It’s good sometimes to stop and think about the people who have influenced your life.
Today, as I prepare to draw another cartoon for the monthly Touchstone magazine, I thought it was time to give a shout out to someone who is known to virtually no-one, but who has played a significant part in my life and deserves homage. Let me start this back a couple years…
At the beginning on 2006 I made a New Year’s Resolution. This would be the year that I finally got off my butt and published the book of cartoons that I had been planning in my head for a number of years. I vowed to myself that come December, I would have a properly printed book of my own cartoons to give out to family and friends as a Christmas present.
By early October, things were looking a bit grim. I had the title, and had written the acknowledgements and thought vaguely about which cartoons would be in there, but the main thing holding back its completion was money. It would be a big commitment to fork out the kind of cash I knew would be needed to get this thing printed to the quality I wanted. And it was money I didn’t really have to throw around at the time.
I was thinking about this very thing one day when I went to the post office to pick up the mail. In the PO Box that day was a letter from a barrister based in Sydney , Australia . My first thought was that someone was suing me. However, inside the envelope was a letter and a cheque for A$2000 which I was informed had been left to me in the will of Alma Gertz, a 92 year old Estonian woman who had died a few months earlier.
So, who was Alma Gertz?
Born 17 September 1914 in Estonia , Alma migrated to Australia after WW2 with her husband, as displaced persons. They settled at Llandilo, near Penrith NSW, and ran a chicken farm. She had no surviving children, only horrendous memories of contact with Russian soldiers in her homeland, memories that tormented her until her death.
My parents met Alma early in 1970, soon after her husband died and she had moved to Werrington, Penrith. With no grandchildren, life had little meaning for her at that point.
My parents were also going through a time of isolation. They were starting a new life at the St Marys Lutheran Parish in Sydney and had no parents nearby. (My mum’s mum had died in December 1966 and her dad in December 1971. My dad's mum died in January 1972). As my mum says about Alma , "We adopted each other". She regarded my mum as her daughter and would send her a card on Mother’s Day. She also adopted me and my older sister as her grandchildren and would babysit us regularly, knit rugs for us and care for us as her own. I always knew her as Grandma Gertz.
My family’s relationship with Grandma Gertz continued long after we moved away from Sydney . I remember she visited us in our new home in rural NSW in 1984, where this photo was taken with me and my younger sister, Krysta. I don’t recall having much contact with her personally in the years after that but know that she suffered severe dementia in her last few years and eventually did not recognise anyone. Her latter years were spent at Edinglassies Retirement Village and Nursing Home at Emu Plains until her death. She was buried on 25 July 2006 , aged 92, after a funeral at St Paul 's Lutheran Church at St Marys, Sydney .
Apart from hearing from mum that she had died, the next contact I had with her was in the letter that came from the barrister’s office that day in October 2006. As any loving grandmother would do, she had left a little something to her grandchildren in her will. What she would never realize was that she had left me something much greater than $2000. For me, in that moment on that day in October 2006 standing in line at the post office that I realized I was holding my much dreamed of book in my hands.
The next two months went by quickly. I chose my favourite 80 cartoons, put them in the order they would go in the book, wrote the intro and the wayfinder pages and got it all on disk to the designer. By December 15, 2006 , I was holding a copy of ‘Gone Astray: A Collection of (Sac)Religious Cartoons by Jim’ in my hands. I had my Christmas present to give to family and friends. But more than that, I had received a present from this dear old soul, Alma Gertz.
My mum says Grandma Gertz would have been so thrilled to know that her gift was used in this way, and I guess that’s enough for me. I wish I could have got to know her better and told her what it meant for me to be able to produce that book. Since its publication, Gone Astray has received some great reviews and sold a few hundred copies in New Zealand and around the world. Beyond that though, it has become a great business card and opened many doors for me. I’m now cartooning for four magazines in New Zealand , and have the confidence to approach many more with this book in hand. Without Alma Gertz, it perhaps would never have come into being. And for that I will be eternally grateful to her.
Alma Gertz, 1914 – 2006