The Back Road: Childhood fragments and a search for meaning

The Back Road: Childhood fragments and a search for meaning

By Andrew Malekoff

Disparate fragments from my childhood years often visit unannounced with neither rhyme nor reason. They’re not dreams. They represent reality and, after all these many years, likely contain seeds of some transcendent meaning.

For example, there was time that my younger brother was harassed by the neighborhood bully. At 8 years old, I was never one to look for a fight. I made an exception. I smacked the boy in his mouth, which put an end to his intimidating my little brother. Not very progressive of me, I know.

Does the recurrent resurfacing of this fragment into my consciousness signify anything more to me than a memory? Could it have anything to do with my being a cancer survivor, 14 years and counting, and battling that bully back every day since?

Blogger Laura Haugen writes, “I have been most moved by writing that tells a story in fragments, often ones that are weighted with emotion and significance to the life of the narrator.” She goes on to say, “Only after each fragment has been picked up, polished, and assembled in place, jagged edge to jagged edge, does the meaning reveal itself.”

The fragments I disclose here occurred in my hometown Newark, N.J., before I turned 10 years old. For some geographical perspective, I grew up in the same urban neighborhood that novelist Philip Roth lived in as a child and used as a setting for his novels such as “The Plot Against America.”

Never far from instant recall are Sunday mornings when I walked down the block from our home to the corner bakery to pick up freshly baked rye bread and rolls. Nowadays I can easily summon the olfactory rush that was that bakery’s every greeting.

The fragments of my childhood that reappear today are of an assorted variety: soothing, troubling or bewildering.

Among the more troubling fragments were the unforeseen episodes of public grieving; in particular, the open wailing of neighborhood women after the death of their loved ones. There were many such instances. I’ll share two.

The grandmother of a friend who lived two houses down, wept loudly through the night after her husband passed; her piercing cries filling the wee hours of the morning, from midnight until the break of dawn.

If possible, even more penetrating was the time our downstairs neighbor, the landlady who became a family friend, sobbed in intermittent bursts of excruciating agony all day long after she learned that her daughter had tragically taken her own life.

I knew little about death and nothing about suicide. No grown-up was eager to clue me in. I could only piece together what happened by listening to the hushed tones of the big people around me referring to a leap from a building.

As readily as I can still capture the aroma of fresh baked goods, I can hear the mournful cries of bereaved women on my block, perhaps vocal proxies for others who lost loved ones and who were more reserved in their grief. Residing in an urban setting, with neighbors living close by one another, everything was less private than in the more cloistered suburbs where we moved years later.

I had the good fortune to live within a mile of a small amusement park – Olympic Park. My favorite rides were the Wild Mouse, a mini-roller coaster, and the electrically powered bumper cars. There was a swimming pool always teaming with smiling and splashing kids of all backgrounds. The rumor was that one ought to stay out of the pool to avoid contracting polio, which seemed at the time to be the first conspiracy theory I was exposed to, but it turned out to be true.

As I stepped into the line to await my turn on the bumper cars, I was captivated by a peculiar image. The scene reminded me of something out of a fantasy scene that film director David Lynch and Dutch painter Hieronymus Bosch might have conjured and collaborated on.

As I stood waiting, I observed a nun driving solo in a bumper car. Chaos reigned all around her. Teenaged boys and girls ramming into one another, gesturing, giggling, and shrieking.

No one dared bump Sister, though, as she calmly completed her laps like a seasoned Indy 500 competitor out for a test drive, habit unruffled. The invisible oval lane that she repetitively circled remained unobstructed, as others collided all around her. I couldn’t take my eyes off her. She appeared composed and content, reminding me of a mobile halo providing a spiritual arc of protective light around the entire arena.

At the time and in succeeding years, I’ve often wondered if bumper car Sister might have preferred to mix it up and dish it out, take a few good bumps and give a few back. But she just kept circling the laminated floor, almost levitating it seemed, unperturbed by the ensuing pandemonium.

Has anything coherent been assembled by my chosen fragments? Do the jagged edges now fit together to reveal any transcendent meaning? Bullies, bread, bereavement, and bumper cars?

Maybe bumper car Sister is the glue; floating on air, keeping a watchful eye, Mona Lisa smile and habit firmly in place, knowingly, as if to simply say: “Hang on. There will be bumps. See you on the other side. Meet you at the corner bakery?”


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