: ~Men to Sit Here~ and ~Ladies to Sit Here~.   A central aisle separated men from ladies and I wondered why?  Years later a Jewish friend told me that men and ladies were also separated by a curtain at weddings.

The room was furnished with rows of old, cracked, dark brown, vinyl flip-chairs on metal frames, a small, wooden lectern had a mechanical candle on each front corner, and a red carpet runner lay over cream-coloured carpet.  I pushed my seat down and felt the strong pull of the spring, drawing it back upwards, so I quickly sat down.  The coldness of the room and the strong spring in the seat made me feel unwelcome.

The building felt bitterly cold – there was no heating and no lining on the inside walls.  The bricks glared at us in a cold and harsh manner and the concrete oozed through in untidy, inconsistent blobs and dribbles. It’s as if this room had been stripped of anything but the necessities and I saw none of the usual identifiers that this was a funeral; there were no flowers, holy monuments or photographs.

I wondered if this might be the ante-room; a place to wait before going on to the real funeral room.  But this was a one-room building.  And the Rabbi was standing behind the small wooden lectern waiting.  There were muddy stains near the double doors to the left of the Rabbi.  “They didn’t vacuum,” I whispered to Michelle.  She nodded her agreement, and the Rabbi began.

He spoke in Hebrew and his words flowed like a beautiful song.  The song lulled me and brought a sense of calm to the room.  After speaking in Hebrew, he spoke in English.  His voice was very comforting and I felt at home right away in this unfamiliar environment, which seemed more like a garage than a chapel.

The Rabbai was still singing when the doors near the muddy carpet were suddenly and unexpectedly flung open from the outside, which jolted me from the Rabbi’s song.  The Rabbi fell silent and bowed his head and I would have followed his example, but my burning curiosity forced me to stay alert to the doorway.

A very tall man with a neat, dark blue suit and white shirt was standing there.  His black hat was much taller than the average hat and the brim much wider.  He took a step forward and entered the room, then waved his arms to some other people outside.  I stretched forward, wondering if he’d made a mistake and interrupted Mrs Rockman’s funeral in error.  What stood out even more about this man were his knee-high gumboots; which were covered in yellow, sticky, muddy clay.  Gumboots with his suit looked so extraordinary. And now the red carpet was getting muddy as he strode over to the lectern as if he were the only one in the silent room.

He stood in front of the lectern and waved his arms toward the gaping doorway again. It’s as if he was directing a reversing truck, though there was no truck.  More men appeared.  They wore the clothes of builders or roadworkers and had mud splashed and scraped all over them.  Their hands, shoes, backs, elbows and shoulders bore the mud they’d been digging. And they wheeled a very rickety, shaky, metal trolley to the front of the lectern, with Mrs Rockman’s coffin atop.  The wind had blown the black cloth up on one corner and the plain, unvarnished, undecorated pine box glared out of its covering.

The one wearing a suit and gumboots led the muddy workers out through the side door and we were left in peace, this time with the deceased in the room. Mrs Rockman was late for her own funeral.

The Rabbi had remained completely motionless and silent, with his head bowed for Mrs Rockman’s late and bumpy arrival. Once the workmen left, he resumed the service like a video does after pressing the pause, then play buttons.

He talked of Mrs Rockman’s birth in Poland, her life, achievements and disappointments – and I listened with interest.  Mrs Rockman was the neighbor who knew everything about everybody, but it was only at this moment that I realised we knew very little of her.

Next was talk of her entry to ‘paradise’.  The Rabbi explained it is the Jewish belief that every good deed in our lifetime is rewarded after our death.  Each good deed creates an angel who greets us upon our arrival in Paradise.  I conjured up a very crowded image of angels greeting the kind and loving Mrs Rockman.  I’d grown up with her comments about how beautiful my two front teeth looked when I was seven; how skilled I was to climb the biggest tree when I was nine; then worrying about the length of my school dress when I was fourteen; advising me to be careful of boys who drive fast cars when I was 16 and wishing me well at my wedding.  Mrs Rockman’s husband was a dentist and passed away of cancer when I was about 7 years old.  They couldn’t have children, and they escaped the Nazis by migrating to Australia from Poland at the start of WWII.  I’d spent a lifetime with this neighbor who lived simply and cared about everybody but I only found out who she was at her funeral. I vowed not to let this happen again – it made me feel shallow.

