“This is my house and if you don’t like the rules you can leave!” my dad said tersely through clenched teeth, as if he were in a board meeting with some rivalrous upstart challenging his supreme authority. I was four.
But from the start I always had some sort of fire in my gut; maybe it was pride, maybe it was a touch of x-ray vision for other people’s B.S., or some father-transmitted issue with authority figures already coming back to bite my dad in the rear, some perhaps a touch of Cool Hand Luke go-ahead-and-hit-me, but I will get back up streak of oppositionality, but I calmly took my preschool lunch pail off the kitchen counter and walked to the big front door. I slammed it hard and loud on the way out, and stepped free into the brilliance of a fine late spring morning.
The sun shone dappled green and gold through the arcade of elm trees that lined my street in the years before the Dutch Elm Disease denuded the hood. I walked at my leisure to the corner, a quiet cross street without even a stop sign, and I stopped. I wasn’t allowed to cross the street. And I was too good of a kid to break that rule. I was a literalist, and my father had suggested that I could leave if I didn’t like his rules. Neither he nor my mother had said anything like that I could cross the street.
Frustrated, I turned tail and went the other way, passing my own house without even looking at it and striding on my freedom march toward a better life. But then I got to the alley that crossed the sidewalk. It wasn’t technically a “street,” but then again I’d never crossed it without the firm grip of a grown-up on my little hand. Not only did cars come through that alley, but trucks. These were the last days of coal trucks, milkmen and other exotic mechanical beasts that would rumble through the gravel alley, whacking the overhanging branches and rattling the windows. I stood transfixed, staring at the empty alley like a pioneer at an impassable gorge.
Being pragmatic, I retreated a couple of houses and found a nice spot under a tree to sit and eat my lunch. I took my time and when I’d finished I closed up my lunch pail meticulously and glanced all around and up and down. It must have been about 8:30am.
I can’t remember if that was the time that I walked back home and agreed to my father’s rules, or if I waited there until my mother’s car pulled up and she offered me a ride to pre-school (or maybe I got the day off, half in trouble but not really). Some years later I learned that they had been spying on me, amused at my adherence to the no-crossing-the-street rule.
It’s taken me until now to realize that my dad probably wasn’t entirely enraged and that he might have become one of Max’s “Wild Things” in my mind. It’s taken until now to be able to intuit how cute they must have thought that I was in my tepid foray into rebellion—or at least I hope they did. It’s hard to know if my dad is only now losing his touch with kids (“get lost,” he said to my six-year-old nephew the other day) or if he never quite had any panache for dealing with little ones.
Whatever it means, I ran away a lot the year that I was ten, going farther and more recklessly as I raged against all sorts of forces that I didn’t understand but knew that I could not stand. I remember that military school brochure that sat ominously on the credenza in the front hallway, a constant reminder that I could be shipped out if I didn’t tow the line (but I’m sure my parents remember that differently as well). I do know that my kids have shown little inclination to run away—probably partly because in this age of overprotection they were terrified of what they might run into out there, and probably owing in part to the fact that the service and amenities at our house are pretty good if you’re a kid.
As a caregiver I’ve dealt with running away mostly in my group home therapist days where kids who felt largely unwanted were prone to act out against house rules and general feelings of trapped despair by going AWOL—maybe going on crime sprees, stealing cars, getting into trouble with predatory folks on the street… extremely sad and typically ending much as it did for me when I was four—with return to the fold, no matter how unappealing, and the humiliating confrontation with angry dependency. I think about those kids, some who ended up in locked mental hospitals, some who transitioned to adult group homes, some who met tragic endings and I wonder how we might create a greater sense of home for all our collective kids.
Do your kids run away? Did you run away when you were a kid?
Either way, here’s to dedicating today to making our houses warm and inviting homes so that we and our kids really want to live there together—and to be able to leave with love and good wishes when the time is right, not needing to run away.