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Brush With the Past

"Let's go for a walk along the sea, from Jaffa to Bat Yam", I said as I opened my eyes. It was sunny in the room. I felt overcome with tiredness, but needed to do something, anything.
Yesterday's images of sludge moving like bitter maple syrup over the coastline of Japan had haunted my sleep. Cars, (all made in Japan, such a shame!), bobbing up and down in the unrelenting masses of water waiting to be lifted out of the ocean by a giant hand that had construed this awful disaster, infiltrated my unconscious state, leaving me troubled and helpless.
"Fine, sounds good…" came the voice next to me. 
"In Matric we had a short story called Treasures of the Sea by Nadine Gordimer ….."
I watched Shamir stretching his hand out to switch on the radio. The news was on, more updates about the tsunami in the Far East. I continued telling him a story that had stayed with me so many years later.
"It was about a girl who loved the sea. She grew up on the South Coast of Natal in South Africa. She loved the sea more than anything she knew. She spent her childhood collecting treasures that had been spewed out onto the shore. Most of her adult pleasures in life were tied up with the sea. It was on the beach of her childhood that she waited for her fiancé to return from his travels and join her. The man she loved in a different way, her treasure. She would lie on the rocks next to small, sparkling pools of water, looking at the pearl ring he had given her, counting the days until he returned.
Then, one afternoon, she woke after a short slumber, lifted her head and, overcome by dizziness, struck her head accidentally on a rock. She rolled into the pool, the water washed over her, the blood oozed from the cut on her forehead. The next day she was found, lying in the water, lifeless. The pearl ring on her cold finger assumed a special beauty in the water…."
"Two hundred and fifty thousand people in shelters, there's fear that the nuclear plants have been damaged. 
What was that you were saying?"
My story faded as the jingle of the weather forecast filled the room.
We hardly spoke on our way to Jaffa. We parked the car in the empty parking lot next to the promenade, overlooking the sea. It was cemented and wound its way southwards towards Bat Yam. The Mediterranean was choppy; some gulls were flying in twosomes towards land. There were hardly any yachts out. Ahead of us, there were two wet spots on the cement where the waves lashed out onto the land, spraying whoever walked near.
"If you don`t check the sea, that's what happens. It`ll go wherever it can, there's no stopping it, just like a caged animal." Shamir always explained my puzzlement.
We walked on and I looked towards the sea. It was grey, almost murky. Was this the same sea that had gone crazy in Japan? There were very few walkers out, some fathers with children and dogs chasing balls. The setting, of sea on our right stretching towards the horizon, separated from us by pale cream rocks that had been stacked there as a barrier and the grass-covered round hill on our left was quite perfect. We made a left turn and slowly walked up the spiraling path to the benches at the top. On the ground beneath our feet were remnants of stones recovered from floors of Arab homes. They were patterned with various motifs and colors and arranged in circles. We rested for a minute on a bench, looking out towards the sea.
As we turned back, I saw it. I should have recognized the building since it had been described so often. It was white. The walls were thick, the windows high and long. There were stone steps leading up to the entrance where donkeys once tread, carrying supplies from the port to the ancient town of Jaffa. At the bottom of the path was a sign "Rosentalis Gallery".
This is where my father had art lessons after he retired. His teacher was Moshe Rosentalis, the well-known artist. He'd come here once a week, and slowly make his way up the stairs with his stick in one hand and his art-bag in the other. It was quite an effort for him; he needed to stop on the way to catch his breath.
The two of us climbed the stairs and stood on the balcony for a minute taking in the view, some old fishing boats on the sand, the sea ahead. Inside the gallery, I saw a man, about our age.
"You must be Avner, my father spoke about you…
"Really….and what was his name?"
"Donny, from South Africa," I replied.
"Yes of course I remember him. He used to come regularly, a lovely man…he and my father got on so well… My father died a few years ago.
"And you take care of the gallery, his paintings. My father told me all about you. I follow your father`s work; in fact I even have one in my living room…It`s of a beach with the solitary figure of a man walking along the sand."
My eyes travelled around the gallery with its arched doorways dividing the spaces and I found a painting that reminded me of the one at home.
"Here, it's really similar to this one!"
"Ah, that one! Yes, now I remember. My father painted it specially for someone who saw this original painted in the 1950s. It's of Palanga, a seaside resort town in Western Lithuania on the shores of the Baltic Sea. The coastline has stretches of sand eighteen kilometers long. He did a whole series of paintings which the man bought and then I heard he put it up for sale. You must have bought it."
Now it was my turn to tell. "My father died a few months ago. He really loved his lessons with your father. In fact, he would paint every single day for four hours in the studio they set up for him in his retirement village. He painted portraits of family, friends in the village and even workers.
"Your father and mine communicated in Yiddish. My father`s Hebrew was poor and your father`s English wasn`t much better. Their roots were similar. Mine never saw Lithuania, but his parents were from the region and left for South Africa where he was born. One of the most important things your father taught him, was: darf hob nisht kein moire…there is no need to be scared. He would say this, standing over his pupils, looking at their canvases."
"Excuse me for a minute, I would like to give you something..."
Avner returned with a CD of his father`s life and works. 
"I'd like you to have this…It's been great meeting you."
We left Jaffa and the sea. I thought of my father resting peacefully in his heaven far from the raging waters. He wasn`t religious, a declared agnostic, but the words of Psalm 23 were part of his vocabulary:
Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for Thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.

My cup runneth over……." 



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Thursday, 25 July 2024

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