We followed the Rabbi outside, slowly weaving our way to Mrs Rockman’s final resting place. Half way there, we stopped and listened to another calming song from the Rabbi.  At first I thought this song was to let Mrs Rockman’s soul know where we were taking her body, but it was just to pass time while waiting for the muddy workmen to finish digging her grave.  After a short wait, the muddy men jumped from the hole, and we turned left to the very freshly dug grave.

Nobody cried and the mood was like it is when strangers meet and chat about the weather.  I looked along the four graves between Mrs Rockman’s site and myself.  Every grave had small piles of quartz stones on the top.  I recognised them from the driveway and the graves averaged about half a dozen stones each.

My sister and I raised our eyebrows at the messy stones and I felt grateful for deciding not to bring my children along.  It is an unspoken rule of my children to play with such enticing displays of nature. They would have seen the grave top as a stage for little stone ladies and men characters.

The muddy men climbed out of the hole and lifted Mrs Rockman’s pine casket from the rusty trolley, literally dropping (or throwing) it down the hole. We all heard Mrs Rockman slide along the pine floor as one end got stuck on the edge of the grave – and then the thud as it slipped down to parallel again.  I gasped at the lack of care, yet the rest of the congregation didn’t seem surprised at all.

Next, the Rabbi opened a small sachet of soil and emptied it onto the coffin. My brother whispered, “I bet that’s soil from Israel” and I nodded, thinking he was clever for figuring that out.  The Rabbi then tossed the empty soil sachet into the grave like a discarded cigarette butt.  My sister and I glanced at each other again with ‘that’ look.

My brother gestured his eyes toward the muddy clay piled at the side of the gravesite.  I hadn’t noticed it or the six shovels standing in the clay.  The Rabbi called upon the men to help fill in the grave.  Always the willing helper, my sister stepped forward and reached for a shovel.  I caught her attention in time to save her from doing the men’s task.  This was just like the seating in the church – men had separate roles to the women.

The first half-dozen shovels of wet mud made drumming noises on the coffin, which sent a shiver up my spine. Mrs Rockman was buried within five minutes. The mourners turned and went to their cars but I was curious and interested in the strange surroundings.  I stayed and asked the Rabbi about the collections of stones on the graves.

His voice carried the same slow and gentle tone that he had while praying.  Gosh it was lovely.  “It’s a sign, to show how often people visit the graves,” he said as his hand made a sweeping gesture at the rows of granite.  He continued to chat and asked my name.

“Susan.” I replied.

“Do you know the meaning of your name?” he asked politely.

“I think it means Lily.”

He nodded, approving of my reply.  Then he had another question for me.  “Are you religious?”

I’m not a strictly religious person and gave a diplomatic reply.  “I was raised a Catholic.”

His questions had a humble sound of apology, as if he was being careful not to offend. “Are you a practising Catholic?” he carefully asked.

I wasn’t sure what to say.  My children are in the catholic schooling system and we occasionally go to church, yet I was sure this wouldn’t be enough to pass as a true and loyal Catholic. My lack of involvement with our local church probably wouldn’t qualify me as a proper practising Catholic and I wondered if God would strike me down with lightning for lying to a Rabbi. But my decision was made, “Yes, I am.”

He shot another question at me.  “When did you do your last confession?”

My daughter’s class made their first Eucharist and confession this year, so my reply wasn’t really a lie.  “In April.”

It started to rain and I stood there getting soaking wet wondering if I might have been struck down with lightning if my lie were any bigger.

The Rabbi and I stood in the rain talking about Mrs Rockman and how the Jewish people believe in very plain and simple funerals – with no hype or ceremony. He added that they wear very simple, cotton nightdress in the coffin. Everything as simple and natural as possible.  He then injected some small-talk.  He was once in a car accident and now his stomach plays up when eating certain foods. Cold, wet and wanting to walk away, I wondered if God thought this rainy conversation would be a good penance, you know, for my lie about being a good, practising Catholic  – so I stood talking until he decided it was time to walk back to the car park.

Mrs Rockman’s simple ceremony was nothing like any funeral I’d been to in the past but, afterwards, it all made sense.  I liked the no-fuss approach of the Jews.  It showed me that they truly believe the soul is in no way connected to the body after death.  The funeral was for the mourners to reconcile the idea that her soul had, in fact, left her body.  Anything else would have been a performance and I felt ashamed for judging the building, the carpet, the muddy clothes, the rickety trolley ride into the chapel and the very freshly dug grave.

However, I’ll always hope they didn’t mean to toss the coffin in so roughly – accidents happen.

