When Isaac was just over four months old, he was baptised in the Catholic Church. I am not religious, but my husband Craig was raised Catholic and it was important to him and his family, so I agreed. Truth be told, despite my initial hesitation, it was a lovely day. We held the ceremony in Perth, Australia, while visiting Craig’s parents on a trip home from New York. Family flew in from around the county, as well as from Singapore and Hong Kong. For the ceremony, Isaac wore a simple white christening gown that I had painstakingly searched for in New York, determined to dress him in something traditional, yet not over the top. For the reception, he looked smart in little black jeans, a onsie with a bowtie and a navy blue Ralph Lauren cardigan. Amongst other Bible passages, my father-in-law read from Genesis 26, in which the Lord appeared to Isaac and said “For to you and your descendants I will give all these lands and will confirm the oath I swore to your father Abraham. I will make your descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky and will give them all these lands, and through your offspring all nations on earth will be blessed…” Based on this passage, stars became the theme of his Christening, adorning the invitations, the decorations and the traditional Eurasian sugee cake lovingly made by my husband’s cousin. It is a theme that returned some two years later, at his funeral.
While the religious aspects of the Christening meant little to me, I took great joy in seeing so many members of my husband’s large Southeast Asian/Eurasian family come out for the occasion. As my mother-in-law said, Isaac certainly had pulling power, relatives not seen for a long time all came out to celebrate our little boy. I, myself, grew up in a close, but very small family and missed out on the experience of having more aunties, uncles and cousins than it is possible to keep track of. It gave me comfort to look out into the pews of the Church and to see how many people already loved my little boy and who would be there for him on his journey through life.
The celebration was so lovely that when I found out I was pregnant with Isaac’s little brother, I immediately began imagining his Christening. I could picture our little family of four standing at the church alter. I would be wearing a pretty dress, carefully chosen so that I would still have the ability to breastfeed later on. Like at Isaac’s christening, it would probably be the first time I had dressed up since giving birth and I would be feeling a bit self conscious carrying the extra pregnancy kilos. But it wouldn’t matter, because I would have our new son in my arms, wearing Isaac’s christening gown. Isaac would be smartly dressed in chinos and a button up shirt, his curly hair a wild untamable mop, his beautiful smile lighting up the room as he waved to his grandparents seated in the front row. He would be holding my hand, or, if he was feeling particularly restless, he would be in Craig’s arms, who himself would be looking smart in his best suit. It would be a celebration, not just of our new son, but of the completion of our little family. At the reception afterwards, I would make a speech. At Isaac’s christening I didn’t speak, leaving the speech to my husband. But from early on in my pregnancy I knew I wanted to speak at our second son’s christening, and I had already written the speech in my head.
Our baby, Ethan, is now just over four months old and we have not held a Christening and have no plans to do so in the near future. The death of Isaac has shaken Craig’s faith to the core and what tolerance I had for organised religion has well and truly vanished. We briefly considered holding another celebration for Ethan, like a naming ceremony, in recognition that he too deserves to have the family gather to welcome him to the world. But we are still so deep in grief over Isaac, that any celebratory event still feels wrong and my anxiety after the explosion means I struggle to be amongst large groups. Without the religious element, we feel less pressured by time, and so we will wait until we are stronger. That said, I still have the speech I had prepared playing over in my mind and it is one that I want Ethan, and Isaac wherever he is, to hear. So this is the rough speech that I wrote in my head, many months ago while I watched Isaac run around our Beirut apartment and imagined the antics he would one day get up to with his little brother.
I would like to start by thanking everyone for attending today. While Craig and I live overseas, family remains incredibly important to us and it means so much to me to know that my two boys are part of such a large and loving family. Many of you will know that I am not a religious person. Nevertheless, I am honoured to participate in a tradition that is important to Craig and his family because it reminds me that Isaac and Ethan are not just our sons, but are members of a larger family. A family that comes from those who sailed across the seas, from Europe to Asia and then to Australia, showing a level of resilience and an adventurous spirit. A family that has merged cultures and ethnicities to form a new identity and traditions, merging the old with the new in a way that is quite beautiful. I look out at you all and I can see all the wonderful times Isaac and Ethan are going to have growing up with such loving grandparents, godparents, uncles, aunties and cousins. I see all the traditions they are going to learn – I’m sure mostly centred around Asian food – and that will form part of their upbringing and identity. I can’t wait to learn along with them and to see them embrace their heritage.
