My early life was bent on success. Born as the eldest of a generation and upheld as the example of all things fine, I led cousins in values and chewing gum expeditions and living room performances, until the age of 7, when life removed us from our family seat on the Atlantic, and took us west, alone, to the Rocky Mountains, where the limitations of love forced creativity, and led me to fashion my own entourage out of neighborhood clubs and backyard variety shows, festivals and fundraisers, until the wind beneath my wings crashed at the age of 14 upon the brutal death of the Queen, my paternal grandmother, Lila.
I dabbled then in darkness, and folly, for a long, long time, until I found myself in love, truly in love, of my own volition, at the age of 22. And as with each of the beaus who came before, I screened this possible partner with my youngest siblings–in his ability to forgo his pursuit of me in attention to them–with humor and kindness. He passed. With flying colors. His predecessor was also a child-loving man, but when it came to considering our own offspring, we argued, at great lengths, upon the manner of discipline and permission and authenticity which ultimately led to the dissolution of this relationship or should have; and either way, it ended badly, and prepared the way for the right man to become the father of my legacy.
Sons. I always imagined a daughter. My Lila. But my mother warned that daughters would demand too much drama for no-nonsense me. So sons it was. Two. Lloyd and Aidan. Old Grey-One and Fiery One. And beneath the gift of these children, my trajectory of success took its final dive as it collapsed into diapers and nursing and playdates and carpooling.
The Old Grey-One is now at the tail end of his teenage years, but it was his approach of adolescence when I set out to rediscover my own prowess–desperate to call something mine. There were many forays that led to deadening ends, until I found my treasure buried right beneath me, in my words, first begun when I was at the tail end of my own teens, destructive as they were.
Several blogs and dozens of inner (and outer) journeys later, I find myself scrambling up the steep cliff of completing a work of memoir. A quiet task. Silent really. Lonely. Unknown. Unaccounted for. With no guarantee, of anything, particularly–success.
And yet, successful is how I feel this Autumn though the harvest belongs to my son–as I release him with his backpack and his passport, into the security line for a flight to Central America; and watch as he snakes his way toward the narrow passage which delivers his life–to him.
When I posted that my teenager was ready to drink and smoke pot, readers offered all kinds of helpful suggestions, including one adamant woman who wrote: “NO, DON’T DO IT!”
Her clarion call continued:
Be the level headed pure kid who saves the others… the thoughtful clear-headed guy that makes the difference. The one who is sober and can be the designated driver, the one who does CPR on their friend when they have stopped breathing because they have overdosed on something they didn’t realize would affect them LIKE THAT… and be the one who has enough wits to figure out how or when to call 911 so their friend doesn’t die this one time because you were smart enough to notice that something just doesn’t or didn’t seem right and that something is life-threatening!
Other readers complimented my teenager’s honesty and our family’s openness; while professionals shared the statistics and the risks and the undesired outcomes. One mother took us in a completely different direction with hard-earned wisdom:
“Let go, and trust.”
A lone father chimed in suggesting that we explore both the dark and the light side of partying in order to get after, what my son was after, in making these choices.
Our family’s practice of non-violent communication (NVC) allowed us to do just that. Months ago when he made the proclamation that he was thinking about drinking, NVC enabled us put aside our agendas–to explore each of our needs.
I so clearly felt his need for fun and connection and exploration that I almost ran out and bought the booze myself.
He so fully heard my need for safety and responsibility and respect that he appeared defeated in his desires.
It was then that I realized how important this was to him. Not just the partying, but the relationship.
As the months passed and his desire to explore intensified, I noticed that his need to stay in right relationship with us was competing with his need to stay in right relationship with himself.
As far as I can tell, we are approaching the break. The place where he chooses self over family so that he can move on to create his own life.
As a parent, I have to support that drive. The tricky part will be managing right relationship with myself as he begins to make choices without me.
I don’t mean the kind of running away where the police get involved, but the kind where you get fed up for being taken for granted, you pack your little suitcase, and you head out into the world (or at least into your immediate neighborhood), leaving your family behind–forever (aka. until dark.)
Did anyone else do that besides me?Because my kids never have. They’ve never even threatened it.
Maybe running away from home was only trendy in the seventies, like streaking. I did that too. Maybe my kids lives are too healthy and they don’t need outlets like packing their suitcases and running down the streets naked.
What if they never leave? I hear that’s trendy now.
My son recently came of age to obtain his driver’s permit—and he hasn’t shown any interest. He begged to drive plenty of times before he could get his permit, but now that he could be driving, he hasn’t said a word.