Photo:  MyJewishLearning.com

aaa

Identity: Am I good enough?

Sometimes we dread going to a social situation because we fear we don’t belong. We’re not good enough. Somebody might notice that we don’t belong. Here’s what to do…

Ask yourself, “Who am I?” and see what you come up with.

Many friends respond that they are a mother, a daughter, a sister, a friend, a neighbour, an office worker, and so on. Are these roles enough to convey who you are?

Dig deeper. “WHO ARE you?” Identity is often invisible – it’s something we feel but don’t talk about. It’s difficult to find labels. It’s easier to show who we are than try to explain. Figuring out who you and how you got to be this way are the purposes of my blog today.

Our individual sense of self comes from the social world around us (social constructs). We learn right from wrong based on the social norms that surround us – especially while growing up.  When we are born, we are officially identified as a certain gender on our birth certificate and then that information informs how we are raised in a community that separates gender through clothing, behaviours, actions, family and workplace roles.

In most (if not all) communities, males have more power than females, adults have more power than children, and children have more power than pets. I’m not saying these family roles of power demand submission of any kind – they are simply accepted roles. During the childhood of anybody over 20 years old: girls were guided toward nurturing and caregiving roles and boys were guided toward physically strong or intellectual pursuits.  Often they still are!

Power also appears in race, religion, fashion labels, a ‘better’ make of car, school or neighbourhood.  None of this is a secret, however the way cultural power influences our sense of self and our behaviours is mysterious.

In our comfort zone we achieve a sense of belonging by feeling like we are the same as others – that we belong. If we are led to believe we are different to others we can feel anxious, awkward, want to retreat, feel insignificant, feel socially inferior and lose faith in ourselves as being successful (the list goes on).

However, if you are lucky enough to feel confident in your social world you think nothing of stepping forward, believing you are important and feeling great. You have a sense that you belong and others might even comment that they wish they had the confidence to stride through life like you do.

The comfort that we feel in our social environment is handed to us (or taken away) by others. While growing up we internalize judgments of others like, “Don’t play with those children they go to the public school.” and “She’s so heavy… He’s so ugly…. They are losers… Did you see what she was wearing?!… Their food smells weird… She’s useless… He’s my King… Don’t cause trouble… Respect your elders…”.  We realize from a young age that there are categories of people whose labels prevent them from fitting in.  But, once you understand the driving forces behind your feelings of inadequacy you can make changes.

Recognize that the way you feel about yourself has been placed into your mind by others and magnified by your sense of self as you process what has been told to you (or said about others within your earshot). Recognize this and reverse the damage. Make your way through the ridiculous social world we live in by taking little steps.

  1. Meet a friend at a cafe for a coffee and plan to spend just one hour – your friennd won’t know you’re practising how to be social.
  2. Do you like the clothes they wear?
  3. Could you mirror what they do with their hands while they sit chatting?
  4. Did you take notice of the words do they used in saying hello? Try to remember to ask them the same small talk questions they ask you (How are you? What have you been doing lately?) Then elaborate on their answers.
  5. Do you have answers prepared for when they ask you those common questions?
  6. Are there any hobbies out there you want to start? Google it and join a club, meet people, volunteer, smile, join in, enjoy!
  7. Remember, when you are around children, never make negative comments about another person, religion, culture, race.

THEN you can check in with yourself by asking: “Who am I?”

Here’s my answer (for today):

  • I’m a writer and a sociologist.
  • I’m smart.
  • Healthy.
  • Single, but a little broken.
  • Happy.
  • Sometimes lonely, usually not.
  • I am: mother, sister, daughter, ex wife, tarot card reader.
  • I am a supportive friend.
  • I am a good dancer.
  • I love to laugh.
  • I have been described as quirky – and I like that.
  • I am welcome at social events. (well… I’m not unwelcome!)
  • I have an awesome sense of humour.
  • I let my inner child walk beside me at all times, ready to leap forward and laugh.
  • I have an overdeveloped sense of empathy – which I like.
  • I am sensitive to my surroundings.
  • I am helpful.
  • I’m open and accepting.
  • I am a terrible cook.
  • I am tolerant, which isn’t always a good thing.
  • I am so much more than any words on a page can convey.

Now, begin to ask yourself, “Who am I?”  If you don’t like the answer then it’s okay to change!

Self confidence gives you a confident outlook, making you shine from within. Everybody gravitates towards positive vibes.