While my family may be much smaller, and while we do not engage in religious ceremonies, we do have some of our own traditions, one of which I would like to tell you about. As many of you may have noticed, despite my lack of religious identity, both of our boys have Hebrew names. This was a deliberate choice, and is part of a more recent family tradition of Hebrew names. My mother (Rebecca) and her brothers (Stephen and Simon), and myself and my brothers (Joshua and another Simon) all have Hebrew names. While we are far from the first family to turn to the Bible for naming inspiration, our choices, at least from my perspective, do not have anything to do with religion, but are in honour of my grandfather, Max Pallavicini’s, family history. You see, my grandfather, or Opa as I called him, was a Holocaust survivor. Considered a “half-Jew” under the Nazi regime (his mother was Jewish, his father a Christian), his family was persecuted in WWII. Most of Opa’s family was killed in the war, including his father. His brother, Wolfgang, survived a Nazi labour camp, while Opa and his mother spent the war moving place to place, relying on the kindness of good Samaritans to survive.
The last of our family links to Germany, and to our Jewish ancestry, died with my Opa some years ago. But in choosing the names Isaac and Ethan, I want my boys to always remember where they come from. When they face challenges in life, I want them to remember the strong traits that got our family to where it is today. I want them to remember the tenacity shown by Wolfgang in surviving the forced labour camp. I want them to remember his ingenuity, when after the war he found himself in East Germany and convinced the Russians to allow him back into the West by dragging a coffin (containing a pig), telling them he needed to take it to be buried. I want them to remember the loyalty of their great-great grandfather Hans, who refused, at great personal cost, to divorce his Jewish wife when ordered by the authorities to do so. I want them to remember his determination to always do what is right, as shown when he was killed defending two Jewish children from Nazis. I want them to remember the bravery of their great grandfather Opa in forging a new life in Australia, despite not speaking a lick of English. I want them to remember his eternal optimism and love for life, despite having witnessed and endured horrors many of us cannot dream of, an optimism and love of life that had him planning his next European holiday just days before he died. I hope that my boys see in me some of the traits of their great-great grandmother Beatrix, a strong woman who was on her own for most of the war and, relying on her wits, stopped at nothing to protect her sons. But most of all, if nothing else, I hope that they remember the enduring love my Opa and his brother Wolfgang had for one another. I hope that like them, Isaac and Ethan are the best of friends and stick together no matter what. And one day, when they are old men and one of them should pass, I hope the remaining brother remembers him as my Opa always remembered Wolfgang – with a tear in his eye, a smile on his lips and overwhelming love in his heart. My boys have Pallavicini blood running through their veins and I hope that gives them strength on their journey through life.
So that was roughly the speech I had in mind. Growing up, my Opa regularly captivated us with tales from the war. But what always stuck with me the most was how he, a direct and stern man with a fiery temper (though never to the grandkids), would immediately soften, like melting butter, as soon as he spoke of his parents, particularly his mother, and his brother. When I first had Isaac I hoped that when he was an old man he would remember me as fondly, and with as much awe, as Opa spoke of his mother. I always wanted to be a fierce matriarch like her, who loved her sons wholeheartedly and would do anything to protect them.
I realise now that I have more in common with my great-grandmother Beatrix than I ever thought I would, but not in the ways I wanted. Back then, I never thought I would have to face challenges nearly on the same level as her. But now, like her, my little family of four has been ripped apart by global events beyond our control, beyond our imagination. Like her, I have to re-start my life anew. She travelled to Australia a to start again, I have returned to Australia to do the same. But while she was able to protect her two sons, I was not. Isaac lost his life and Ethan never got to meet his big brother, his best friend. I only hope, that like her, I can find some peace in my future. While my speech was aimed at encouraging my sons to take inspiration from their ancestors, it is now me who will have to draw on their strength, tenacity, bravery, optimism and love for life and one another to make it through. It is knowing that those who went before me could make it through unimaginable horrors that makes me feel obliged to at least try and make it through our own unimaginable horror. I like to think that Isaac is with my Opa (and my grandmother Oma) and his family and they are taking good care of him until I get there. He is experiencing their exceptional qualities in person. Back here on Earth, I know now that I cannot just tell Ethan about the strength of his ancestors and expect him to take inspiration, I have to show him first hand by living them myself. I too have Pallavicini blood running through my veins and I need to remind myself of that every day.