In the final months, when we knew time was ebbing, our mother frequently acknowledged to David, Cleeve and me that few lives were as interesting and few as fortunate as hers had been. It was a life with a remarkable, almost ungraspable span and perhaps appropriately, a narrative more evocative of fiction than truth. It stretched from a small village in Poland with no electricity in the 1920s to reading her grandson Charlie’s blog on her Ipad in 2013, from speaking not a word of English when she arrived in Australia at the age of 11, to being an adored English teacher for most of her adult life and a force behind Overland and the evolution of Australian literary culture in the second half of the twentieth century. Astonishingly, a child who did not see an English language book until she was eleven came to be not only be an impassioned reader, but a proselytiser for the beauty of the English language throughout her life.
Mum was born Czarna Bluthal in Jezierzany, Poland, in the region of Galicia, now part of the Ukraine. Her father, Israel, worked at his father’s successful flourmill and they were well–off. Her mother, Rachel (or Rosa, as she was known) was an animated, fiery, highly educated redhead. The two of them adored each other.
As children we loved the stories of how the house Mum lived in having two kitchens, one for summer and one for winter, and a maid. It will come as little surprise that Nita was a spirited girl. There was still a hint of guilt that flickered across her face at 86 when relating how to her parent’s horror she chopped off her long plaits one afternoon when they bored her, or how she had gone sneaking one night into a concert her parent’s were attending and hiding down the back.
Israel Bluthal was regarded as a tzadik, a righteous man, hugely respected in the Jewish community for his nobility and kindness, both in Poland and subsequently in Melbourne. He was a man we three grandchildren adored. On Friday nights in Poland, Nita and her little brother John would shiver with excitement at what homeless person their father would bring home for the Shabbat meal. As kids, it seemed incredible to us that you would invite strangers off the street into your house for an evening meal, although those tales explain Mum’s lifelong compassion and generosity to anyone in need.
While Mum’s memories of early life were bucolic, John’s memories – more attuned to the rising anti-Semitism – are less happy. In 1938, the family followed Nita’s uncle Carl to Australia, the whole town reputedly helping them pack and prepare for the journey. Nita’s enduring, life-long respect for and interest in beautiful objects probably stems from the loss of most of their possessions, stolen during the voyage on the Orama. Nita had a reverential appreciation for beautiful things. When travelling with her, I would always be amazed at the things she saw that I missed: the Faberge egg, the tiny sculpture at the Frick, a piece of porcelain at the Wallace Collection.
Mum often recalled that the first time she smelt peaches was when the ship docked in Perth, before continuing on to Melbourne where it landed on 22 November 1938. That was a harbinger of the luck ahead, which started with the kindness of the Australians helping her and John speak English and showing them the ropes on their arrival and the early days at St Kilda State School before the family moved on to Princes Hill. I have always attributed Nita’s lack of cynicism about Australian nationalism and her fervent Australian patriotism to the impact that Australians made on her in the first years. When Tim Winton was living in Ireland, my father wrote him a letter and Mum ran outside to get a gumleaf from our garden in Mt Eliza to slip into the envelope. Tim told me years later of the mystical power of that leaf to him as he unfolded the letter.
When I was old enough, and had collected my own very populated memories of life from nought to ten, it struck me how strange it must have been to be told by the age of fifteen that almost everyone you knew from the old life had vanished. Grandparents, extended family, neighbours, schoolteachers, fellow students, shopkeepers … almost everyone murdered, and a child’s entire universe extinguished. Only recently, Nita recounted the names of her little friends and reflected that all, bar only one, ended up in Auschwitz. What must it have been like, once they settled on the other side of the world, first in St Kilda and subsequently to Arnold Street and then 34 Garton Street, Carlton, to know that the life they were making sprang from the ashes of the old life?
This catastrophic loss may have been the source of her huge enthusiasm – possibly the word most often mentioned in relation to Mum in the hundreds of cards and letters we’ve received – for people, places, culture, things, conversation, humour, connections, travel. If everything is gone, enthusiasm is a forceful mechanism for rebuilding. It became for her, consciously or not, the fuel that created the momentum for creating a world – her dynamic ability to engage was a creative solution to inconceivable loss.
