Sunday, March 13, 2011

Back in Perth

Mum and her two sisters Shirley & Leonie
I've been linked with Perth my whole life. My Mum was from here and so we would come over every few years to see the Perth side of the family. When I was very young we would stay at the house of my grandparents, my Nanna and Zayda, in Venn Street, Mt. Lawley. I have memories of a giant almond tree in the backyard, or perhaps it was the neighbour's tree with branches over the fence. I would pick the nuts from the ground, crack open the husks and the shells and eat them by the handful. My Zayda used to play with us all the time as kids, preferring our company to that of the grown ups. He'd do tricks for us, play hide and seek in the garden and always had a pepe, his name for kool mints, in the glove box of his old Rambler car for us kids. He would hand them out much more frequently than Mum and Dad ever passed out the lollies. I have random memories of Venn Street. Watching my Nanna's cat Fluffy (all her cats were always called Fluffy) catch a giant praying mantis, play with it for a while in the thick green couch grass that always reminds me of Perth, and then gobble it down. Running up the driveway barefooted and treading on a rusty nail that resulted in a trip to the doctor's for a tetanus shot. Sleeping in the added on section out the back of the house that was known as the sleep out and listening to my grandfather half singing half humming while he shaved in the bathroom next door. Sometimes I would lie in bed listening to him playing his piano accordian. I loved looking in the book shelves of the sleep out and seeing the old hardback books with the faded red covers that had been my mother's when she was a girl. William In Trouble, Oliver Twist, David Copperfield and an old encyclopedia set that seemed so ancient to me, nowhere near as glossy as the brand new set of World Book Encyclopedias we had at home. I recall waking up one morning very early and Nanna, as always, was already up. I got dressed and the two of us walked over to my Aunty Freda's place a suburb away in Elstree Avenue before anybody in the house had stirred. Freda was Nanna's sister. I used to stay with her regularly too. I loved her reading me the Little Mermaid from a dusty old book of Hans Christian Andersen tales with glossy picture plates, the story a lot darker before Disney got hold of it. Aunty Freda didn't have any kids of her own, so she would always love having me come and stay. I'd putt a golf ball for hours around her backyard with the clubs that I'd found buried deep in her back shed. On the table out the back was her homemade flycatcher. A glass jar with holes poked into the metal lid, half filled with water and containing a mixture of rotting meat and fly corpses. Having flies buzzing around was a lot less disturbing to me than that contraption which made me feel rather ill. One year Freda was bitten by a redback spider when pulling a chair out of the shed. Her arm swelled up like a balloon.
Young cousins
One time when we came over to Venn Street from Melbourne, we brought chicken pox with us and infected the whole family. I was 8 then, Nat was 6, and cousins Sharon and Grant were 4 and 2 respectively. We all got it. And on it went also to Mum's cousin David who was a good deal older than us so it was apparently much more serious for him. I still remember the nights of incessant itching and the very temporary relief of the calamine lotion, pink spots all over my body. My Nanna still had the old washing machine with the mangle used for squeezing the water out of the clothes. And old solid metal flat irons that had been replaced by the modern technology of an electric iron and so had now been relegated to the role of ornamental door stops. And of course the great food my Nanna used to make from her old clunky looking oven. I think I was around 9 when my Zayda died. We were in Melbourne at the time and I remember Natalie and Mum coming in the front door crying. When they told me what happened I couldn't believe it. I'd never had somebody close to me die before. I think I laughed, expecting that they were playing some kind of elaborate practical joke on me. But when I looked at Mum, I knew it was true. I was ashamed of my initial reaction for some years after that, not realising that I was probably in shock and that as a child I didn't know how to take such grave news. I cried in the solitude of my bed knowing I'd never see my Zayda again. After Zayda died Nanna moved to a townhouse unit in Mt. Lawley. When Mum and Dad went overseas for 10 or 11 weeks, Nat and I went over to stay with her, but in the end Nat went and stayed with Aunty Shirley and Uncle Robert because we fought too much for Nanna to handle. I was in grade 5 in 1973 and I loved that long hot summer. We went to Carmel, the Perth Jewish school, where I was reacquainted with some of the kids I'd done kinder with some years before when we livd in Perth. Some lunchtimes I would visit my great grandmother in the old people's home that was next door to the school. She seemed so old to me that I never really knew what to say to her, but she loved seeing me just the same. At school after lunch would always be blessings in hebrew that the other kids all seemed to know but were mostly a mystery to me and Nat. Mum would have liked for us to be much more in tune with our jewish heritage, but Dad was a pretty devout agnostic and seemed not too bothered by that. So back home we just went to the local state school. Zayda had taught me a short jewish prayer and told me that I should say it every night. For some years I did too. I think as much as anything it just made me feel closer to him.

Three generations of Rosen
My Nanna, Zayda and all the family of that generation are now long gone. My mum and her two sisters Shirley and Leonie are now the elders of the tribe. Mum flew out to Perth a few days ago to meet up with us so that we could have a bit of a walk together down family memory lane, as well as to catch up with her sisters and their expanding families. Tonight was a good gathering of the tribe at Shirley and Robert's. The aunts, the uncles, the cousins and the new generation of cousins. We don't see each other very often so there's always a lot of catching up to do. We ate, had a couple of wines, some good laughter, talked about our trip and looked at some old family photos. Nanna, Zayda, Freda, the old Rambler and much younger versions of us all from a bygone day were displayed in the vivid clarity of a very modern laptop. The three sisters gave a rousing version of the song Sisters that they have been singing together now for maybe 60 years. When I hugged Shirley on leaving, she remarked that I even felt like family. I knew what she meant. I guess she would have first hugged me around 47 years ago when I was the first child of the three sisters. People tied together forever by a shared history and a feeling of complete familarity no matter what. That's family.

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