15 is a ridiculously young age to be manning an automobile, if you ask this mom; but still, I don’t understand his adolescent passivity with freedom at stake.
Maybe growing up is scarier these days.
He does want a phone of course, and he claims that he’s the last teen on earth without one. He wanted to buy one for himself on his birthday, but in the face of his apathy around transportation, I said, “Get your permit first, then we’ll talk about phones.” (Stalling is one of my top parenting tactics.)
With phones and computers and i pods and the internet, kids may never leave home again–especially in “our parts” where there’s no place to go. The closest mall is over an hour away. And who needs movie theaters and arcades when you can do all that on your own, without spending a dime.
But what happened to running away? I remember threatening it all the time. Maybe I got the idea from TV. Childhood was definitely defined by television in the seventies.
But unlike the characters on the tube, my parents never came looking for me. In fact, they didn’t seem to notice or care that I had gone. I waited there, under the evergreens in front of my elementary school, digging my heels in, ready to sleep there under the stars–until my parents pulled up and insisted I come home. I imagined tears (theirs.)
But they never came. So once night fell, I rolled up my sleeping bag and returned home. Embarrassed. Discouraged. Disappointed in my lack of nerve. Feeling even less loved than I had when I left.
My father came into the bedroom, and flipped on the switch, to light up my humility, “What happened?” he asked, as he stepped up to my top bunk. “I thought you were running away.”
“I was,” I said. “But I ran out of food and I forgot to bring money.”
“Here’s a dollar,” he said, slipping it from his pocket. I let it flap there between us.
“Well, Robin wants to runaway with me,” I explained about my younger sister, “So that won’t be enough.”
“I can give her money too,” he countered.
“I think we’ll runaway tomorrow because it’s too cold and dark out now and we’re already in bed,” I said, grasping at any shreds of autonomy I had left.
I suppose he kissed me and tucked me in before turning off the lights; but it would have been nice if he had said, “I’m so glad you came back. Never do that again. I love you too much.I can’t imagine my life without you.”
But THAT only happened on television, and ours wasn’t that kind of relationship. My father was never one to show all of his cards. A handful of years later, when I was steeped in adolescence, he called my bluff again, saying “One of us is going to move out of this house before you’re 18, and it ain’t going to be me.”
In fact it was him, however, because my parents got divorced. So in a way, I won. But really, we all lost. Nobody wins when a family plays poker with their hearts.
Maybe that’s why my kids don’t run away. I care about their feelings and I let it show. Sure, I want to be in charge, and I occasionally flaunt my position of power, but mostly I want us to get along–and they seem to want that too.
My sister Robin begged me to come along the day she found me in our room packing my suitcase. She promised to listen to me and she packed her own bags fast. When we ran into the kids in the neighborhood, I acted annoyed that my little sister had tagged along, but actually it was a relief.
Until she told about the underwear.
The boys asked us what we had packed and so I told them. “Everything. We’re running away, I told you.”
“You even packed underwear?” they giggled.
“Yes, we did pack our underwear,” my sister offered innocently, before I could cover her mouth.
The boys were laughing and talking about my underwear as they pedaled out of the cul de sac and I scolded my confused little sister.
Later, we shared a pear under the evergreen before deciding to head back home.
“Let’s runaway again tomorrow,” I suggested as we both dozed off in our own beds.
There’s a lot of talk about the “right way” to use spanking as discipline–and to my beloved father’s credit, he always used it in a disciplined manner–only my body/spirit didn’t register the difference.
“The past is an Aladdin’s lamp which (we) never tire of rubbing” -Phillip Lopate
Sitting in Amy’s Bakery next to a plate smeared with jam and butter,
a half mug of hot cider in hand,
the fog drifting over the river, and yoga in my
bones, I am the only one who jumps when a man drops his umbrella.
No one else even flinches,
so I ask myself:
Deep breath, and I hear the hammers banging away at my therapist’s office–yesterday–and the sound of my dad’s footsteps coming up the stairs–a lifetime ago:
muscles tightening across my back and chest.
i cower in the corner of my bed;
while my vertabrae freeze with rage.
A voice rises from deep in my gut:
GET AWAY FROM ME!
But that is now;
Then, i plead,
“No, Daddy, no!”
as I cover my thigh with my hand,
and scramble to fit even further into the corner
till my spine burns itself into the wall
i don’t disappear.
The belt slaps, once,
and i am…
Like a dog
i will escape this tiny body, this whimpering tone, and rise above him, like an evil genie out of a bottle,
green and black
booming with power and threat
and he will be vanquished
turned to dust.
