by Yvonne Fein
Wyborova vodka (the
good Polish stuff)
Every painter is born somewhere. Marc Chagall said it.
Every writer must have an address. Isaac Bashevis Singer said it.
Ironic, isn’t it? Both were wanderers, fantasists of images and words, surviving the Thousand Year Reich. Both were whisked from home, out of Europe, just in time. They roamed America, birthplace and address extinguished.
I have often wondered what my fate would have been had one or both my parents been able to paint or write. Perhaps Auschwitz might not have been their destination. In which case they would never have met and I would never have been born. Anywhere.
It has been a strange few weeks. Last night I dreamt my mother was still here, helping me choose an outfit for some elegant occasion. She prized all things beautiful, easily sidestepping the gaudy or ostentatious. With unerring sensibility she would find the garment best suited to me, a lifetime in the rag-trade having given her an infallible eye for le vêtement juste.
In her eighties, memories plagued her. Parkinson’s and Bipolar ruined her. In the camps she found some water, trickling it through her cousin’s lips but still the girl died. Where she lay there was no mercy for Jew, Roma, or Gay. Now, in her last moments, my mother cried out, reached out, for the hand of my sister, my only sibling: Vivienne — the one she named after her own mother, the one she thought was her mother when the disorder was rampant.
Vivienne hated her namesake. She could not forgive the grandmother she had never met for risking the lives of her children for a myth, for a God, the curse of the Jews. In the grandmother’s pre-war household the non-Jewish servant had begged her mistress to come to her farmhouse, distant from Budapest, to hide herself and her children there.
I will look after you. They won’t ever find you. I won’t let them. Please, you have always been so good to me.
But the grandmother refused the offer, afraid of the food in the servant’s house: it would not be kosher. So she died. The child she would not relinquish died with her. My mother survived and for much of her life relived the anguish of that separation.
After the funeral Vivienne went back home. Three days later she rang but I had lost my words. All I could do was cry.
Come up and stay awhile.
When I disembarked it was to a different world. The Sydney sun was mild with none of those 42-degree infernos punishing me as they had in Melbourne.
We walked down, up and over the cliffs from Bronte to Bondi, reaching the Icebergs Pool, emptied out and pumped full of the crisp, clean ocean once a week. The pool lies against the rocks of Bondi Beach and at high tide, the spray and water can throw itself over the pool walls in a rush of gleaming white and blue. Even if you’re swimming in the lane furthest from the edge, the force of the waves can buffet you. It renders the chlorinated experience of Melbourne pools lacklustre, colourless.
My sister led me to the beach at Tamarama. We plunged into its cobalt, wave-flung waters. When we dived, it was to come up gasping. We looked at each other in delight and dived in again. If only it were possible to preserve the exhilaration of tingling scalp penetrating right through to our brains, cleansing them of sorrow.
Another day I followed her to Clovelly beach. We wandered through the old, old Waverly cemetery where Henry Lawson — such fine, fierce stories — is buried. We walked down to a channel 100 metres long and perhaps 35 metres wide which had been built from the sea to the beach. On either side of the channel were wide concrete aprons where people spread their towels and waited for the biting heat to force them back into the water. No easy task to reach the darkly chilled waves, it was necessary to negotiate slippery rocks and waving seaweed before taking the almighty plunge.
Bright coral and brighter fish — scarlet, turquoise, gold, purple, silver — flickered against the screens of our goggles. Underwater TV.
Vivienne is older than I am by only two years but she was always protective. Now, wherever we went, she carried the backpack with all the gear, never letting me take it. She insisted I wear enough sunscreen, asked me to remember my sun hat and, when the water was rough, wanted to guard me by swimming close by.
We are both strong, confident swimmers, but when I realised she was forgoing the pleasures of swimming in the rougher waters just so she could keep an eye on me, I began to laugh for the first time in awhile, laughter replete with love
As children in the vastness of the Burwood campus of Mount Scopus College, she looked after me until she was sure I had found my own friends to play with. She would buy me ice-creams from the tuckshop and I, thoughtless infant, distracted by a ball-game or some other diversion, would run off, only to bump into her at the end of the recess, cupping that melted confection in both her hands. It was mine. She had not taken a lick of it
So there we were, motherless in our fifties, playing again in the water and sand. It was one of those times outside time, where the present lost its power and the past rose to greet us in memories suffused with enchantment.
We remembered skiing in Mount Buffalo and Thredbo as teenagers, falling in love with the handsome Austrian ski-instructor. We recalled a trip overseas which had ended in Hawaii with our father smashing a coconut against a sharp rock to break it and show his glamorous, bikini-clad wife and two young daughters the mysteries of clear milk and sweet white flesh contained within its rough casing.
One cloudy day, Vivienne and I made our way to the New South Wales Art Gallery to view a Sidney Nolan exhibition. We were struck by the boy from St Kilda painting scenes so familiar to us: Luna Park, a fire at the Palais de Dance. For two hours we wondered around rooms brimming with his genius. The Ned Kelly paintings, seen not in a catalogue but up close, made us look and look again.
Going home was hard. On the way to the airport Vivienne told me she was not well. I had discovered long ago that screaming into the universe’s void solved nothing so I held her awhile at goodbye and all the way home thought of us playing — a long time ago and yesterday — on beaches whose hot white sands scorched the soles of our feet, making us dance towards the reprieve of the water.
She died at fifty-eight, before our father. Where is she? he would ask but I never said. The truth would set no one free. He would only sob, broken, and a moment later forget, to sob and break the next time I answered.
Vivienne had eyes green as the scattered light of oceans. Gentle, temperate, yet mind ablaze with the flame of science, the percussion of numbers. I recall her alive inside the havoc of the sunlit Bondi waves she loved, her arms thrusting, steady. Those same arms that had always held me when I was afraid.
But when all is said and done, I know my survivor parents and my sister ripped untimely would still and always have believed that it is better to be born and live than never to have been born at all.
So whatever the painters say, and the writers, it is far less about where you lived and far more about how.
About the author
Yvonne Fein has 3 novels published and a collection of short stories — Choose Somebody Else — (Wild Dingo Press, 2018). Awards for screenwriting: Best Action Adventure — Gotham Screenplay Competition (NY); runner up — Rhode Island Film Festival. Drama: two plays for theatre, editing: two literary journals and award-winning Holocaust memoirs. Essays and stories published internationally. She conducted creative-writing workshops for people suffering mental illness and, advocating for those with disability, performs stand-up comedy to raise public awareness.
First, do no harm - Galen
I would like to acknowledge the Wurundjeri people, the traditional custodians of this land where I learn and work, and to pay respect to the Elders, both past and present, of the Kulin nation.