My Beautiful Newark Memories

by Karen Banda


I was born in Newark, NJ. I didn't go far, I now live in Bloomfield. But in many ways my Newark NJ is a continent away from where I am now but a place to which I retreat mentally when my current life becomes overwhelming. It is my safe haven, mentally anyway. 
I was born in Columbus Hospital (NOT Medical Center!) in October, 1951. My two siblings were also born there. My brother, Gerald, in July, 1954 and my sister Mary Ellen (by then we had moved to Bloomfield but were Newarkers and North Warders at heart) in September, 1960. 
Newark has always been, and will always be, an integral part of my life. My most cherished, happy, family memories involve Newark. Even as an adult, Newark (especially Branch Brook Park at Cherry Blossom time and St. Lucy's during the Feast of St. Gerard) played a very important part in my life. 
My earliest memories are of living on Summer Avenue (107 to be exact) and going to St. Lucy's school (firs grade) and church on a regular basis. I also attended kindergarten in Newark (Franklin School I believe) but for the one year I was there and for all of its religious importance in my life to this day, St. Lucy's is the school I remember most.  
My first grade teacher was Sr. Angelina. I won a prize in class for something. It was a plastic pink cross which had special meaning for me and which I kept as a cherished memento of my childhood for years. I gave it to my then boyfriend/fiance/husband to keep in the glove box of his car to keep him safe. We've been divorced over 7 years now and how I wish I had that little cross back. 
I still have vivid memories of first grade at St. Lucy's and especially my first communion day. Every time I smell fresh carnations or see bouquets I swear I am transported to the convent courtyard adjoining the church, waiting on line to process into the church for the mass and our first holy communion. May 3, 1958 I believe was the date. I also remember the lunchroom and being allowed to go into the main courtyard (as it was called then and prior to my first communion) during lunchtime on the first day of the Feast of St. Gerard. The area might have changed physically, but the few times I am present for the feast I am transported back to the way it was in 1957/1958. 
Even when we moved to Bloomfield, Newark played an enormous and important part in the lives of my family. Each and every Saturday we traveled back to Newark, Seventh Avenue I believe, for our weekly shopping. There was the butcher we visited (I distinctly remember the smell of provolone, the sight of the huge hunks of cheeses hung from the ceiling in the window, and the smell and taste of the oil cured olives in a huge barrel which I loved even as a child.) We also visited the local bakery, Garside perhaps?, for bread for the week. I looked forward to those visits each week. On the way back to Bloomfield (America as I thought of it at the time, and North Newark was my beloved Italy) we all inhaled one loaf of still-warm Italian bread.

We lived on Summer Avenue, 107 to be exact. My grandmother lived a few houses down (I don't recall that address). That house held the best summer memories for me. There was a garden in which they grew corn(!), strawberries, tomatoes, zucchini (I remember the 'googols' blossoms) basil, and there was also a grape arbor. The best! "Teddy Bear" caterpillars were my pets, and I loved picking and chewing on the tart curlicues which eventually, if left alone, would turn into bunches of grapes.

My grandmother, a widow of many decades, married for the second time at age 65 (OLD by our standards!) and her new husband made wine in his basement. I distinctly remember visiting the 'wine cellar' with Joe...the dark, dank, fermented grapey smell and the taste of newly pressed wine...too many decades later the memories and feelings came flooding back to me when I visited wineries in Northern California on my honeymoon. All good, warm, heart-tugging memories of one of the best times of my life.

The Feast of St. Gerard also played a large part in my life and that of my family. My mother and her family was from Caposele, the paese of St. Gerard. My brother was named Gerald, and St. Gerard of course was his patron saint. Even after we moved out of Newark, we were there every Sunday for dinner with my grandmother on Summer Avenue, and in October we all congregated at the little second floor apartment on Summer Avenue, even the contingent from Brooklyn, NY, to attend the feast and walk in the procession. Decades later, as a middle-aged woman, when I once again walked briefly in a procession due to the physical limitations of my parents, I saw familiar faces and heard a familiar and beloved dialect and I was transported to one of the happiest times of my life.

Branch Brook Park also played an integral part in my early childhood. My fondest memories include summer nights with my father playing catch with me (I still have a pretty good eye and catch very well "for a girl" - at least my nephew is impressed!) after which we'd visit a local soda fountain. The smell of a malted can bring me back in a heartbeat, in addition to picking up one of those little pink balls my father and I tossed around. Then, of course, there are memories of Easter Sundays and the traditional visit to the Cherry Blossoms, a tradition which endured long after we moved out of Newark. In pictures and my mind's eye I see us all among the cherry blossoms and dressed to the 9's: me, my mother and younger sister dressed in matching outfits with the requisite Easter bonnets, gloves and paten leather shoes. Dad and my brother both in suits, ties and hats. Mom and we girls wore the corsages dad and my brother purchased earlier in the day before going to Mass and they both had their carnation boutonnieres. Even as an adult while working in Newark, each spring demanded I drive home through the park during Cherry Blossom time. There's nothing like it for reveling in springtime and triggering memories of a happier time.

Sadly, this springtime found me gazing at the cherry blossoms out of the 6th floor window of Clara Maas Medical Center. My father spent his last few days in the ICU with my mother and me by his side. I watched the trees bloom and fade from that window as my father's life came to an end.

My father, Rocco Banda, passed away in the early hours of May 19, 2005, ironically just steps away from a place that was very special to us and an enduring source of many happy childhood memories.


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