I'll miss you, Zaida.
A Eulogy for Alexander Sharp (1924-2006)
Every person has just one life, and they owe it to themselves to make the most of it. My Zaida certainly did that. I saw my Zaida through a grandchild’s eyes, watching him in awe as a larger than life figure and the source of all wisdom. He was a man who received so much naches in the achievements of his children and grandchildren, that it was as if he had achieved all these things himself. Zaida was the patriarch of a family, a role that I know he was proud to play, with his three children and nine grandchildren carrying on his legacy.
Sorting through my grandfather’s personal papers since his death, I came across a faded handwritten letter. It was dated 6 September 1942, and written by the Rabbi of the Perth Hebrew Congregation. This is what it says:
To whom it may concern.
I have pleasure in stating that I have known Mr Alec Sharp, of 221 Lake Street, North Perth for over three years. I am impressed by his sincerity of manner, and high sense of responsibility. He is a person of good fame and repute and I believe him to be capable, conscientious and self-reliant. I therefore recommend him warmly to any position he may seek.
Rabbi L Rubin-Zacks
This was written more than forty years before I was born, but it was as true of the grandfather that I knew as it was of the seventeen year old student of whom it was written. His good nature was enduring throughout his life, and this was reflected in all that he did.
Alexander Sharp was born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania to Morris and Bella Sharp. He was the youngest of four children. When he was three years old, his family migrated to Perth to join other members of the family already in Australia.
Just three weeks after his eighteenth birthday, Zaida enlisted in the defence force. He went on to serve four years in the air force, including a stint on the island of Moratai, which is now a part of Indonesia. There are lots of photos of my grandfather from this period in his life. In these photos, my young Zaida is grinning sheepishly at the camera, often striking a pose next to one of his aircraft. He was a ruggedly handsome man, with broad shoulders and a stocky physique. He had a pencil thin moustache which made him look older than his early 20s. Looking through these photos, my aunty commented that my grandfather looked a bit like Clark Gable. I think she was wrong. I think Clark Gable looked a bit like my grandfather. Zaida was discharged from the air force in early 1946, with the rank of a Leading Aircraftman. He was honoured for his service with a Pacific Star.
A few months after he returned to civilian life in Perth, a relative in Melbourne, Barney Sharp, wrote to Alec offering him a job. He took up the offer, and relocated to Melbourne to work for one pound, 10 shilling a week as a salesman. He was not just selling any old product, though: he was selling women’s lingerie, a subject with which the young Alec was only vaguely familiar. This lead to one of Zaida’s favourite jokes later in life, telling people that he “used to work in women’s lingerie.”
Just a few years after his arrival in Melbourne, my Zaida met my grandmother. Their first meeting was at the Maison Deluxe in Elwood, who used to host Jewish dance events on Sunday nights. On New Years Eve of 1950, my grandfather proposed, and in October of that year they were married at Toorak Shule.
When my grandfather got married, he didn’t just marry Jean Silman: instead he married the whole Silman family. The first place the young couple lived together was at the Silman family home on Heidelberg Road in Fairfield. My Zaida also joined the Silman family business, working alongside his father-in-law Myer, and his brother-in-law Richard at the Silman Hosiery Mills in Brunswick. Zaida was a manager at the knitting mill, monitoring production on the factory floor. As part of his work he was required to work with dangerous equipment and this lead to his proudest academic achievement: a BA. Not a Bachelor of Arts, mind you, but a “Certificate in Competency as a Boiler Attendant”.
I think that it was here, in his ten years at the Silman Hosiery Mills, that Zaida learnt the work ethic that he later imparted upon each of his grandchildren. I imagine my young, newly married grandfather working hard on the factory floor amongst the heat and noise and mess, trying hard to build a good life for himself and his young family. Working here may not have been his calling in life, but it was one that he devoted himself to.
It was also during this decade that Jean and Alec became parents, with Gayle, then Michael and then Deborah coming into the world. Zaida always embraced his obligations as a family man, not just as a father and grandfather, but also as an older brother and uncle. As the youngest of four children, he was often doted upon by his older sisters Betty and Molly. Later on in life both Betty and Molly were sadly widowed, and Alec stood by them and provided them with the support they needed to get through difficult times. Alec was also a much admired uncle and cousin. As a father, his parenting style was well ahead of its time: whilst many dads of the 1950s and 60s were quite distant from their children, Alec was a hands-on dad who made sure he was a central part of his children’s lives. Friends of Gayle, Michael and Deb would sometimes note that they wished their own fathers were as hands-on as Alec.
