It is the second day of spring. Beside the St Kilda pier, on a morning that feels as if winter has gone, consigned to wherever it is that memories are stored, the sky light blue, the air warm and crisp at the same time, wind-less, the sun soft yellow, spring soft, Rocky is puzzled, quizzical-looking, unsure of how to respond to this rejection of his unabashed offer of affection.
Rocky had approached the young woman with his usual exuberance, whole-heartedly open hearted, preparing himself as he came close to signal his willingness, no, eagerness, to lie on his back at her feet, his tail sweeping backwards and forwards in anticipation, his face on her feet, looking up, open mouthed, his white chest heaving with excitement. But as he approached, just a few feet away from her, she turned away and suddenly, my heart was filled with pity for Rocky and I was angry too, not white- hot angry of course, but angry nevertheless and then I saw it, the object of her desire, a few metres away, black and small, curly haired, baby soft it looked, its face puppy- open, open and stunned and somehow also curious, its trembling blob-like body up against the legs of the man who was looking down at this beautiful thing and I thought he was beaming and embarrassed at the same time.
I called Rocky to me and he came , puzzled still, but prepared to be put on the leash for the reward of a liver treat. By then, the young woman had swept the puppy up in her arms and she craddled it and she let it examine her ears and her nose and she let it burrow into her chest. The man looked on, gentle-faced and not without some pride, as if he was somehow responsible for the gorgeousness of this thing that the woman found so entrancing. I was determined to quickly take Rocky away from this moment of his rejection–and mine , for my empathy for Rocky’s predicament was total and painful–when the man called out to me, my name, and then he called out to Rocky too and there was nothing to do but go over, both of us, for we knew this man and I knew the puppy too, having seen and held it, the puppy passed around like a baby at the birthday party, from one set of out-stretched arms to another, the man rather indifferent to it I had thought, affecting distance, as if this puppy had not been his idea and that he had allowed it into his life with reluctance.
We greeted each other warmly, the man and I. He tried to greet Rocky too with some enthusiasm but he could not hide his concern that Rocky be kept away from the young woman, in case she decided to put the puppy down, though it seemed to me, given the fervour with which she was holding it still in her arms, that the likelihood of her suddenly growing weary of this embrace was remote. The man informed me that he had fallen under the spell of the puppy and that as a result, he had come to read Rocky and Gawenda with a deeper understanding of Rocky’s place in my life. Did he understand then, I wondered, did he feel my anger and pity at Rocky’s rejection by the young woman who had fallen under the spell of his dog?
He did not and neither really did I, for as we walked on as soon as was politely possible, Rocky pleased to be off the leash and having leapt off the boardwalk to dash towards the water’s edge after consuming his second liver treat, the one he demands as a reward for being unleashed, Rocky life-filled and warmed by the mellow sun in the pale blue cloudless sky, my anger and pity did not vanish with Rocky’s joy, but lingered and as is the way with these things, memories came and there was one memory in particular, of a day–was it a day like this, a spring day that had banished winter?– almost a half a century ago that try as I might, given that today, this morning was so life enhancing and Essendon was in the finals, still alive in spring, alive against all my expectations and my lack of hope, I could not easily dismiss.
My eldest sister that day asked me whether I wished to come and live with her, with her and my brother-in-law who was like a father to me, and with her son, my nephew who was my brother and with her younger son who his brother and I had not exactly welcomed into our lives when he arrived unannounced and unexpected. My mother had been dead for several years. Not long after she died, my father sold the shop and we left Fitzroy, my father, my aunt and I and we moved back to the house in Caulfield where my sister still lived with her family, the house we had left when my mother had finally convinced my father that a mixed business in Fitzroy might put us on the road to riches.
In those years we lived together again in Caulfield, after my mother died, my father lived his life as if his life in Fitzroy had never happened. He went back to work in the carpet factory in Preston but now he travelled there, across the city, a journey of perhaps an hour in traffic, in a green Fiat 500, which I assume meant it was a car powered by a half a litre engine, which he bought after he got his driver’s licence. Well, bought his driver’s licence, for in those days, Jewish men of my father’s age, by then well into his 50s, were taught to drive by an instructor who guaranteed them a licence no matter their driving skills and road knowledge, a promise I believe he invariably kept. My father’s driving was something to behold, confident, unafraid, open to safety hints from no-one, me in particular, and always, no matter how short the journey, always on the edge of catastrophe. There were no catastrophies, though on average once a week, my father was involved in a traffic incident, half the time with parked cars.