Nita’s father had a business selling coats at the Victoria and Dandenong markets. Nita and John went to University High School and ran with the Carlton pack, many of them left-wing Jews. She made great friends at this time with people like Bernard Rechter and others.
At Melbourne University, Nita met the Noyé sisters, Jeanette and Beth, Amirah Gust, Ken Marks, Peter O’Shaughnessy and made many other life-long friends as well as beaus. She was, as many attested, the most beautiful girl at university with her dark hair and red lips, those grey eyes flashing intelligence, her unstoppable joie de vivre, her bobby socks and berets. It was her great pal Tim Burstall who took her to the cinema one night and introduced her to a yellowed from malaria but undeniably handsome young man in a green army coat: a commando back from fighting in New Guinea, one of a cohort of soldiers who made the boys at university pall into insignificance. These were real men, returning from the army with the kind of political conviction that was born of life, not learning. That introduction can be best summed up by the quote from Twelfth Night: ‘Journeys end in lovers meeting’.
Stephen, the product of a Waspish Toorak family, had become a passionate convert to left-wing politics in part as a response to his privilege but perhaps primarily because of the influence of progressive thinkers he met at Geelong Grammar – and because of the war. He and Nita joined the Communist Party, which dominated their early life in the Labour Club and beyond. The party created a volatile yet nurturing world around them. Within its strict ideological borders was a wildly combustible milieu, which hosted their social life, their intellectual engagement, their working lives and their love affair. The party was a robust source of their identity for the first decade of their life together.
It is probably easy to romanticise those wild nights of ideological debates and impassioned views, but certainly the party was the catalyst for enduring friendships and enmities. It was an intellectually grand life and they were titans. Politics, literature, ideas, art were central not just to their values but to their day-to-day experience, deftly sharing space with their equally compelling commitment to their growing domestic life. Even when the communist dream failed, fellow travellers and fellow exiles dominated the narrative of their lives. A very deep sense of social responsibility and empathy fuelled that early conviction but Cleeve, David and I were all witnesses in later life to their contempt for some who treated them as traitors, and their resigned forbearance for their friends who never left the Party.
In 1948, conscious of the fact that both sets of parents disapproved of their child’s choices in both love and politics, they married in secret at the Melbourne Registry Office. Each went home separately – Mum to her parents’ house, never letting on that she was coming home a married woman. Soon after, they sailed to England on the Strathaird – memorably, with Bradman’s ‘Invincibles’. From 1948 to late 1951, they lived and worked in London and then in Prague, where Stephen worked for Telepress – a communist news agency, and Nita taught the children of diplomats at ‘The English School for Foreign Children’ auspiced first by the British Council, then the US Embassy.
In late 1951, they returned to Melbourne and Nita became pregnant with Cleeve. They built a war service house in Mt Eliza on a block of ti-tree wilderness gifted by Stephen’s parents. The birth of their beautiful baby girl was a catalyst for acceptance by both sets of parents who became advocates for and admirers of their children in law – affection that grew through the years. A treasured baby boy, David, followed in 1953.
Despite her avowed atheism, Mum maintained a strong cultural affinity with Judaism. She loved Jewish humour and food and, although she was very modest about her own accomplishments, was proud of her Hebrew. This was a door she opened for Stephen. No amount of scholarship could give him a visceral affinity for this culture but Nita allowed him in. His profound respect for Judaism implicated him in history in a new, surprising way. In his own writing, he expressed his burgeoning consciousness that if circumstances had been only slightly different, his own little family would have perished – quite an awakening for the son of aspirational Christians. (In 1986, on their way back from the Adelaide festival, Dad notably stopped on Pickles Street, South Melbourne with a scraper, to get rid of a piece of anti-Semitic graffiti he had glimpsed on his way to the airport).
Equally, Mum absorbed from Stephen an appreciation of Anglophile traditions. In part through Dad and his family, Nita found a love for English houses and gardens and history, marvelled at the pomp of British traditionalism, the William Morris fabrics, Handel’s Messiah, Glyndebourne, the London galleries and concerts and theatre that she adored on their many trips there. It was also a world she had also come to love through books.
