A time reflect, a time to learn and grow. So very many things that play on the mind, especially in that twilight time as one wakes or manages to fall asleep.
Each day can be a challenge, especially in recent weeks as the prevailing winds shift and sway in Washington, yet our lives go on and we can only hope that the lessons we learn through our years manage to carry us through.
On March 1, an icon, if you will, a safe harbour to contemplation and prayer is set to close: The Catholic Chapel at the Bergen Mall in Paramus, now known as the Outlets at the Bergen Town Center. It will always be the Bergen Mall to me. It opened three months after I was born in 1957, the first open-air mall in the nation, soon to be followed by its rival, The Garden State Plaza just two miles to the southwest.
No history lesson here: For me, the Bergen Mall, a short bike ride from my home in the Fairmount Section of Hackensack, was a wonderous place as a child. The stores were the outside world. A below-ground and open courtyard boasted a small amusement park for enchanted children and accommodating parents. The anchor department store, Sterns, had no doors, just two open entrances and metal floor grates that in the summer pumped a wall of cool air and in the winter an inviting curtain of warm air that seemed a marvel. There was no such term back then as energy efficient, and if there was, no one cared. Gasoline was 29 cents a gallon and plentiful. There was a bowling alley and the Playhouse on the Mall featured Broadway shows made all the more memorable thanks to a young, inspired manager and budding novelist: Robert Ludlum. Newberry’s on the opposite side had a grand lunch counter and the very best burgers, compared to the eatery – its name escapes me for the moment – across from the theatre that featured a char-broiled grill in the window and a swarthy-looking, mustachioed chef who seemed to spend most of his time leering at the girls passing by.
It was also the place of my first job: I was 13 when I conned my way into a Saturday post with a concessionaire at Karden Coins, Ernst Cerney of Ernie’s Military Collectibles. He was all of 25, looked like a character out of “Grease”and rented two showcases at the basement level shop just off the escalator. He specialized in military items, mostly WWII American and German medals. With my interest in history and constant pestering, I became his eager-beaver helper and gofer. It paid $2 a day and included lunch. I would have gladly worked for nothing.
It was 1970. The Catholic Chapel was just down the cavernous hallway and had recently opened. It was nothing fancy: A few pews, religious icons on the walls, a corner gift shop, cheerful volunteers, a poor box, a podium that doubled as an alter, an aging priest and three masses said daily, except on Sundays when the Chapel was closed due to Bergen County’s Blue Laws, which shuttered the mall shops. No business on the day of worship was the rule, although there were exceptions.
I noticed that the chapel drew its share of visitors and congregants, mostly senior citizens, weary shoppers looking for a place of respite, and a variety of what I came to call “mall denizens,” those lost souls in need of human contact who often wandered about, talking to themselves, shouldering crosses too hard for them to bear. They often made there way to us at the coin shop, and if not immediately shooed away by “Old Man Karden” who on the surface had little patience for what he called “riffraff,” they were all too willing to share their stories. The aging widows and the widowers, their hearts broken and longing for the past, the disheveled woman residing in a tiny GI Plan house across from the mall who was known at the Shop Rite (long gone) to pinch a loaf of bread every other day. Cashiers and managers looked the other way. When she did have cash at the ready, her purchases included assorted cans of cat food, even though her cherished feline companions were long dead. Years later, I learned that “Old Man Karden” would slip her a five spot, which, he would claim, was a simple bid to keep her away from the store. But I knew different. He was a soft touch beneath that hard and brusque exterior.
For a young writer, the chapel traffic offered a moving and poignant slice of life. I was not a frequent chapel visitor then or over the years, but each visit is indelible in my memory. It was there that I went and prayed on Saturday before work when my mom was first diagnosed with Stage Four breast cancer. All of 18, I prayed to God to take me and spare her. My faith was tested, challenged and tested again, but I always seemed to find solace on those rickety chairs fitted with cushioned kneeling prayer stands. Perhaps it was the company of strangers, all with their own silent struggles that helped to ease my angst, my anxiety, my desperation, I can’t be quite sure. All I know for certain is that it helped ease my turmoil and inner conflict. I always carry with me my mother’s crucifix and rosary, tucked away in a faux pas leather pouch purchased at the chapel some 40 years ago. It’s held up well, even though the “My Rosary” imprint in delicate script long ago wore away. In that pouch, too, I carry a few other tokens of faith and love. A silver aviators coin with the face of Christ imprinted on one side and the legend “Lord, help keep me on course” on the other, a tiny metal Virgin Mary icon that I found in my mom’s jewelry box shortly after she passed and a fading note, written by my then seven-year-old son Chris, wishing me a Happy Father’s Day and his eternal love.
The chapel is seeking a new home because the space it occupies is needed for added retail space in a mall renovation plan. It has already survived two mall renovations, but this time, the presiding pastor was told, there will be no more room at the inn.
I visited again yesterday, for one last look and because I needed to. It was not a matter of closure. Perhaps just a renewal of faith in troubling personal times. I offered a silent prayer, made a donation for the needy and purchased at the gift shop a new “My Rosary” pouch as a replacement should my original someday fail.
I’ll paraphrase what a dear and cherished friend who has served as a hospital chaplain once said to me: “Our faith is everything. It is all-encompassing. It can sustain us and nurture us and it consoles us when we are at our lowest ebb. It embraces us when we know joy, and therefore, we are never alone.”
Those who frequent the Mall Chapel, regardless of their faith or its fate, I do believe they understand that they will never be alone.