I was in a middle-school science class in Santa Barbara California, when I leaned over to my lab partner Ben and asked him, “What are you, anyway? What race, I mean?” He clearly wasn't white, like me. His skin was a toasty colour, his hair was dark and curly and his eyes were a deep limpid brown.
Ben said, "I'm Jewish."
Light bulb moment. He looked exactly like a smaller version of my father.
That night I cornered Dad in his study and asked him point-blank if he was Jewish. He nodded and asked me how my algebra was going. The subject of Jewishness was obviously not for discussion.
The next day Ben told me Jewishness was passed down through the mother. I was off the hook! Mom’s ancestors were Scandinavian and her bloodline was pure Viking.
I cornered Dad again and told him what my friend Ben had said. My father looked me in the eye and said, "That may be but never forget you're Jewish enough for Hitler."
Those words went through me like a knife. But how? But why?
It wasn't until I was an adult that I fully learned my father’s story. He was a Jewish refugee, the illegitimate son of a Hungarian-Jewish film director and an Austrian-Jewish mother. His early family life was chaotic and, just like me, he didn’t know he was a Jew until he was twelve. The irony of two generations of denial didn’t escape me. It was sad. It was also wrong to be so divorced from, and ignorant of, my roots. Slowly, over time, I began to re-claim my heritage. The onus was on me.
I truly believe that we can’t know who we are, unless we know who we were. Shalom.
Sarah Gumbley is an Auckland-based independent publicist for authors, specialising in web media.
The morning of my fifth birthday was one of sheer excitement. After waking early and having already had the birthday breakfast and presents, all that was left to do was to wait until midday when around twenty-two five-year-olds would arrive for my party, the theme of which was, quite simply, pink. The colour pink had, in some form or another, already covered the house. From the pink balloons tied to the letterbox, to the pink streamers flying down the hallway, to the pink party table outside, soon to be covered in piles, of what would likely be, pink-wrapped presents.
The girls arrive dressed in various pink costumes. A collection of five-year-old fairies and princesses head out into the garden, picking up paper cups of fizzy drink on the way. Outside, games like ‘pass the parcel’ are held, presents are opened, and pink wafers and cupcakes are eaten, until the announcement is made.
“Now girls, we have a special visitor for you.” My mother calls out to us all. Twenty-two pairs of eyes turn, looking towards the hallway in anticipation, and small, breathless squeals emerge. The Pink Panther strolls into our garden. Bigger in real life, but just as pink and furry as I had imagined, all those mornings when I watched him in the cartoons.
“Now where’s the birthday girl?” Fingers all point in my direction. He walks over and starts talking to me. But I notice that the Pink Panther has a zip down his side. And a voice that’s very familiar. And on his feet are the same sneakers that sit by our front door every morning. That is not the Pink Panther.
The Pink Panther stops his talking, and turns his furry head and plastic eyes to look down at me.
Marilyn Eales is a retired Medical Laboratory Scientist. She lives in Auckland and enjoys a daily swim at a local beach. In 2010 she attended “ Life Writing” and “ More Life Writing” where she discovered a freedom to express herself in writing stories and memoirs. Prior to this her only writing had been correspondence to family and friends from developing countries in which she lived and worked.
We hardly ever spoke yet I saw her every day for at least seven years. She was in her eighties. We would both arrive at the bathing shed every morning about 8am Winter and Summer, change into our bathing costumes and head off in different directions. Later she would return to the bathing shed, briskly nod and then disappear as quickly as she had arrived on the scene.
In rough weather it was always a comfort to know she was there splashing about in the sea just as I was. There was a bond between us but one unspoken. I had not realised how close this bond was until one day, after a very stormy night I heard on the 7am news bulletin on National Radio that a body had been washed up on our beach. I hoped and prayed that it was not my companion swimmer.
Much to my relief three days later she appeared for her usual morning swim. With a broad smile she looked at me and said, ”I’m so pleased to see you”. The bond between us was further cemented although we continued in our old way and rarely spoke.
Three years later, when she was eighty seven years old and had been diagnosed with terminal cancer, she was unable to swim without assistance. And so for the last five weeks of her life I was privileged to assist her into the water. Observers of this ritual queried why I bothered with that dying woman. “She’s not dying” was my defensive reply “she is living”.