This swapping of cultures was probably a much bigger part of their relationship than we children realised. Each represented to the other a wealth of knowledge, connections and culture of which they had little prior knowledge: they must have been in some way representative of mystery, of differentness – a source, perhaps, of their passionate engagement with each other, which was so palpable to witnesses.
They taught each other. They showed each other. It was a marriage that was sometimes volatile, but that was profoundly mutually admiring – and the sense of being blessed in having found one another got them through the traumas of false Gods. Manning Clark said of their union: ‘With her he knew one of the great wonders of the world, the wonder of a man with a woman. She gave him the peace and the strength to continue to be a pilgrim when things were falling apart.’
Cleeve remembers the bear hugs they would spontaneously have on the rug in front of the open fire, to the dismay of her and David. I used to sit in the back seat of the car and Mum would put one finger out towards Dad and he would clasp it. They caught each other’s eye as if to say: ‘Look at us. Look at what we are together.’
That patience, tolerance, stamina and chemical attraction – coupled with the instinctive understanding that small flaws are insignificant in the face of great blessings – was the fuel for a forty-year marriage.
Those presumably passionate nights in Dad’s little Carlton loft ignited a life-long love affair that had to overcome parental disapproval, cultural and religious divides, a tumultuous post-war world, the renounciation of passionately held ideologies, the huge social shifts of the sixties, Dad’s multiple jobs and his long commute, the stresses of children and never enough money.
It was a marriage that didn’t just witness a vital period of Australian cultural life, but was, perhaps, the heart of it. Together Nita and Stephen nourished, nurtured, employed, corresponded with and celebrated Australian writers and writing. Through friendships with artists and writers and through their literary magazine Overland, they developed an unostentatious but heartfelt nationalism: they were passionate advocates for Australian writing, Australian voices, Australian stories. It was a life that saw ideas and words and social engagement and compassion and imagination as not just ideals but everyday ingredients of a good and interesting life. Cleeve and David were encouraged to start their own magazine, Baiame, distributed to the children of friends. From my own experience, I now wonder how many parents greet their child’s intention to become a writer with euphoria. Within the walls of the Mt Eliza house, or the Erith hut, in the pages of Overland, which they sweated over between ‘real’ jobs, and in their teaching, they were missionaries for the imagination.
Cleeve and David and I all have a sense of the house in Ti Tree Lane full of life and talk, particularly from the worlds of art and writing and politics and publishing. Throughout the decades, Ian Turner and Ann, Amirah and Ken Inglis, Clem and Nina Christeson, Vane Lindesay, Vance and Nettie Palmer, Alan Marshall, Christina Stead, Xavier Herbert, Fred and Lyn Williams, Neilma Gantner, Rick Amor, Dorothy Hewett and foreign writers like William Golding amongst many, many others visited or stayed at Ti Tree Lane, where Stephen would open a bottle or several of red and pull up chairs in front of the fire and Nita – a brilliant cook despite her protestations – would make delicious meals. Food for Mum was creative sustenance, health, entertainment, an expression of love and her dinner parties, with a meticulously set table, were legendary.
And the rambling garden with the cubby house built by Dad from a Volkswagen crate with its old-fashioned working telephones from which Cleeve learnt that she had a little sister. The garden where Cleeve and Michael got married, where Pete Seeger celebrated his birthday in 1968, where the Overland-Meanjin parties raged until dawn, where the children had year after year of hunting for bright foil amongst the green grey ti-tree at Easter time and where, in the company of the famous athlete Zatopek, Mum insisted the Olympic gold medallist Olga Fikotova flirted with the American athlete Harold Connolly during the party Mum and Dad threw as hosts to the Czech Olympic team in 1956. The Czech secret service had watched from the veranda, fearing a defection might take place amongst the wattles and the fairy lights.
In the late fifties, their commitment to Communism, irrevocably frayed by the invasion of Hungary amongst other things, foundered. Over twenty years later, Dad expressed his intolerance of ‘taking a complacent or romantic view of the past, or of refusing to fight against evil things because once one was involved in them’ – a commitment to clear eyed truth and justice that characterised the rest of their life together.
Mum started a long and brilliant career as an English and History teacher, first at Mornington High School and then at Toorak College. She was ‘the one’, the indelible, faith-giving teacher who changed the lives of many of her students. She could make a story out of history. She infected her students with the joys of great writing through her own intense and passionate reactions. As Charlie’s vice-principal said to me: ‘That’s what we all want to be and few are.’
