• Pola with the author. (Supplied)Source: Supplied
My mother has asked whether I would cross state lines to attend the funeral of 10 people. I want to go. I want to adhere as much as I can to Jewish rituals of death.
By
Kylie Boltin

28 Apr 2020 - 11:31 AM  UPDATED 28 Apr 2020 - 12:12 PM

As I write, my grandmother is lying on her bed, refusing to eat. She is being administered pain relief. The doctor has told us that she is dying. My mother has asked whether I want to cross state lines to attend the funeral of 10 people. I want to go. I want to adhere as much as I can to Jewish rituals of death. I want to deliver a eulogy. To say how fortunate I am to have been Pola Abramowicz-ówna's granddaughter. I’ll do it via Zoom, but only if I have to.

Pola has long wanted to die. Whenever we managed to get into a groove of conversation, behind the locked-in barrier of her dementia, she wouldn’t hold back: she wanted it to be over.

Pola has long wanted to die. Whenever we managed to get into a groove of conversation, behind the locked-in barrier of her dementia, she wouldn’t hold back: she wanted it to be over. She said it loudly. She said it with force. There was nothing left for her here. 

I’d try to guide her back. To a happier place. One she recognised as her own. I’d prompt her to tell me the stories that were the soundtrack to my life with her. Memories from her childhood in the landlocked town of Szamocin, Poland with its blue cornfields in the summer months. I’d show her a large, black and white family portrait. Her father’s hand is on her shoulder. I’d remind her that she always felt his love. “You watched your parents together every night, laughing as they did the dishes,” I’d say.

I'd stroke her hand, her thumbnail grown thick and rough from decades of accidental sewing injuries. Pola would wear a thimble everyday without fail as she crocheted, knitted or sewed. But decades of working on factory floors, ‘finishing’ dresses, had left their scars.

My grandmother doesn’t remember these stories. When she asks me how I know them, I say, “It’s because I’ve been talking to you, listening to you, watching you for my entire life. When I was born you told my mother, 'We’ll share Kylie'. I am yours and you are mine. We belong to each other.”

Her love has been my constant. Her stories will not die with her.

Her love has been my constant. Her stories will not die with her.

Pola's life in Australia happened by chance. Her father, Raphael, a tailor who fought with the Russians in World War 1 heard of the Nazi terror spreading across Europe. He listened to the person at the synagogue who said: “If I had a brother in Australia, I wouldn’t stay here.” Without hesitation, Raphael packed up his family for Melbourne. They boarded an Ocean Liner, the Oronsay. He saved their lives.

Pola was 17 when she arrived in Australia, two years before the war broke out. Six years before she married my grandfather who she met through her cousin at a Jewish dance. Pola never tried to convince me to marry or have children. To see me with choices, something she never had, was perhaps one of the greatest pleasures of her deeply practical life. 

My grandmother was a factory worker, an immigrant, a survivor but in her heart she was an artist. She made all her own clothes, and mine growing up down to my lace-trimmed underwear, and she loved to look at the colours of the natural world. She cared for her environment. She composted everything. Washed plastic wrap over and over again. Reused tea bags until they fell apart.  She was also entirely financially independent and never coveted. She looked after herself and her family.

When the centre closed two weeks ago, my mother knew beyond a doubt that she was saying goodbye. 

All of this is in the past tense now of course, as my grandmother lies in lockdown in her nursing home in Melbourne. When the centre closed two weeks ago, my mother knew beyond a doubt that she was saying goodbye. But how do we do that collectively, in a way that dignifies life and provides us closure, during a pandemic? Most of the rituals are no longer available to us. And these are rituals that hold value, connect us across time. They are rituals that my grandmother performed for her own parents as a mourning rite. Pola is not religious but being Jewish defined her. It determined her life course. It is her constant across 100 years of life.

We are left to wonder how we will say goodbye to my grandmother in a traditional way. To decipher how we will honour ritual and find comfort during these times.

If you need immediate assistance or support contact Lifeline on 13 11 14 www.lifeline.org.au  

Kylie Boltin is a Walkley award winning producer/journalist and the joint winner of the 2020 Betty Roland Prize for Scriptwriting at the NSW Premier’s Literary Awards. Find her on Twitter.

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