He drove his car to all sorts of meetings and lectures mostly ones that were in Yiddish, often lectures delivered by some ancient looking Yiddish literary critic who had been brought out from Israel or America and on Sunday mornings, he sat in a little shed in the playground of the Sholem Aleichem Sunday school where he dispensed exercise books, pencils and dog-eared Yiddish readers to kids who, like me, wished to be anywhere on Sunday morning but with my father, my father dressed in his Sunday suit, cheerful and full of jokes, as if there was nowhere in the world better to be than at Sholem Aleichem Sunday School where Yiddish, despite the odds, still lived!
He never spoke to me about my mother. He never gave any indication that he missed her. He fulfilled her wish that I have a Bar Mitzvah, a proper one, in shul and not one of those secular travesties of a Bar Mitvah that the Bund, the Jewish socialist party to which my father belonged, organised for members of SKIF, its youth movement. But he freed me from the after school Torah lessons my mother had inflicted upon me in Fitzroy– I rode my bike three nights a week to the synagogue in East Melbourne for these lessons- but at the the Passover seder after my mother died, my father severely abridged the Hagoda, the story of Moses freeing the Jews from slavery in Egypt, and in subsequent years, abridged it even further.
I do not know whether my sister spoke to him about me when she decided to move out with her family, but surely she did. How did he respond, I wonder? But I remember how my sister looked when she asked me whether I wanted to come and live with her and her family. She looked as if the question came from somewhere inside her where frailty and betrayal reside, not monstrous or heartless betrayal, but those betrayals that time and the end of things make inevitable. The time had come for my sister to live differently, the life I later realised, that she thought she had won when we had moved to Fitzroy, but that she had given up when our mother died, that giving up a terrible consequence of my mother’s dying, one I had never considered before my sister asked me that question, of whether I wanted to go with her and her family to their new home and even then, when she asked me the question, all I knew was that she was in pain and that in the face of her pain, there was only one answer to her question.
She loved me, my sister and I loved her. In the years after she moved out of that house in Caulfield, when I lived there with my father and my aunt, my sister remained more like a mother to me than a sister, worrying about me and feeding me and including me in family outings, but she knew and I knew that it was true, that line from the Yiddish lullaby that broke my heart and hers, nor a mame zi is eyne, mer nit eyne oyf der velt (Only a mother, only a mother, there is only one mother in this world). She loved me my sister, as much, perhaps more, than any sister could love a brother but we never spoke of our love for each other and we never spoke of that day of self-pity and anger.
I do not mean to suggest that this memory, this day almost 50 years ago was life-changing, for I do not believe in life-changing days but rather that time changes everything. Even on this spring morning, this memory was only fleeting and by the time we arrived home, Rocky and I, my pity for him and my anger at his treatment by the young woman beside St Kilda pier had more or less gone.
I did wonder, however, whether getting another dog, a puppy, a companion for Rocky who is more and more distraught each morning when he thinks that he will be left alone, was such a good idea. What if Rocky considers it a betrayal, an abandonment, evidence that he is unloved, that rather than ameliorating his despair at being left alone, another dog will amplify it in new and entirely unpredictable ways. The thought that these may be the consequences is unbearable. The thought that I could inadvertently betray Rocky is unthinkable, though I have come to believe that most human betrayals are inadvertent.
Even these thoughts were fleeting, for the morning was spring-filled in every way. During the night, my thoughts had been mostly about the Essendon players and I could picture them, each of them, those who I thought would be playing Friday night, in spring, in the first game of the finals. When we came home, Rocky and I, I sat upstairs in the study at the computer, and Rocky jumped up into my lap and as I clicked on to the Essendon Football club site, eager for news and the latest developments with the team, prepared to read even the most obvious drivel about this player or that, for this week I am gripped by football fever, Rocky looked out of the window, his lovely furry sturdy body stiff and alert, his eyes fixed on the footpath below us. And every time someone walked past, Rocky growled, a quiet, sustained excited growl. A growl of love, I thought. For me.