Nita made adored friends amongst her colleagues at Toorak, many of whom have written to us about her influence over their own lives. She was an unconventional teacher, full of engaging ideas. When teaching Travels with My Aunt, she dressed in a maid’s costume and orchestrated a wake for Aunt Augusta, complete with a real coffin. When she retired, she made a speech in which she said: “I may swear over exam papers, and whinge over Cheryl Burrell’s mother writing her essays, but I will miss the girls: they have broadened my knowledge of a world that is to be, broadened mine at least as much as I hope I have broadened theirs about the world we have grown out of.’
One of those girls wrote to me recently: ‘Her aura at school was as immense as her demonstrated intellect. When I look back on my school years, it was just a small number of teachers who took significant time, interest and care to help students extend themselves and gain the confidence and self-belief we needed to go forth in the world. For me, one of those women was Nita.’
Another wrote: ‘Your Mum was a real inspiration to me … there were not too many people at school who tried to open our eyes to different ideas. I have always remembered your mum so fondly as there wasnt [sic] a lesson where she didn’t challenge, confront or inspire us in some way. She is an incredible woman.’
Now if Mum had read that email, she would have been touched but she would have also pointed out that she couldn’t have been that good as the apostrophe was missing in ‘wasn’t’.
Her passion for music – opera in particular – was unquenchable. Her passion for literature was evident in the classroom and in every aspect of her life. One of my school friends still has the 30-year-old reading lists she composed for her when she finished school – always alert to a mind ripe for conversion to Jane Austen or George Eliot. As I child, I’d watch her voraciously consume thrillers. More recently, there was no copy of the New Yorker she would leave unturned. It didn’t matter what arcane subject would pop up, Mum had just read a fascinating article or book review on that topic.
Beside the bed in our little hut on Erith Island was a copy of the bible – Old Testament of course – and she often rhapsodised about the Song of Songs. This ability to appreciate poetic language as spiritually uplifting, without the embellishment of faith, was emblematic of her passion. Great writing was charismatic, the point not the tool. Also profoundly ‘Nita’ was her ability to express that joy without dilution. Our childhoods were peppered with the phrase: ‘Listen to this!’ As she read from a book or played a Mozart aria or Verdi’s Requiem: ‘Shh! Shh! Listen to this!’
She wasn’t happy unless you felt the same ardour that she felt. She wanted to know that you ‘got it’. A rhapsodic vocabulary was easily accessed: Marvellous. Gorgeous. Incredible. Magical. For a committed atheist, she had a sense of the wondrous. Her religion was the imagination: whether a Bruce Dawe poem or The Tempest or The Marriage of Figaro. When Stephen died, Manning Clark said, ‘Let me now say about Stephen what I should have said to him when he was alive: thanks for your witness to what matters in life …’ and the same must be said of Mum. She paid attention to what matters.
Certainly her love of art was the fuel for her contempt for political correctness. Art had to allow for human complexity to be truthful. It needed to incorporate contradiction, perversity, irony, humour and it was this dimension to art that made it necessarily impervious to ideological agendas. Perhaps also it was the lingering memory of disappointment at how she was never allowed to dance in her Communist youth because it was too bourgeois and flippant, but she was vigilant about ideological blinkeredness and boring bureaucracy. She is perhaps the only teacher in history who, finding the bureaucratic tedium insufferable, alerted her colleagues to the similarity between their posh private girls’ school staff meetings and Communist party meetings. She distrusted the Right, but she distrusted and disliked more profoundly the far-Left, in part because its dogmatism recalled her own, but mainly because it should know better. She had a borderless sense of justice, a fierce sensitivity to injustice and compassion for battlers of all kinds.
Nita was a woman of strong opinions, voracious curiosity, a profound love of knowledge for the sake of knowledge, a dislike of hypocrisy, a fanatic on issues of taste, a proponent of simplicity, an entertaining anecdotalist, and the beneficiary of a social life that put her children’s to shame. She hated to decline invitations in case she missed something – a characteristic inherited by David – though often she was the most interesting person wherever she was.