Until then, I
I fight injustice;
even though it always ends the same.
of my freshman year at college;
home for the weekend;
playing the white baby grand in the parlor;
the theme song from “Endless Love.”
As he calls to me from his room above,
“Kelly Ann, Time for bed!”
My back bristles and hardens.
“Kelly Ann, did you hear me: Time for bed!”
I ignore his voice
I finish the song
I pray he’ll think I can’t hear him over
the pounding of the keys…
“KELLY ANN!” he booms, shaking my entire life.
Deep breath, and
my fingers continue moving…
I’m 18 for god sakes!
I no longer need to be told to go to bed.
My fingers quicken,
pretending he doesn’t exist.
that he doesn’t matter,
that his footsteps aren’t coming down the stairs,
that he is not turning the corner,
that he is not 6 foot 4…
“If you want to see what happens then you can just keep on playing,”
exposing his hand.
With another deep breath, I stand and throw down all my cards:
“And if you want to see what happens you can just keep on playing…” I mock, with my hands on my hips, just like his.
In two strides he is across the room.
I rise to meet him in all my power;
But i am not the genie;
i am 5 foot 2.
Swiping my eye, my cheek
Stand up again
Hot words fly
We move from the piano
toward the couch
beside the marble table
He swipes a third time
and turns to leave me there
on the floor
I do not cry
I have won
or have i?
He has never hit me
like this before;
not like a wife.
I have always been
splayed out over his lap
pants down, age 4, 7, 9;
or bed shirt lifted up the thigh, age 10, 11, 12.
I stumble toward the kitchen for ice;
for a drink of water;
for my keys.
My mother meets me there in the dark.
I hold back tears, knowing she’s come to comfort me;
but she doesn’t even look at me, when she says,
“You shouldn’t talk to your father that way.”
I am stunned, and suddenly I see her, really see her:
cloaked in a robe of fear,
unable to feel, anything,
leaving us each alone, in this dark kitchen, where we have laughed and confided and cooked his meals together.
He has hit her too: “Only once or twice when she couldn’t get control of herself,” he explains.
I drive the empty nighttime blocks down Pacific,
toward my boyfriend’s house on Palm;
where everyone is sleeping;
and he is out.
I lie down on the sectional under the bay window;
and stare at the street lights
bringing my fingers to my swollen cheek, my eye,
until I’m icy… inside.
When my boyfriend arrives, he offers to go in my defense,
but he’s not much bigger than me,
and it is over now anyway.
I have swallowed it whole.
My father often remarks
that one of us will leave
before I turn 18, adding,
“And it ain’t gonna be me.”
Didn’t his mother say the same thing?
In the same room?
Of the same house?
But it is he, who leaves, again,
when my mother takes a lover,
half her age:
my boyfriend’s best buddy, in fact.
She thinks she’ll escape from her frozen life,
until she realizes;
that it’s her life’s pain that needs to thaw.
and when that’s not far enough…
when my sisters still call
“Mom is lying, drunk, on the front lawn,”
“The car window is smashed and there is blood,”
“Dad has called us horrible names, shouted terrible things about her,”
“He’s threatening to send us back if we don’t behave,”
I open the doors onto Overbrook Avenue in Philadelphia,
and then return to my studies,
finally putting an Ocean between me and that pain,
with a semester abroad;
so far away, that no one calls,
not even to say,
that my grandmother has died;
that her funeral has already taken place.
Lonely and estranged,
I eagerly anticipate
my father and his soon-to-be fiance’s trip abroad.
They check out of the modest hotel that he had me meticulously find;
and move into the Savoy at Her bidding.
When they go shopping, without us,
my sister orders room service from their palatial room (while she spends her nights on my floor):
soup in a silver tureen;
and is later scolded at the price (and the audacity)
though they know nothing of the luxurious bath she took in their tub,
or how she lounged in the thick terry cloth robe afterward.
At the restaurant,
my father and I;
our hearts and tongues loosened by the succession of wine,
that my stepmother orders,
in the hope of dulling our connection.
We scream about my mother, my sisters,
about everything that’s been lost, wanting someone
I leave our velour booth
and stumble into the dark lobby, sobbing,
on this, our last night together.
I don’t know how to get it back
or even what it is that I want back;
I am only 20.
My father follows me in quick strides;
Comes at me in the empty lobby;
Raises his hand;
I become twice his size,
no three times,
and a hiss leaps from my gut…
“DON’T you touch me!”
Stunned, he retreats
to the dinner party,
he has seen both–
his (dead) mother
and his ex-wife.
Alone again, I crumble;
it is too much to be so strong
too hard to hold so much pain inside.