It took me years to know that going to the beach had anything to do with being close to the water.
My parents only ever went to the beach when the heat became so oppressive that that staying in the small, three-room cottage we sometimes shared with another family became impossible.
My father worked double shifts in a factory and we usually set off for the beach when he came home, in the late afternoon or early evening. My mother always packed for our outings to the beach. She packed food. Usually peeled cucumbers, hard-boiled eggs, cream cheese, a loaf of rye bread and oranges, with the peel already scored in quarters and, if we were lucky, some dark red cherries. She also packed two blankets and two bottles filled with tap water. I would feel giddy with excitement when I saw my mother start packing for the beach.
Going to the beach was a whole adventure. It started with a walk to the tram stop and a forty-five minute tram ride from the working class, inner-city suburb of Melbourne, Australia, where we lived. We boarded the tram armed with our blankets and food and drink.
I loved being on the tram. It was so predictable. You sat down, the conductor came around, you paid your fare and he handed you a brightly-colored ticket in return. It was all so normal. And so much of our life was anything but normal. Seven years earlier, both of my parents were still imprisoned in Nazi death camps. Death camps where almost everyone they loved had been murdered.
When we arrived at the beach my mother set us up in the treed, scrubby area that preceded the water. We really needed the blankets as the ground was rough and littered with twigs and broken branches. There were always other people with blankets and food already there. They were mostly Jews. The Italians and Maltese and Greeks and other migrants, who were also part of the large post-World War Two migration to Australia, must have had a different meeting place.
I felt happy as soon as I sat down on the blanket. I loved being surrounded by families. To me, it always felt like a party. It took away some of the loneliness of growing up with dead grandparents, dead aunts, and dead uncles. It took away the loneliness of growing up with cousins who would never be born.
I sat on my blanket eating hard boiled eggs and listening to the adults talking. I know there were other children sitting on other blankets. Other children who were almost all children of survivors of death camps or labor camps. But I have no memory of myself or any of the other children running around. We were, on the whole, quiet and pale. A pallor hung over us. The pallor of living too close to death.
Sometimes, a man, who sold bags of unshelled peanuts from a box which hung from a band around his neck, came around. If I was very lucky, my father would buy me a bag of peanuts. And if I was luckier than lucky, an ice-cream vendor, with small cartons of ice-cream sitting on top of a mound of ice, would turn up and my father would, despite my mother’s protests, buy me an ice-cream.
I was in heaven. I was so happy. Even my mother, whose anguish clung to her like a tight gown, looked more at ease sitting on her blanket and feeling the breeze.
Years later, I realized how close we were to the water. And, what a lot of water there was. We were at the seaside. There was water everywhere. Somehow, it didn’t feel strange that it hadn’t occurred to any one of us to go into the water or even think about swimming. We were there, on our blankets, under the trees in the middle of the dry scrub. We were there for the relief from the heat and for a small respite from the fear.
Lily Brett has written six novels, three collections of essays, and seven volumes of poetry. Her work frequently explores the lives of Holocaust survivors and their children, the experiences of modern women, women’s relationship with food, and life in New York City. Her most recent book, Lola Bensky: A Novel (Counterpoint), is now available.
Lily Brett has written six novels, three collections of essays, and seven volumes of poetry. Her work frequently explores the lives of Holocaust survivors and their children, the experiences of modern women, women’s relationship with food, and life in New York City. Her most recent book, Lola Bensky (Counterpoint), is now available.