Even as a casual acquaintance, you had to endure a fair amount of bragging. She carried good reviews of my plays in her handbag, in case she ran into anyone at Safeway, and she had the foresight to have them photocopied in a larger font in case her friends had forgotten their spectacles. She was proud of all her children and subsequently of her grandchildren. She lost no opportunity to spread the word on the kudos of the family gene pool. She was also hugely proud of her brother and his long and very successful life as an actor. Even at the opening of Fury at the STC a few weeks ago, she was boasting about his role in The Vicar of Dibley and his time treading the boards at the National under Sir Peter Hall. But, then, we also bragged about her. My son Sam enjoyed informing his conservative classmates at Waspy Timbertop that his food parcels were supplied by his Jewish Communist Granny.
Despite her vast far-ranging enthusiasm, Nita was no Pollyanna. Mum was the first to spot a sycophantic tinge in any commentary and while she loved the expression of emotion – in Mozart or Shakespeare or Austen – she disliked sentimentality. She had a highly critical and very accurate eye. She appropriated her family’s indignation and pain. Anyone who ‘done us wrong’ was noted and remembered, even sometimes after we had forgotten them ourselves.
As a qualifier of, or complement to, her forensic capacity for judgement, she also had a limitless, bountiful optimism, a faith that every chance meeting was an opportunity for a connection, a new friendship, an exchange, and this optimism gave her a perpetual capacity for renewal. She had an indefatigable will to connect that made her an ever-youthful repository of life. Everywhere she went, people loved her. Even in later years her animation made her unconventional: she blitzed through ordinary social decorum in the grasp of a deeply-felt opinion or an expression of outrage. Some of her pet hates were soup served under-heated, rocket (as in salad), cats of any kind, teetering heels and euphemisms.
It was the belief that anything might happen and an equally vigorous sense of horror at the thought of being dull or old that allowed her to embrace adventure, including the famous time she missed the tour bus on her opera pilgrimage to Egypt, when she jumped on the back of a passing motorbike and sped up the highway to catch up with the group, who must have been somewhat taken aback to look out of their seniors-coach to see a sixty-year-old Australian woman with her arms around a hunk from Luxor.
At 86, she was alert to the day’s potential, chatting with equal enthusiasm to tradies, hospital orderlies, chemo nurses, Sikh taxi drivers, shop assistants or her children’s and grandchildren’s friends, boat skippers, lighthouse keepers, fishermen or even performance artists. At Peter MacCallum, she seemed to enliven the hospital, constantly relating to twenty-year-old nurses how she’d gone to LA to party with Warren Beatty, their completely blank faces not deterring her in the least.
She engaged easily, fluently with her grandchildren’s generation, with Joe’s gorgeous girlfriend Bonnie and Soph’s lovely boyfriend, Jack, with Sam’s friends and little kids. She loved Lucy’s sleepovers in her big bed and rhapsodised over something clever she said. No one read a child a book with more vibrancy than Mum – she read like a drug-trafficker, this was her chance to hook a kid. She loved commiserating with David and Charlie over Carlton’s losses or thrilling to their wins and when the Bombers lost she would always call me to monitor where on the Richter scale of emotional deterioration Sam was registering. She appreciated football as an expression of national identity, a bond with her son and grandsons, and as a democratic lingua with the world at large.
In that last week, we got Mum home from hospital. The one saving grace to the hell of her dying was seeing her joy as she came up the stairs to the front door at Ti Tree Lane, a house curated by history and by her instinctive understanding of the perfect placement of objects: a silver bowl with walnuts, a painting, a magnifying glass. That she got there was largely due to Cleeve, who was indefatigable in achieving what Mum most wanted and indeed, in caring for her throughout the year before. In the final week, David’s girlfriend Karin was also a huge source of love and support to Mum and all of us.
When Rick Amor came down to Mt Eliza the day before Mum died, he perched a painting of Erith on a chair in front of her bed. She squeezed his hand, a recognition, no doubt, of both her love for Rick and the power of the image she would in fact die seeing. The annual summer Erith expedition was testament to her and Stephen’s combined vision – they gave a place to learn about extended family, about community, about nature, and what being Australian means. It was probably the greatest gift she gave us and it is fitting that her ashes will be up on the curve of the hill with Dad’s, overlooking West Cove, the epicentre, perhaps, of where her sense of good fortune was located. As Sam recently reminded us, she loved and used frequently the phrase, ‘When I’m in the great blue yonder’ … now evocative of Bass Strait vistas.
