I love a milk churn,
though when I looked them up, I discovered that they are antique. Me too, I suppose. I remember the milk churns waiting to be collected, at the end of the path from the house, and how sometimes, the driver of the lorry gave me and whoever escorted my child self a lift to the village if he came before the bus. I thought it was so exciting to be sitting in the front of a truck. And I cherished the milk churns because they provided an excuse for the lift.
At about the same age, I learned the magic of the rural bus,
where passengers knew each other and the driver and he stopped at the top of lanes leading down into farms, seemingly without being asked. Once, many years later coming back from south London to north, the driver of the bus at some ungodly hour in the morning, began talking to me – the only person on the bus – and he dropped me not at the nearest stop but at the top of my road. “This right ?” he grinned. Memory winded me, I could barely say thank you.
Before the pandemic, say three or four years ago, I watched the female driver of a big red double decker bus handle the heavy vehicle to safety while some twit speeding and probably half cut briefly endangered himself and everybody else. It was my bus, I got on and said thank you. When I got off I asked the driver, whom I saw to be Middle Eastern with a headdress but not veiled, if she was all right ? She stared at me. I repeated. “Did you see … ?” she asked . “Yes” I said “ I did and you did beautifully but that’s not what I am asking. I am asking, are you all right ?” And she did that lovely gesture I had only seen in a film, putting her hand to her heart, and bringing it, lightly clenched, to her lips to kiss.
We saw each other occasionally, we waved and beamed. Once she passed me walking and gave two cheeky little toots. Last week she drove up to the bus stand where I was waiting and stopped the bus – admittedly, it was empty – got out of her cabin, got out of the bus and stood before me, demanding “Are you all right ?”
I began to laugh, and said I was, and I hoped she was too and her family , we stared at each other for a second and then embraced and wished each other a better year. She got back in the cab and I thought of milk churns. Unforgotten.
As are the witnesses, though they grow old and frail.
And I am only ever what I call a plastic Jew, a name I coined, not offered in insult or diminution but because they claimed me, people I didn’t know, met in shops, at work, in the street ,in the US and the UK, and it meant so much to me. Because I looked like the real thing. “We are so proud of you” said a woman I didn’t know from a hole in the ground, embracing me. “You’re one of ours.” More accurately I am what the Nazis called a mischling, of mixed Jewish and other races – the predominant other being Rom (thus also a didikoi – of mixed gypsy and other races). Only two people in my whole life claimed me as a Jewish daughter and it remains a jewel in my memory.
I remember the painful insight of a film called Almonds and Raisins about the Yiddish theatre which bloomed briefly before being superseded by the bigger audiences of cinema. In a flash I understood how foreign these people were, how other … how what I found interesting, others found threatening. They weren’t the only foreigners or the only others but you know how you understand something uncomfortably, because a harsh light shines smack on it, if only for a few seconds ? I was shaken to be unable to deny the understanding of hate. So I remember the Slavs and the trade unionists, the Baptists and the gays, everybody who got in the way of the steamrollers of the Third Reich. My father’s mother’s name was Julie Rosenbaum and no monument works better than memory – even a milk churn.