Ikea for Avians


My mother Sadie had only two coats, the black everyday one and her ‘best’ blue coat with the fur collar. My father, Solly, being a tailor, made all our clothes. I must have been almost twenty before I felt brave enough to buy ‘ready-made’ and take it home for him to make a critical assessment.

We weren’t well off. Sadie’s fur collar was very small but it had once been a real little fox: his tiny face sat on her shoulder and his soft tail swept across her neck. She was a very shy modest woman and didn’t put on airs and graces but in the 1930s her best coat meant a lot to her in the icy British winters.

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By the 1950s I was working. I had my own money and could choose my clothes. Solly was probably hurt by my rejection. Jaeger in Regent Street was the right place to make a stand, and a bright orange coat with a long sweeping skirt – Dior’s ‘New Look’ – announced my independence.   It went so well with Black Sobranie cigarettes too.

I wasn’t hankering for fur and my rabbit skin gloves were just a practical purchase against the cold. Once up in the ‘gods’ at Covent Garden, weeping over ‘Rigoletto’ I had a fright when a live rat ran along the velvet balustrade in front of me and I mistook it for my gloves.

After rabbit I moved up in the fashion stakes, although it was no doubt just a coincidence that the soft black wool jersey dress I wore to a party had real mink trim around the sleeves and neckline. It was an elegant ‘little black dress’ just right for the occasion; a gathering of ex-pat students and one wanderer, all Australians. As the quintessential British ‘Miss’ it was easy to scoop up the wanderer and decide to marry him. The dress is gone but I’ve kept the little pieces of mink. I’m nostalgic about the occasion but shamed to remember how unthinking we were about fur.

Sheepskin was used to line the leather jackets used by airmen and in an army surplus shop I found something to keep me warm as I explored Devon and Somerset on a Lambretta motor scooter clinging to the wanderer. ‘Come to Australia with me’, he said and so I ended up in the strange land of the ‘jolly jumbuck’. In our Elwood ‘studio’ flat – one room with kitchen alcove – we turned again to the sheep and spent our evenings sewing Ugg boots, those fur lined slippers peculiar to Australia. We thought we might make enough money to save for a house deposit but the work made our fingers so sore we had to give up.

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I admire vegans and vegetarians but cannot reconcile all the many issues: eating meat, wearing leather shoes and jackets, pinching eggs from chickens. Fur however is very straightforward; it’s no.

For many years now corgis have been the family’s choice and their coats are thick and double layered. There’s a lot of brushing involved and I roll the handfuls of fur into little balls and put them on the garden shrubs. The birds collect them for soft furnishing – Ikea for avians.


French Mimosa


My eldest son stands in the hallway with a bunch of yellow wattle. Flowers and shrubs that hang over fences or alongside the creek are fair game, and he brings me many such gifts. He enjoys making me happy and together we search for an appropriate vase. My middle son doesn’t think in floral terms but gives me pottery and glass and the wattle looks perfect in a 1950s brown and cream pot made somewhere in Israel. The youngest son is colour blind and once presented me with a bunch of quite unusual dyed chrysanthemum.

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I’m interested in genetic inheritance and can see a clear horticultural link between my eldest son and his grandmother. Sadie, my mother, loved to walk through municipal parks. Her own small house in outer suburban London was part of a terrace row and the back gardens I remember were all the same: long strips of grass surrounded by indifferent flower beds; the coal shed and mangle in one corner; a cement slab outside the French windows and a rope washing line with a wooden pole.

I missed out on the natural history gene. A ‘ten pound Pom’, I have always found the Australian landscape far too challenging. The flora confuse me and the fauna are alarming. Bush walking, camping, caravanning – they’re not for me and I belong in a concrete jungle.

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golden wedding -001

As we arrange the sunshine of the yellow balls I flash back to 1957, to a young man throwing his hat into the crowd outside a suburban synagogue. He came out from the dreary little building with his new wife, his ‘Pommie’ girl. It’s the bride who usually throws her bouquet, but from the start this marriage was different. The mandatory male head covering was the first and only hat the young man was ever to own and discarding it was a statement of some kind – a gesture of defiance? Against all odds the wedding had taken place. He was penniless, working with a West Indian crew shifting mailbags at a London terminus: almost suicidal at one point because he’d spent his return fare money to Melbourne on a Lambretta motor scooter in Milan and felt stranded in bleak London, unemployable, hungry, homesick.

