Sunday, August 1, 2010


My maternal grandmother Irene ran away from her home and family when she was 16 years old. Miraculously, she had been corresponding with a German gentleman who had immigrated to Kalgoorlie.  The gentleman was Herr Scharfenstein.  He must have possessed extraordinary powers of charm and persuasion, as he was able to lure the young and beautiful Irene away from her well-off and well-mannered family in Germany and come visit  him in Kalgoorlie; a fairy city paved with gold.

Dressed in matching coat, hat and gloves, and speaking little English, Irene packed her trunk and used what money she had to purchase a ticket for a boat headed to Perth, Western Australia.  Irene sailed to the other side of the world with a head filled with the hopes and aspirations of most 16 year olds; love, romance, babies and bridal dresses.  As it was the 1950s, she was probably also dreaming of automatic washing machines, fold out ironing boards, Kenwood mixers and a frilly apron that would match the kitchen drapes.

Irene would instead find an alcoholic, aging batchelor and the fairy city Kalgoorlie comprised of a gaping mining pit, prostitution and alcoholism, and as culturally devoid as the expired breath of the soused con-man who enticed her there.

Irene, with no money to return to her family, married Herr Scharfenstein and became Frau Scharfenstein.

Herr Scharfenstein I know very little about, aside from his last name, which is the name I was born under. A complete stranger to me, and will always remain so.

Frau and Herr S. did not last long. Likely the reality outweighed her dreams, and Frau dispatched to Perth to work as a shop assistant.

The Narrows Bridge was constructed in the 1950s and opened in 1958, joining the city with South Perth.
Battye Library [3373B/55]

Frau at some point in the early 1950s met a dashing Polish man and indulged in bigamy. Frau could not divorce Herr Scharfenstein as women could not petition for a divorce from their husband.  Subsequently Irene lived with, and became pregnant to my maternal grandfather, Peitr, whilst still legally bound to her husband Herr Scharfenstein.

My birth mother Bella was born on the 9th March 1956, with the surname Scharfenstein, as Frau was still married to Herr, although Bella’s father was Herr Kostecki.  So although a Scharenstein, she is a Kostecki by another name.

Herr K. is as shady as Herr S. I have little idea of his heritage.  Even Bella had little idea of his history.  His brother, allegedly, was sentenced to a Siberian prison camp for political dissension.  Herr K. fled to Australia and never spoke of his past, aside from admissions of a Ukrainian and Russian heritage.

Peitr died before I could meet him.  I think I would have liked this eccentric and beguiling grandfather.

I was on holidays in Italy at the time.  In Florence, which has other significance for me.  I telephoned Bella, rather inappropriately, after a drunken, wild night to say, through hiccups and slurred words 'hello!'. Bella informed me that her father had passed away a week before and she had just returned from his funeral.

It wasn't the best way to receive the news that you would never meet a grandfather who you had hoped to meet.

I did get introduced to Herr K’s ashes one Christmas Eve a few years later. We were drinking beer out on the veranda at Bella's house when she took 'him' down from on top the kitchen cabinet to meet me, his granddaughter.  Pietr was interred in a large silver pot. I saw and held his white, dusty ashes and was surprised by the sheer weight of them, and by the number of larger fragments of bone matter in amongst the finer powder.

Frau and Herr K. did not last very long either. Long enough to create a child and long enough to get to know each other well enough to know that they did not like each other well enough to stay together.

Irene raised Bella in a ground floor apartment off Hyde Park in Highgate, Perth. I know very little of this time.  I do know that Irene loved attending matinee sessions of Elvis Presley movies, dreaming of a better life, whilst Bella would crawl under the chairs on the red velvet carpets of the art deco Luna cinema in Leederville.

Eventually, Frau was granted a divorce petition for Herr S, and remarried a man called Mitch. She remained with him for the rest of her life.

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