Rocky resisted emphatically, straining against the leash, his legs rigid and dug into the wet grass of the park, as I tried to head towards the beach. The rain came down in swirls, soft rain, light and mist-like, but the wind was brutal and in the distance, we could see the white-topped grey waves of the bay. This Yom Kippur morning, this holiest and most solemn of days for Jews, came after a weekend of dashed hopes for St Kilda supporters, the Saints having lost in the Grand Final to Geelong thus confirming their long history of heartbreak and just-missed opportunities. There had been days of wild and angry weather that for those who believe such things, suggested repentance on this Yom Kippur, this Day of Atonement would need to be more fervent than usual. On this Day of Atonement, Rocky has decided that the beach is no place for a dog.
Instead of the beach, we walked to the St Kilda Botanical Gadens. Rocky was jumpy, alert and alarmed by every piece of paper that flew past us in the wind and by the blue plastic flapping sheets that covered the still to be completed renovations of the narrow fronted Edwardian houses on the still -deserted and water-covered streets of our neighborhood. So much renovation. So much change. The old St Kilda and certainly old Elwood, the adjacent suburb, is fast disappearing. A week ago, a rather modest townhouse in our street sold for well over a million dollars.
The shops along St Kilda Road were all still closed except for a small coffee shop, sad looking, with a solitary young man sitting on a stool by the window. In the window was a large poster urging the Saints on to victory in the Grand Final. The poster was in the red black and white colours of the St Kilda Football Club. Most of the dozen or so shops and restaurants had these posters in their windows and the rain sprayed against the glass and to me, looked like tears. We turned off the main road as soon as we could, for these posters did not fill us with joy. I am of course an Essendon supporter and the Bombers were thrashed in the first week of the finals–as expected I must say– but St Kilda is my home and somewhere in my heart, I discovered on Saturday, there was a place for the Saints.
So we left the rain- sprayed windows and the desolate posters behind and headed for the gardens. It seemd that only Rocky and I had been determined this early morning on the Day of Atonement, the wind biting, dark grey clouds massed in the sky, the rain relentless–relentless rain thank God!–to walk these streets, past the Elwood Synagogue, at dawn, the Synagogue locked behind the high fence, empty now, but not for long, for on this Yom Kippur –like all those past–the pews would soon be full to overflowing for the morning service, the first session, for Yiskor when members of the congregation will acknowledge and pray for –and give thanks to– their dead parents.
I stopped outside the synagogue. Rocky sat quietly looking up at me, as if to suggest that a liver treat might be an appropriate reward for his willingness to indulge my madness, this standing there in the rain and wind outside the synagogue, and so I offered Rocky two liver treats and he devoured them and then he sat quietly, up against my legs, sheltered there as far as possible from the wind and the rain. My sister Rita was married here– her first of three marriages — here in the Elwood Synagogue, 21 years old she was and wild at heart and beautiful– she looked, I thought, like Rita Hayworth and Elizabeth Taylor, yes, both of them–and though our mother had by then been dead for six years, I think now, looking back, that Rita was still in mourning and that she remained in mourning for the rest of her life.
After my mother died, on the first Yom Kippur after her death, my two eldest sisters asked that I accompany them to the Synagogue for Yiskor. Though I agreed to do so , I was reluctant, for I had hoped that my mother’s death would liberate me from synagogue attendance –as it had liberated my father from all his religious duties which he had fulfilled only because my mother had insisted he do so– but that morning, when for the first time, I sat inside the synagogue for the Yiskor service while the boys and girls who still had both their parents played outside, I felt then, as I said Kaddish, the prayer for the dead, for my mother, that I was no-longer one of those chidren and that I had been let in to a secret about life that those children, playing outside, could never know.
I cannot now recall how many times after that time I went to synagogue on Yom Kippur nor can I now say just what it was, that secret about life that came to me during the Yiskor service, but on this Yom Kippur morning, standing outside the Elwood Synagogue, I quietly recite the first few lines of Kaddish, with Rocky pressed up against my legs, with the wind dying down now a little but still strong and the rain swirling about us.
In the gardens, we walk down the wet, puddled, pebbled path towards the rose garden and Rocky is alive to the potential of every tree and to the rain- covered deep green and closely mowed lawns, pulling me here and there, from tree to tree and over every patch of lawn, head down, nose alive to every sign of life, past and present and then there it is, the sunken rose garden, the rose bushes cut back but now in spring, with new growth starting and buds on every bush and in one section, there’s a patch of rose bushes with flowering yellow roses, Day of Atonement roses, I think to myself and we stay in the gardens, Rocky and I, for what must have been a long time, for as we start to leave, I see that outside the Elwood Synagogue, there are people gathering, adults and children.
I wondered what it was, that secret I learnt that Yom Kippur morning almost 50 years ago and I repeated again those first few lines of the Kaddish–for that’s all I could remember of it- and this time, I did think of my mother and my father and my eldest sistere Hinda and of Rita, beautiful and in mourning on her wedding day and for a moment, I thought I could remember the secret, but then it slipped away.
We avoided walking past the synagogue on the way home and St Kilda Road as well, with those shops and restaurants that had in their windows those St Kilda posters. The rain had stopped and the wind had died down and the black clouds had been blown away and the sky was late morning dull blue. Rocky wanted to walk on, down to the beach to search, I suppose, for a tennis ball, but I thought the time for the beach had passed and that tomorrow we could set out early and see the sunrise on the beach and perhaps tomorrow, some of the birds, the swans and the pelicans in particular that had been there every morning during winter and had gone at the start of spring, might be back.
Shortly after we arrived home, my son called and said that on this Day of Atonement, he wished to ask for my forgiveness for whatever bad things he had done me. He was serious I think. As he spoke, I thought how thankful I was that the secret about life, the one that came to me on a Yom Kippur morning long ago, that secret I could not now remember, not in words anyway, was a secret my son and my daughter, when they were children– and even now for that matter– could not know.
Postscript: The launch of our book, Rocky and Gawenda the story of a man and his mutt, will be held this Saturday at 10.15am for 1o.30am at Veg Out the St Kilda communal vegetable gardens in Peanut Reserve near Luna Park. Tim Costello will launch the book. There will be liver treats for the dogs who attend–on a leash please– and other refreshments for their human companions.
Rocky and Gawenda the story of a man and his mutt will be in bookshops from Saturday.