Some Moments Never Go Away
by Robert C. Koehler
“Red Rover, Red Rover, let Bobby come over!”
I can feel the wind on my face, the gravel at my feet – oh so minutely, but with enough realness to pull me back seven decades, into one of the earliest moments of my becoming.
For some reason I find myself, at age 77, pondering such moments – not simply random memories from childhood but, as I say, moments of my becoming: openings of awareness that were entirely unexpected and utterly personal and thus, oh so quietly secret. This is me?
I think my sudden fascination with such moments shimmers beyond me. I am continually confronted with the abstract statistics of war dead – in particular, the murder of children, each of whom was in the process of becoming himself or herself until they became the tactical victims of a geopolitical game about which they knew nothing.
“Red Rover, Red Rover . . .”
I was in first grade and found myself surrounded by a wondrous, almost perplexing joy. This is really happening to me? I was in the middle of a collective game – fully a part of it – surrounded by other 6-year-olds, boys and girls, being called to run back and forth, to break through the “walls” of other kids holding hands. I almost wanted to cry I was so happy. The feeling was inclusion. Had I never experienced it before?
In retrospect, what I know is this: My life’s earlier years were messed up. Only as an adult did I start learning the facts of this narrative, but they amounted to this: After my sister, who was (and is) two years younger than me, was born, my mother had severe post-partem depression, or what was called at the time a nervous breakdown. A beloved older sister had just died, as I understand it, and she wound up being hospitalized, where she received electro-shock therapy, which may well have simply made matters worse. And she had a newborn and a 2-year-old (me)!
Her family stepped in to help. Dad was booted out of the apartment and several of her sisters moved in and took care of the newborn as Mom recovered. As for me, I was moved to an aunt and uncle’s house. I was just a little over age 2. I have no memory of any of these specifics. All I have are memories of being slightly older, after Mom recovered and our family had pulled itself back together. What I remember is a relentless fear of abandonment: Mom and Dad go out, we’re left with a babysitter, and I wake up at night crying in terror. Where’s Mommy?
At age 5, when I start kindergarten, I also remember screaming and crying, once again fearing abandonment as I’m dropped off at school. Mostly I remember hating kindergarten – and feeling left out, watching other kids play and make stuff while I sat in sulky solitude. I remember pushing a classmate down, giving him a nose bleed, and having to sit in punishment under the teacher’s desk. Ah, kindergarten!
All this is the context for my “Red Rover” moment: a 6-year-old suddenly aswim in collective belonging. The significance of the moment, as I think about it so many decades later, feels large, even though it was no more than a passing flicker. I went on with my life. But when I ponder who I am, at age 77, the moment still resonates.
And then – jumping ahead – Bobby at age 10, living a boy’s life: biking, baseball, snowball fights, war. Nothing, nothing, was more fun than playing war: pretending to kill and, perhaps even more dramatically, pretending to die. Bang! Shot in the chest. Ah-h-h! But of course dying is no big deal if you can bounce back up and die again or kill again or scurry home because it’s time for dinner.
But there was also a not-so-playful side to playing war: getting into an actual fight, often with a friend, maybe even your best friend, when anger suddenly overflows the pot. It happened all the time – to me and to pretty much everyone else I knew, on the playground, at a friend’s house, wherever.
One day I had a punch-out with a friend after school. Then I came home, perhaps with bruised knuckles, a torn pantleg. As I entered my yard, I felt a swoosh of overwhelming awareness: Fighting is stupid! Maybe it was part of kid life, but it was utterly valueless. I got hold of myself, calmed down . . . and decided I would never fight again. This wasn’t a flimsy, breakable rule I decided to impose on myself – you know, try to behave better – but something much, much bigger. I felt enwrapped with awareness. In that moment, I claimed at least partial agency over my own anger, and eventually beyond that: over the collective anger that had a grip on so much of the world. I decided I didn’t want to be a part of that anymore.
I’ll mention one more moment of becoming, even though I still don’t fully understand its meaning. I was 13. Mom, Sis and I went to a movie on a Saturday afternoon – a long-forgotten movie called Imitation of Life. I have no idea why we went to that movie. It wasn’t funny or cowboy-and-Indian exciting. It was a social drama about, for God’s sake, race: a black woman who works as a maid, whose daughter is light-skinned enough to pass as white and chooses to do so, separating herself from her mom. Actually, this is only part of the plot. This issue is stirred into further drama. Toward the end, the mom dies and the daughter is overwhelmed with regret, which isn’t resolved. The End.
I have no idea if the movie was any good, or what I would think of it now. All I remember is that I found myself unrelentingly troubled by it – in a way I couldn’t talk about or explain. Then, as we drove home, we encountered minor car trouble and Mom had a stop at a garage. As we’re sitting there waiting for the work to be done, a thought enters my mind. I tell no one, of course.
And the thought is beyond strange. It seems to have no relationship to the movie per se, though apparently it emerged from the troubled confusion I felt when it ended. Even now it makes no sense. I silently told myself: I’m a genius.
I think what the revelation meant had nothing to do with being measurably super-smart but rather, somehow, uniquely aware . . . of God knows what. I certainly felt clueless in that moment. In retrospect, I think what this flicker meant was more on the order of: Everyone is a genius. Everyone matters. And we all have something valuable to contribute to our collective understanding, including me. Including you.