The bride, let’s face it, at twenty-six was just about ‘on the shelf’. She was the family’s ‘black sheep’ rebellious, unorthodox, didn’t mix well with the Jewish community (‘stuffy’, ‘conservative’, ‘boring’ she called them). Even worse, she’d left home unmarried and was living in what was at the time ‘bohemian’ Hampstead. She might even be having affairs! Nothing about her was quite right. Marrying this nobody from Australia; an only child leaving her parents to go and live twelve thousand miles away; the indecent haste of the wedding (‘Was she pregnant? Oh the shame!’). It was touch and go whether a cable would arrive from Australia in time to confirm the groom’s Jewish credentials. The suburban rabbi barely knew where the Great Synagogue in Sydney was and probably took an altogether dim view of Jewish life in the ‘colonies’.

Outside the synagogue the people watching were all from her side. The groom had only a small bunch of ex-pat Aussie students to support him. They reported afterwards that getting him to the ceremony had involved many stops for ‘heart-starters’. The bride was in what their grandsons now call a ‘different zone’. She didn’t know of, or care much, about Australia; she was making her escape. If you’d asked her what she was escaping from she might not have been able to articulate it but freedom is somewhere in the mix. She and he had been living together for a few months but neither had any real knowledge of the other. They just fantasised about riding the Lambretta to exotic places and maybe one day having four children.

There had been barely three weeks to prepare for the wedding. He had a proper job back in Melbourne – advertising manager for Rockmans Stores – and if he didn’t get back soon his employers would find someone else. The bride’s parents were hard-pressed to organise a decent send-off, and they weren’t affluent.   It was also the time of the Suez crisis: no petrol for cars although the scooter, running on a teaspoon of fuel, looked smug as the bride and groom rode away from the reception into the icy night.

The bride had thought it might be ok to be married in a National Trust type mansion by candlelight, wearing red velvet. Her family said that it wasn’t remotely ok and the boring synagogue ceremony was totally unmemorable. She wouldn’t countenance a dress with lace or frills but chose a Pierre Balmain copy in plain white grosgrain, calf-length with a little jacket that had a stand-up collar.

The groom was consulted about flowers. It was probably the only item on which he was asked his opinion. In England freesia bloom in February and now they are in my Melbourne garden in his honour – of course at the other end of the year. The boy from Bondi wanted wattle too, the only link with his home. The local florist had never even heard of it; so he settled for French Mimosa flown in from the south of France.

‘Settling’ is a pretty accurate description of the marriage. She kept everything more or less on track; he decided whether the Australian government would raise taxes or go to war.

c Ros Collins 2015


We’re having discussions about penalty rates for weekend work and what a can of worms that’s proving to be! How complicated the notion of ‘the Sabbath’ can be, particularly for those attached to a particular religion or political perspective. Back in the 1950s, when I was a newly-arrived ‘ten pound Pom’, I used to call Australia a lotus land. Office workers worked Monday to Friday, 9.00 am to 5.00 pm, enjoyed a morning tea break and a full hour for lunch; shops closed at mid-day on Saturday. Families practised togetherness and the sound of lawnmowers was heard throughout the land.

If you were Christian, then Sunday church followed by Sunday lunch with family and friends might be on the agenda. If you were Jewish, then the days were reversed and Saturday was your Sabbath, although the observances really start at sunset on Friday. And this is where my reflections begin:

When I was a child, there were things we couldn’t do on Shabbes and Yom Tov, such as go to the pictures (involving money) or use scissors (involving work).  Solly’s Girl Ch. 18

But my father, Solly, was a tolerant man and believed in compromise. During the height of the Blitz he decided that for the sake of our sanity we would join the queue outside the local cinema and see Fantasia and I remember the slides that appeared on the screen announcing the start and conclusion of the air raids that were taking place outside.

Alan in yellow sailing jacket 1983 Alan sailing

Fast forward to Melbourne suburban life in the 1980s. Alan and I were back in Elwood and he was a crew member on a friend’s yacht. They were a lovely bunch of ‘seniors’ – we dubbed them ‘Dad’s navy’ – and they sailed sedately across Port Phillip Bay from the marina at St Kilda to Williamstown and back, admiring the dolphins, drinking tea and taking turns in kipping down below in the little cabin.   The yacht was called Dreamboat and indeed it was a dreamy time for this little group of Jewish ‘elders’. They sailed on the Sabbath and Alan, who would have observed the observant attending morning and evening services as he drove along, wrote a poem, ‘My Sabbath’ which was published in Generation Magazine, July 1990:

  On Saturday I wear my shirt with nautical flags on it.
In my street other Jews are wearing their signals too.
Their signals speak to me in sable semaphore
of how my Sabbath shuns synagogue for sea.

