"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Thursday, September 10, 2015

A Child’s Search For Meaning–The Story Of Adela Pickard Who Asked “When Is My Pull-by Date?”

“Mommy, when will my gas run out?”

“Little girls don’t run on gas, Honey”, her mother replied. “They run on sugar and spice and everything nice.”

Little Bo Peep


“Don’t be silly, Mommy. I want to know when I will stop.”

“A very precocious question”, Marge Pickard thought. “An existential sense at age six. Maybe we should think of moving her up a grade or two.”

Like most parents, the Pickards were not so concerned about what their daughter thought; just where it would get her; and an inquisitive mind and adult curiosity would be worth a lot in the educational stakes.

At the same time, such a question was worrisome. She shouldn’t be thinking of such things at her age.  Children are supposed to be convinced of their immortality through their teenage years, not start to question their existence barely out of the nursery.

“No time soon, Sweetheart”, Marge replied to her daughter. “Your life is just beginning.”

Adela Pickard squinted, scrunched her brows, looked up at her mother, and said, “Yes, but everyone has a pull-by date, don’t they?”

Image result for images pull-by date

Marge smiled and reached for her Moleskin notebook she always close by. Adela said so many wonderfully funny and precocious things, that Marge was sure there was a book there somewhere.  “Little pitchers have big ears”, she remembered her mother, who was fond of clichés and aphorisms, saying.  Adela listened to everything anyone said, processed her new vocabulary, and tried it out on her family.  She never got it quite right, but that was made it funny.

One day as she and her mother sat in the playroom building Legos, Adela pointed to a small cut on her leg.  “I need a Band Aid for this”, she said. Then, touching a large black-and-blue bruise on her arm, continued. “But this may require medical attention.” She couldn’t have been more than four at the time but she came out with so many particular malapropisms, overly serious and adult language for minor events, and strange but accurate metaphors.

She couldn’t have been more than two when a fart surprised her. “My butt snored”, she said.

So the ‘pull-date’ reference belonged in the Adela Phrase Book, but what on earth was she doing asking such questions.  Parents are always challenged by their children when  asked about simple but profoundly complex issues.  “Why is the sky blue?” is nothing compared to fate or predestination.

Image result for images blue sky


“I’m overreacting”, Marge said to her husband. “She couldn’t have meant anything by it.  Only Adela being Adela”; but the questions kept coming. “Why was Mr. Paulson’s pull-by date different from Mrs. Jacobs’?  The Jacobs and the Paulsons were neighbors who had died a year apart.  Abe Paulson had had a heart attack while swinging on the new swing he had rigged to the apple tree for his grandchildren. He must have been thinking of his days as a boy back in New Brighton when he could almost do a complete circle on the swings at Eddy Glover Park because he pumped so hard that his toes touched the tips of the leaves on the maple tree.  “He never knew what hit him”, the attending physician had said to his wife. “Probably better that way”, she replied.

Image result for 19th century images boy swinging on swing


Hermione Jacobs was run over by a bus. Everyone but her family and close relatives who were understandably distraught laughed at the cruel irony of a clichéd death.  No one really ever gets run over by a bus; but poor Hermione was not watching her step and had forgotten to turn up her hearing aid before leaving the house; so she started to cross the street without looking; her toe got caught in a piece of loose asphalt; she stumbled and fell right in the path of the bus.

“They’re neighbors”, Adela said. “Why didn’t God kill them together?”

Marge had no answer, and although she tried to call up some of her Calvinism and writings of Martin Luther on predestination, she couldn’t.  Nor had she the knowledge or frankly the patience to go into Mendelian laws, the peculiarities of DNA, and the frightful absentmindedness of early Alzheimer’s. Besides, Adela had a point. God did do these house cleanings from time to time – Noah and The Flood, Sodom and Gomorrah – so organizing birth and deaths in other than a random order would not be beyond him.

Martin Luther

Adela was not so much worried about dying – that was a concept beyond even the most precocious of children – but about when she would die.  From infancy she had an unusual sense of order.  While most children threw their blocks and scattered their Legos, Adela lined them up.  Once again, it wasn’t the fact that she saw some need to order them, but the need to end them. Her constructions always used every single block in the toy box. “You don’t have to use all of them”, her mother said. “Why don’t you make a driveway and put some cars on it?”.  Adela paid no attention and went on laying the pieces in long lines or concentric circles; or, when she was old enough, to build towers.  The point was never what she built, but that she used everything in her inventory.

To her, people were no different from inanimate objects. They existed and then they stopped existing.  Buildings seemed to last longer than people, mountains had a really long shelf life, and who was to say about the stars or the sun?

Image result for images grand tetons


Why was it so surprising that a girl as young as Adela had figured this out? True enough, most children never get past digging holes in the sand and then filling them with water, but Adela was fascinated by their longevity.  Her cousins built elaborate sand castles on the beach, and as soon as the tide came in, they were gone. Babies died in infancy like the Rogers’s son, and Mr. Aleph – blind, deaf, and mentally addled and 101 – hobbled and scraped his way down the driveway with his nurse’s aide every morning and evening.

One day when she was not much more than two, her father brought her up to the roof of their building to explore.  Adela was fascinated by all the exhaust pipes, tubes, and machinery that served the apartments below.  She was most interested in holes; and every time she saw one, she would point at it and say, “Hole”.  It was uncanny how she knew what a hole was; how a shallow hole, a deep hole, a paper cutout two-dimensional hole, a pit, or the opening to a rabbit warren were all holes.  If this wasn’t remarkable enough, she refused to leave the roof until she had counted every single hole on it. Although she could not actually count numerically, she pulled her father over to each one, turned to him, and said, “Hole”, expecting him to keep track.  Only when a full accounting had been made did they go back downstairs.

Image result for images old 19th century NYC building rooftop


Konstantin Levin in Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina noted how cruelly ironic it was that Man should be born with intelligence, wit, creativity, ambition, and energy; live for a few decades, and then spend eternity in the cold, hard ground of the steppes. Beginning and end dates were as important to him as the quality of lives led.  There was irony in both the absurdly short lifespan of human beings and the meaningless of the life they, without asking, were obliged to lead.  Levin struggled with his existential question for his whole life.


Adela was simply ahead of the game, and perhaps she would have her epiphany long before Tolstoy did. He wrestled with faith and non-belief like his character Levin, and finally in late middle age gave in.  If so many billions of people had believed in God, what was the problem?

“Maybe she will be a philosopher or great writer”, thought Marge, once again dismissing the unusual precocity of her daughter’s insights and thinking like an ambitious parent. She could be forgiven. Everyone has the right to hold two complementary notions in mind at the same time.

Maybe Adela would become someone great or maybe she would not. The only real lesson of the story is how basic and fundamental the search for meaning is.  It begins in childhood.

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