Mostly, she was an unbelievable mother. She loved us. She supported us. She was proud of us. Over 61 years, she held her children’s hands. She worried for us. She was grateful to us. She could be critical and judgemental and difficult, but these were the necessary by-products of her saturation in our lives, an immersion fuelled by incredible, indelible, uncontainable love. This morning, I was reading the diaries my father meticulously kept and, in one of the letters he wrote to me when I was seventeen and overseas, he encapsulated the situation: ‘We have a special problem. Nita is not as objective as I am and that, whether or not you or I or she likes it, she suffers greatly and fears for you. It is stupid that she wants to escort you on every bus, but there is nothing that can be done about it. I have never seen anyone so involved, and while she may try to cope, so must you try to cope with her love and involvement.’ For the three of us, although we sometimes tested it, that love and involvement became a source of enormous gratitude. She wanted to escort us on every bus – yes, she did, even on into our adult years. We three and the further five have sprung from a partnership made from love, a partnership that relished love, tested love, expanded through love and bestowed love.
When we cried at night, she lay beside us and sang ‘Goodnight Irene’ in her beautiful voice. On the boat to Erith, we lay in her arms, wrapped in tarpaulins as the seas heaved over us. I can see her walking laps on the Erith beach with those incredible pins, of which she was justly proud, or in the Erith hut, making endless pancakes for the children, breaking into a verse of the Internationale for good measure. Regardless of what hour we phoned, she was always thrilled to hear our voices, happy for our triumphs. She spoke often of how lucky Cleeve and I were to have such loyal husbands who were brilliant fathers, and how tolerant they both were!
And as a grandmother, she was without flaw. Always a kind word, praise, love, admiration, a quick and frequent golden handshake, an ecstatic response to a prize-winning poem, a beautiful birthday card, a funny story, a first-class honour, a school concert, a footy goal, a song composed on the guitar like the one Charlie wrote for her on the fiftieth anniversary of the Erith expedition, or her first grandchild Joe’s admittance as a lawyer: they were her shining, shining lights and she had the exemplary gift of letting them know that. She saw those children with a clear-eyed vision, sometimes clearer than their parents. Uninterested in our parental frustrations, as we had been of hers, she would cut right to the heart of it and see those five for who they were: incredible, loving, intelligent human beings making their own way into themselves, through childhood and into adult-life.
When Sam and Charlie and Lucy walked into her bedroom on the last Thursday night, her face lit up, her eyes gleamed, her arms stretched out, she gathered them about her. She knew they had her in them. She knew they and her beloved first grandchildren Joe and Soph would always feel her in them. The ability to bear the grief, thus far, seems to come from simply not acknowledging she is gone. When we enter the house, her presence in her favourite chair, lifting her arms in happiness at our arrival is so easy to summon. We have all been struggling these last weeks, reaching for the phone to call her because she was the best audience for any news: her face lit up, she’d exclaim, she gave so much back.
I said to her that last week: ‘I feel as if I haven’t told you enough how much I love you.’
‘Ditto,’ she said. But she showed us in manifold ways how much she loved and in so doing, gave us the capacity to love.
A few weeks ago, Mum came to Sydney, in some physical discomfort, to see my play Fury. We took her to the 13 Rooms exhibition. At one point, Ray, Charlie and Sam pushed her in a wheel chair into one of the thirteen small rooms populated by performance artists in one event or another. In one, a group of young dancers were kicking, Rockettes-style, in formation – fully across the diameter of the room. As Ray wheeled Nita into the centre, the dancers silently and effortlessly reformatted themselves to incorporate her place at their centre and continued to dance with gusto around her. It seemed appropriate. She was at the centre of many students’ self-belief, at the centre of a century, at the centre of world events, at the centre of Stephen’s life and at the centre of her children’s and children’s children’s sense of learning, loving and striving. She was a force.
Nita Murray-Smith (17 January 1927 – 18 May 2013)