  They frighten me with their testamental blackness,
like reproachful gannets that line the breakwater
as my sails belly to the first swelling wave –
an admonitory minyan, streimel-ed with feathers.

  It’s my Sabbath too I say to the whitefaced side-curled child
but not to his father who worries my conscience
nor his mother whose sheitl is so set, the wind that drives
my boat could not stir her waves. To the light-house we go.

  They to theirs, me to mine. A boat is a holy vessel,
an ark of triumph that bows down only to the elements.
On Friday night I pray before my barometer. Then cut the
  challah, salt it, pass it around: blessed art thou O Lord

  who brings forth bread from the earth (and kindly winds for
Saturday that won’t give the testamental ones all the
righteousness). Tomorrow, tomorrow, my tallit shall be a sail
around my shoulders, its ropes the side-curls of a white-faced boy.

[Just in case: minyan – a quorum; streimel – a fur hat worn by very orthodox Hasidic men; sheitl – a wig worn by very orthodox women to hide their hair; challah – the plaited Sabbath loaf; tallit – prayer shawl]

Alan wrote only a handful of poems and he was feeling his way with an unfamiliar genre. But he makes his views clearly. I understand where he’s coming from with his worried conscience and desire for a share of the righteousness. I’m not so kind; however, his conflicting emotions about the Sabbath mirror my own.

His ideal agenda was Friday night dinner with the family, a Kehilat Nitzan synagogue service on Saturday morning, and then sailing on ‘Sat’d’y arvo’. This mixed bag of Jewish observance and Australian recreational customs has surely given our children the message he and I would have always wanted for them. I would wave him goodbye with ‘Have a nice pray!’, ‘Have a nice sail!’ I was content to garden or read. I don’t think this dilutes Jewish identity one bit and is more like a tribute to life. L’chaim!   Solly’s Girl Ch. 18

Fast forward yet again to 2015. There’s something planned called the Shabbat Project and the Australian Jewish News has been vigorously bringing this world-wide event to its readers. The lead article last week was headlined: Observing Shabbat in the Home; for me it is just one huge guilt-trip.

‘Simple tips on how to prepare your home to ensure a seamless Shabbat’ fill me with – what? Despair, exasperation, frustration, nostalgia, amusement are just some of my emotions at the following instructions: clean the house and polish the silver; hide the remote controls for all gadgets and disable the equipment to which they relate; wash and iron my clothes for Shabbat; turn off lights and leave on only those that will stay on for the entire Sabbath; fill an urn with water and switch it on; tape down the light switch inside the fridge; pre-tear foil and food wrap; same for toilet paper (or use tissues); pre-cook all meals and keep them edible on a warming tray; record a phone message saying I’m not available until after Sabbath.

My orthodox family never went thus far and I wonder how many of us world-wide do, in fact, practice such a strict regime. The Australian Jewish News seems determined to shame me but, like Alan, I find the ‘testamental blackness’ intimidating. They to theirs, me to mine.

I reflect on my relationship with all my grandsons and my role as matriarch of this small family. The glue that holds us together is Shabbat dinner every Friday night. It is only a perfunctory nod in a religious direction, yet each of us knows this is an important punctuation point in the week, a moment when we reconnect. It’s always a proper dinner, never take-away fish and chips or pizza. I battle to be heard over the conversation as I bless the candles and watch small Eli’s eyes light up. Traditionally, the mother of the family covers her hair with a lace scarf and hides her eyes behind her hands, but I don’t do that because I want to see my family and lace scarves are not me. This ritual meal has been a fixture throughout my married life. Now I take over Alan’s chair, and his presiding photograph is ceremoniously placed on the mantelpiece by Isaac. We don’t have silver candlesticks of our own, and the Art Deco ones Sadie and Solly used are so worn from my mother’s polishing I’ve put them away in favour of small bronze enamel Israeli ones. Rhonda, Toby’s wife, is usually at work, but she will have sent the challah she baked, and Eli and Isaac will cut and salt it. Toby, the total rationalist, will bless the wine; Daniel will recite the brakha in respectable Hebrew, with interpolations from Peter in a mockery of Yiddish accents. Then we can get down to the serious business of the weekend – football matches.   Solly’s Girl Ch. 18