After her death I discovered she had three university degrees (the last conferred on her when she was in her 84th year) and that she had worked as an accountant in a legal firm until a few months before she died. I shall never forget her. Sometimes I wonder about the rich conversations we might have had if only we had taken the time to do so --- but then, our unspoken bond, expressed through our concern, watching out and caring for each other in all weathers, may not have been the same.
John Goodman is a former New Zealand diplomat, who now lives in Auckland. His main interests now are in politics, literature, art, history of ideas and cultures. John recently attended Deborah's summer life writing school at the Centre for Continuing Education, University of Auckland.
London in December is a groaning, booming monster, restive beneath layers of intense cold, night-fall at four, and smoke-darkened Victorian brick. The air is metropolis-blue, an odd fusion of diesel fumes and incandescent light. But for me, walking around Mecklenburgh Square, where I was still living that December, old London was radiant, streaming with bright future, my future. The world had just become my oyster, the globe my stage, the planet mine.
I had just left University College London for the last time, bidding farewell to the bones of Jeremy Bentham in their glass case at the portico, clutching my post-grad international law degree. Earlier, I had lunched on salmon, turkey and Stilton in the oak-panelled boardroom of Norton, Rose, Botterill and Roche, a major law firm. They liked me, they said, mentioning a 'lavish starting salary.' When could I start?
Canterbury University had offered a post on the threshold of senior lecturer and pay to match, unexpected but welcome to an ageing student of 28. When could I accept?
And that morning, Foreign Affairs in Wellington had offered a diplomatic slot. When would I return?
My plans for simultaneous career offers fulfilled, I fairly hugged myself with joy, pacing along, delighting in the flow of power that surges when the keys to the city nestle in your palm.
I paced jauntily, switched suddenly to measured steps, then slowed, stopped, stirred, then stopped again, unable to move, my mind turning. My feet locked onto the huge London flagstones, the keys to the city vanished. When could I start? When could I accept? When would I return? Before my eyes, glory turned to inky dust in the darkness and cold of a London winter evening.
Some time later, high over frozen, white North America, I awoke from dozing, divided, my heart moving forward and my soul looking back.
Leona Fay is a retired school teacher with an interest in literature, peace and social justice. She has attended the Gifting Your Stories courses taught by Grant Hindin-Miller at the Centre for Continuing Education at Canterbury University. This story began as a response to an exercise on the theme of "place".
My step-grandmother, who was known to us as Aunty Nell was from South Australia. In 1947 she was returning to New Zealand on the Wanganella, after a visit to her family in Australia, when the ship ran aground on Barrett Reef at the entrance to Wellington harbour.
The incident was recorded in the Dominion Post;
On 19 January 1947, making its first trans-Tasman voyage after the war, the Wanganella struck Barrett Reef just before midnight and stuck fast. The weather conditions were unusually benign and remained so for the 18 days the ship spent on the reef. No-one was injured, and the passengers were taken off the ship the morning after the accident.
When I was a little girl I loved holidaying with Aunty Nell and Grandad Clausen. Grandad was a kindly, reassuring grandparent and Aunty Nell was lively. She dressed stylishly in tailored suits and dresses she made herself. I remember a lavender crepe dress, nipped in at the waist. And after Grandad's death she recut and transformed his black Masonic Lodge suit, inserting black and white houndstooth fabric in the skirt seams and on the lapels of the jacket.
The really special thing about staying with Auntie Nell was the opportunity to play all her musical instruments. Patiently she helped me master simple tunes on her piano, pedal organ, autoharp, accordian and mouth organ. But there was one catch. Aunty Nell was the most long-winded person I have ever met and as a child I found it impossible to break her flow without appearing rude. Her account of the grounding of the Wanganella, however was one story that held me in thrall:
We were approaching the Wellington Heads when the ship struck Barrett Reef. The captain ordered everybody to assemble on the listing deck with their luggage. He told us the ship was stuck fast and we would have to remain there until morning when a safe rescue could be accomplished. Naturally people were anxious and the children were fearful, sensing danger. So I took out my mouth organ, sat on my suitcase and played to them, childhood songs that they could sing along to. Oh goodness it was a long night. I must have played for hours.
I loved that story. I could imagine my snappily dressed Aunty Nell tipping her suitcase on its end and making music. On that occasion her ‘longwindedness’ was a gift to the passengers on the stricken Wanganella.
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