Sunday 17 May 2009

The Opal Ring

As a little girl, I used to stare at my grandma’s opal ring as it shimmered, danced, metamorphosed and captivated its unwary audience. This was no ring to be ignored. It was an accomplished seducer and would giggly coyly in the light, but once it had the attention of an admirer – it laughed out loud and changed colour.

For this was the famous Australian black opal. Heavy, precious and poignant with memories of past journeys, wars, and impossible love, this ring symbolized my family’s cross culture across the globe, from the grime of London East End to the hot, brutish, searing heat of the Australian bush.

The story below has been pieced together from journals and my grandmother’s diary when she returned to trace her Australian roots some thirty odd years ago, and from there brought back a symbol of her birthright - a tiny piece of Australian earth once buried deep below a hard baked crust.

It begins with Maurice Isaacs, born in 1869 in London, an East End Jewish boy with high aspirations and a sense of adventure. At the age of 17, he boarded a steamship to Australia and worked his way across the vast ocean as a steward. He landed in Melbourne around 1880.

Here in the Southern Hemisphere was a city larger than most European capitals. In just a decade, the population had doubled, racing to half-a-million. While Sydney was seen as slow and steady, Melbourne was fast and reckless - a place for a new life.

Maurice eventually found work in a shoe factory and learnt the trade, taking a young Jewish Dutch girl as his wife, Frances. They were poor but respectable, working hard by day, and earning extra cash at home making boots and shoes. Eventually they set up their own factory and by all accounts, became wealthy after years of hard graft.

Frances died just before the beginning of the First World War leaving behind three devastated teenage children – Esther, Will and Samuel, my great grandfather. Not heeding his children’s feelings, Maurice met and married a young woman shortly after their mother’s death. Esther, the elder sister had previously died aged 19 in childbirth. Aggrieved, distraught and without their sister or mother, the boys decided to run to join the army. Samuel, a mere boy, lied about his age to join up. He convinced his best friend from school George King to join them too.

The three innocents were soon immersed in the jaws of The Great War, which was to engulf the world, and steal the lives of millions.

Like other terrible battles whose names reverberate in history, the word Gallipoli still holds sway and evokes a sense of awe and sadness. Some two hundred thousand allied troups were killed here. Of the three young lads that had run away from home to fight, Sam was the only one to make it out alive. Seeing his brother die first and then his best friend take a bullet standing next to him, Sam stumbled out and took leave, heading to London.

Sam had lost his brother, his best friend, his mother and sister all in the space of a few years. He changed his surname from Isaacs to King – George’s name. Perhaps this was in memory of his friend, perhaps it was to hide his “Jewishness”, and it served both purposes. The young solider found respite in Castle Street in London’s East End at the home of his father’s sister, Miriam Weinstein and her refugee Polish husband. They had three children, two daughters and a son.

Esther, the middle daughter, was a feisty attractive redhead and was to become the love of Sam’s life. However, Esther and Sam were first cousins. Despite family protestations and Sam returning to fight the remainder of the war, they eventually married. In 1918, as battles still raged in France and sick with influenza, Sam returned to Australia. Esther joined her husband a year later.

In Melbourne, Maurice refused to bless his son’s marriage and wouldn’t let them stay in his house. However, he did buy them a small business to start their married life– a general saloon combined with a barber shop in Tocumwall about 500 miles from Melbourne. The River Murray ran along the back of the saloon and Esther, the pale, English, red headed city girl, found herself having to cope in the Australian bush.

Esther did her best to bear the heat, the bone brittle dryness of the land and the rowdiness of the clients but about 18 months later, and mother to a little baby girl - my grandmother Frances, she succumbed to what was described as a bout of brain fever. Sam decided to bring his English rose home. The voyage was hard, long, troubled, and sickly. Esther, it seems, was barely kept alive by an energetic and determined ship’s doctor.

They returned to the hustle and bustle of the city. Sam, educated, erudite, in love but without a real trade, continually pined for Australia. He firstly ran a fish and chips shop and then became a London Black cab driver. Esther, an outrageous, opinionated, stubborn lady who loved gin, cigarettes and strawberries, was happy in the city.

From across the oceans and from different continents, it seemed neither could be totally content in the other’s world but to be together, it was a necessary price to pay. They had met in war from different ends of the globe, had survived frontline battles, were first cousins and bound together by love, blood and ancestry. They lived out the remainder of their lives in London, survived by my grandmother and her younger brother.

I vaguely recall the excitement and expectation when my grandmother Frances journeyed back to Australia to see her birthplace, her father’s hometown and to meet her father’s half brother and sister borne from Maurice’s second marriage.

Throughout the years I have since heard stories about my fiery great grandmother whom I am said to take after, her loving educated husband from Australia and in turn, my grandmother’s life during the next Great War and her pivotal 6 week journey to retrace her roots and meet her family.

The ring I now wear. The Opal is our family. It is both Australia and the UK. It is where we journey to, where we settle and the people that we love.

1 comment:

Leah said...

Very nice story. My great, great Grandfather was born in Australia, but I don't know the whole story like you do... How cool that you have the background on the opal ring...