In the early 1960s, the Silman Hosiery Mill burnt down. For Zaida, and his brother-in-law Richard, it was a case of one door closing, but another one opening. The two men went into the cinema business. They became the owner-operators of the Sunset Drive-In in Maribyrnong, showing remarkable business foresight given the growth both of movies and of cars. Their success in Maribyrnong led to them expanding to take ownership of the Coburg Drive-In, and then to a series of cinemas in the Melbourne CBD. At their peak, the two of them went on to operate the Australia Twin Cinema on Collins Street, the Bryson Theatre on Exhibition Street, and of course the one of which he was most proud, the Capitol Theatre, which still stands on Swanston Street nearby to the old site of the Capitol 2, another of their theatres.
Movies were my Zaida’s reel passion, if you’ll pardon the pun. Several times during the 1960s, he and my grandmother went over to Cannes for the Film Festival. Officially, he was there because he wished to discover the next big thing in movies so that he could show it at his chain of Melbourne cinemas. Truthfully, though, I think he went there because he loved the movies: the excitement and the elegance and glamour of the industry.
At his home in Willis Street, Balwyn, Zaida would regularly host movie screenings in the den. He’d set up a screen across the window and set up the projector in the kitchen. The Sharp house was the place to be on a Friday night, where all the kids gathered to watch new release films, often before they’d been screened at commercial cinemas.
He would have great pride in having the latest audio-visual technology. His home was the first to have a colour TV. He was a home movie buff long before camcorders and VCRs became fashionable. He would capture family events, achievements and holidays on 8mm film, edit it together and set it all to music. Later on in life, when video became the norm, he rigourously documented all of his grandchildren growing up. With his steady hand and keen eye for details, he was a budding film director. Every one of those videos has Zaida’s narration from behind the camera, commenting on the action and uttering small jokes with his bone-dry wit. He always knew the right way to capture the moment.
In the mid-1980s Alec and Richard sold the cinemas to Village. At this stage in his life my grandfather was 60, had three adult children and could have settled down to an early retirement. Such an active body and mind, though, wasn’t ready to rest just yet. The Silmans and Sharps bought into a retail store, City Centre Disposals on Elizabeth Street. This truly was a family business: Esther and Jean would do the accounting and Alec and Richard would manage the store. City Centre Disposals was a good business venture for my Zaida, but it also tied in nicely with his interest in gizmos and gadgets. Finally, it fitted in with his grandchildren’s growing desire for socks, boots, torches, tents and sleeping bags, all of which were stocked in abundance. Most Fridays, my Zaida and my father would meet for lunch to discuss the events of the week. This is now a tradition my dad and I continue.
My grandfather was 75 when he left the business and gave himself a chance to enjoy his retirement. He had both an active mind and an active body, and kept both of them busy. He would regularly play social tennis with friends, where he was a deadly left-hander. At home, he and Bobby bought a computer, and Zaida took the internet by storm. He was a vociferous reader of online newspapers, waking up each morning and devouring the New York Times and Jerusalem Post and regularly traded jokes back and forth via email. In retirement, Zaida also became active in Rotary, and through them volunteered at the Prahran City Mission to feed meals to local underprivileged children.
In the end, my Zaida’s body gave way before his mind did. I remember visiting him earlier this year with the DVD of my sisters’ batmitzvahs, which he had been too sick to attend. As he watched it with Bobby and I, he would identify familiar faces and put names to people whom Bobby and I were both struggling with.
Even in his dying days, Zaida did us proud. Last December the doctors detected a tumour on his brain, and he was given three months to live. But despite this diagnosis, he remained with us until last Friday. He will, though, remain forever in our hearts.
Zaida left the world in great peace. He left knowing that the three offspring from his family were themselves now a part of loving families of their own, and that the circle of life was now complete.
The movie of my grandfather’s life was an epic tale. The story is a swashbuckling adventure, across continents and through generations, with good humour and tragedy along the way. Our lead was a sensitive, caring man who led his life with great pride and dignity and earned the respect of all who knew him. And as the closing credits on his life roll, we can all be thankful that we were a part of the film: from the leading lady, to the supporting cast and the extras in the background. I think we should be thankful to the director for giving us such a story, and such a man.