Freedom to Roam and Wrangle

First, the shameless self-promotion: If you haven’t yet heard, my novel CURRENCY is still pretty hot off the press. It’s an exciting yet thoughtful tale of love and adventure in Thailand. But don’t take my word for it! My dad says the same thing. So does the reviewer at The Traveler’s Library.  And—this just in—the reviewer at NewPages. Please read it. If you’ve read it and liked it, please do spread your views. One great way would be to write a review on Amazon. Or convince your (Chicago area) book club to make it their next choice, and I’ll happily join you for a discussion. If you live in Southern California, bring a friend and come see me read there next week.

And now, back to our programming: Mark met me at the train when I returned from my little East Coast book tour, and when he realized we wouldn’t be back in time to pick up Tillio, age 9,  from school, he asked friends to either take him to their house or just drop him off in our backyard, because we’d be home shortly.

We returned to an empty home, left a message for our friends, and settled in. I took conscious pleasure in being able to focus only on Lilli for a moment; we’d never been apart for that long, and we were having a sweet reunion. But soon, unease sunk in like a basement chill: What if they had left Tillio, and something happened? Something like…. Before long, Lilli and I were high-tailing it up the street to our friends’ house. And sweet relief: There he was in the yard, swashbuckling with a plastic sword. They said they just hadn’t felt comfortable dropping him off, and—although I’m a fan of the woman who let her 9-year-old ride the NY subway alone and thus started a movement—after my moment of panic, I understood.

I often think about how different it was for me when I was growing up. Like many kids in the 1970s, we ran free through the neighborhood from the time that we could run. We lived on the outskirts of a small town, our house one of maybe forty set in a loose ring surrounded by woods. The main road was a rural route that the occasional car barreled down, the woods across the street were big enough to get lost in, and the woods behind our house were bordered by a creek deep enough to swing off a vine and splash into. I don’t remember early swimming lessons, although there may have been some. There were no fences. We had no boundaries, that I recall. But I still got bored. When I was not much older than Tillio, I road my bike alone the four or five miles into town —on the rural route around the wooded bend, through a neighborhood characterized by run-down houses and grubby bars, over the bridge that spanned the railroad yard. Probably I was heading to the public library. Where else was there to go, at that age?

This factory was near my house.

It wasn’t like my leafy neighborhood or the steeple-poked town was a bucolic setting where nothing bad ever happened. It did. A girl my age who lived just past the main cluster of houses was molested in the woods. She might have been tied up? And found later? The details are fuzzy. Adults probably deemed them inappropriate for little ears. But we all continued to play over there, in what was essentially a forest. When I was in late elementary school, our parents would drop us off at the college swimming pool—my dad was faculty—and then we’d walk over to the deserted student union building and wait to be picked up. One afternoon we were playing hide and seek, and a pale,  pocket-pulling man kept appearing in the echoey halls. He eventually cornered me by a drinking fountain and grabbed my crotch. I might have yelled out. When my friend’s dad came, we told him what had happened. He was on it. My parents were on it. The police were called, and they came to our house; they sketched the creep based on my description. Later, the man was arrested for raping a girl in the town’s only parking garage. But we continued running free.

The nature of that freedom changed as I got older. While seemingly all the kids in my neighborhood had been let to roam the woods when we were young, not everyone I knew had as much license as I did once I hit junior high and high school.  My parents weren’t strict on the curfews. They let me stay for the second session of free skate at the rec complex; they let me have lots of sleepovers. They weren’t being slacker parents: we lived out of the way, and they had to drive me to these things, they had to pick me up. The ferried me to lessons, too, and paid for them. But money was always a little tight, and when I was sixteen, they didn’t say no to me working for the owner of the town’s strip club when he opened a greasy spoon; my friends and I had been recruited by him when we were washing cars in our bathing suits for a fundraiser. No warning signs there! And really, it was mostly OK; it was eye-opening. It’s just that it could have not been. I was supposed to be a waitress, but when business slowed to a trickle, I also delivered food and chauffeured people around in my family’s Ford Fairmont station wagon. One time, I was asked to give a ride home to one of the diner’s Lurch-like, mentally-deficient regulars. When we got to his place, he refused to get out of the car and, in slow motion, tried to grope me. I managed to get his door open and push him out onto the driveway with my feet. He fell on his ass, and that was that.

My parents gave permission for other things many might not have. For example, they let me and my best friend ride the Greyhound from Pennsylvania down to South Florida, where we stayed with a friend whose own parents I don’t recall ever seeing as we came and went, traipsing around the bottom half of the state looking for punk rock clubs and boys who would buy us beer. And then I turned legal age, so my parents couldn’t have stopped me if they wanted to as my travel plans expanded, but they could have tried. Should they have tried? The summer between my sophomore and junior year of college and I showed up in my hometown with a handsome, glowering man five years older and a foot taller than me who dripped a kind of scary sex. We’d hitched in from Philadelphia, and we were just stopping by before we thumbing it to San Fransisco.  After a two-night visit, my dad dropped us off at the side of Route 80 after slipping me fifty bucks. I had no credit card. I’m not even sure if I had a calling card. Most of the money money fueling our adventure belonged to the man I was with, and he was sort of crazy. And not always in a good way.

That hitchhiking trip was a life-changing experience, part of what made me who I am. Or maybe it was an expression of who I already was, of my essential self. My parents didn’t make me have to fight for that, and I’m grateful. There’s not one thing I wished they would have warned me more strongly about or stopped me from doing. (Well, maybe I wish they would have stopped me from quitting the violin.) Without my early freedoms, I don’t think I would have become a solo traveler, racking up some of my other most significant experiences. I don’t know if I would have taken such an open-minded view toward people and situations that didn’t fit a script.

But for my own kids? I don’t know. We are going to let Tillio fly alone this summer. He’ll be dropped off at the gate by my mom, he’ll be met at the other by one or all of us. And next year, we might even let him walk the block and a half to school.

Should we think of the worst thing that can happen? Or should we remember how unlikely it is to, that almost or could have is not it?

4 Comments on “Freedom to Roam and Wrangle

  1. I love this post and think about these questions a lot (even as a non-parent)… are things more dangerous or are we just hyper-aware because of sensationalist media coverage? For myself, I love to talk walks after dark (alone), and I won’t stop doing this because of vague fear. I have friends who think this is crazy, “It’s so dangerous” but I don’t want to live in fear. I don’t envy these decisions for parents, though. It’s tougher when it’s a child you love…

    Love your blog, and will look up your book! Congratulations!

    • Thanks, Cyndi! I agree with you about not wanting to live in fear. It’s been a big calculation of mine when I’ve decided to do things on my own that some might perceive dangerous for a woman. With kids, you’re right. There’s the added ingredient of guilt. We’ll see how it all plays out.

  2. Wow, what an eye-opener to our shared homewtown. I don’t remember some of those events, and slightly shocked at your closeness to the events. Really shows how little I really knew about some of my classmates. Such a different side of you than what I remember from school. But from my outside view, sure looks like you found your place in life! Keep up the great writing!

    • Thanks for reading, Craig. I’m actually in L.A. right now, visiting Brenna, if you remember her. It’s a long way from Meadville!

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