Tests of Separation

Jenny Lentz 


© Copyright 2005 by Jenny Lentz

Photo of a little girl with a leaf boat.

 After a lazy Saturday morning of jumping about in crunching piles of leaves, my sister Kathryn and I decided to run away from home. Kathryn instantly agreed to my idea, for she knew it was about time that we exerted some independence and had some adventures of our own. She was already six years old, and I was nearly eight and a half, so it was becoming rather disconcerting that we had not yet found our niche in the world, had not yet forged our own paths beyond the careful watch of our parents and the shaded seclusion of West Shallowstone Road. We knew of so many others (Huckleberry Finn, Pippi Longstocking, Peter Rabbit, Pinocchio, Peter Pan, the children in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe) who had run away and had tremendous adventures, and thus after about five seconds of discussion we resolved to abandon our parents and the home we had always known in order to run away that very afternoon.

 We marched into the warm kitchen that smelled of rich, melting chocolate to find our mother, who was rolling perfect spheres of cookie dough. “Mommy, Kathryn and I are going to run away,” I said, with matter-of-fact resolution.

 “Yes, we certainly are,” added Kathryn, lisping slightly from the curvature in her teeth due to more than five years with a pacifier named Passy.

 Our mother paused, with a restrained look of puzzlement. “Why, girls?”

 “Because it’s the thing to do,” we said in unison, which often occurred in our speech.

 Mommy was momentarily frozen in contemplation. “OK,” she said after a long silence. “Just be careful. And you might want to wait until this batch of cookies is done.”

 “How long will that be? A Mister Rogers or a Sesame Street?” Kathryn lisped. Telling time was still beyond her capacity, so television programs were our parents’ terminology for half-hour and hour increments.

 “Ten minutes. Less than half of a Mister Rogers.”

 “OK!” we called over our shoulders, already racing upstairs to pack.

 In ten minutes, after our mother announced that the cookies were ready, we came back to the warmth of the kitchen, each carrying a periwinkle “My Little Pony” suitcase. The soft, warm cookies melted in our mouths, and Mommy gave us a bag of them to take with us, which I tucked into my suitcase that already held Teddy, some Nancy Drew books, yogurt, spoons, toothpaste, a toothbrush, and Shel Silverstein’s Where the Sidewalk Ends. I didn’t bring any clothes. Books were more of a priority.

 “You’re sure you want to run away?”

 “Yes, Mommy, we’re sure,” I said, and Kathryn nodded.

 “Then take your rain jackets. It looks as if it might rain.” We obeyed.

 The air was crisp, and the breezes seemed to signify the limitless possibilities of the world into which Kathryn and I were finally emerging on this autumn afternoon. Our house was on a dead-end street, so fortunately there was only one direction in which we could go, otherwise we might have spent an interminable time in indecision. We had never been allowed to bike anywhere except on our own street; this was the first time we had ever gone past that stop sign without being in the captivity of a car. At the end of the street, right before stepping into the territory of the world beyond, I glanced back to see my mother standing at the end of our driveway, watching. I looked at Kathryn, already plodding ahead, and I took the next step, forward, and didn’t look back again.

 We didn’t know where we were going. We were simply going. Our mother was right; the billowing clouds produced a wonderful rain, and we caught the chilled drops in our mouths, splashed around in the puddles, and constructed little leaf boats to float in the streams of rainwater on the slanted streets. Our vinyl suitcases were temporarily abandoned in favor of the wonders of water and the suspenseful leaf boat race. But then we returned to our noble mission: to have adventures. We were brave, daring, courageous, and even though we didn’t know where we were going, we were dedicated to going there.

 After three blocks or so, however, the rain seemed colder and wetter, and our feet and legs ached for respite. We needed a place to go, so we decided to find our friend Amy’s house. We knew it was somewhere in the neighborhood, somewhat in the direction in which we were headed. “We need a map or a compass,” I said.

A map,” corrected Kathryn. “A compass wouldn’t help. We don’t know if Amy’s house is north or south or anything.”

 “I’m sure it’s something. We just don’t know what.”

 But we decided it would have been nice to have a compass anyway, even though it was useless to us, simply because it was the kind of thing for explorers to have. We tried the trick of wetting our fingers and holding them out to the wind to ascertain from which direction the wind was blowing, but that wasn’t very successful with all the rain, and we weren’t sure how to interpret the results, regardless of the weather.

 Miraculously we found our way to Amy’s house with little trouble at all. We rang the doorbell, but no one was home. We were hardly fazed; we just sat on Amy’s porch and ate the yogurt we’d brought. We figured that once Amy’s family got home we’d ask them if we could live there for a while, until recommencing our journey.

A car pulled into the driveway, but it wasn’t anyone in Amy’s family; it was our mother. “Are you having fun running away?” she asked through the rolled-down window.

 I was irked that she was there, interfering in our plans, but to some extent I was also glad she was there, that she cared. “Yes,” I said, stubbornly. In all honesty, the day had lost some of its magic when she had assented to our running away, as if our act were not even rebellious but was, in fact, condoned.

She asked us if we wanted to come home, and we said no, but then she pointed out that it could be hours until Amy’s family came home. Kathryn and I conferred about the situation and determined that with the chilly air and rain, two or more Sesame Streets could seem like an incredibly long time, and it might be nice to go indoors again.

We told her she had to wait until we finished our yogurt, and she did. Then we insisted upon walking back rather than riding in the car, because that seemed as if we weren’t giving in quite as much. But when she asked, “Are you sure?” we crawled inside the warm car anyway. Those five blocks were a long distance on foot.

 On the way home, Kathryn and I informed our mother that we had the situation perfectly under control, and that we would have been fine if she hadn’t arrived. We told her we didn’t need rescuing, and she merely smiled. We vowed to her that someday soon, when the weather was nicer, we really would run away, and we’d go much, much farther than Amy’s house, somewhere she couldn’t find us.

 But we never did run away again.

 A couple decades of separation from this incident have given me a different perspective on what occurred. We didn’t just run away. There was something deeper in our minds, something of which we were mostly unaware at the time, something that went far beyond merely running away on some adventure in the unknown.

 People usually run away to something or, perhaps more often, from something. The city boy dreaming of life in the open West, or the country boy yearning for the opportunities of the city--the convention of running to some particular place, or at least some vague understanding of a place, is certainly common. The worlds of literature overflow with tales of children (and adults) running away or longing to run away from something, the Oliver Twists and Jane Eyres in oppressive situations who long for escape. But Kathryn and I were doing neither of those things. We had no particular destination in mind, and most importantly, there was absolutely nothing in our life at home that we were resenting or detesting. We had not had a fight with our mother or father, we were not escaping some cruel injustice, we weren’t impoverished or stifled or even bored--we were perfectly happy kids, not running from anything.

 At the time I believe we thought it was an adventure, but we were so satisfied with the “adventures” we had at home that we had no reason to abandon the safety of our house. Kathryn and I spent most of our lives in imaginary worlds, creating new identities--mermaids, princesses, mothers, teachers, doctors, pirates, actresses, waitresses, to name just a few--on practically a daily basis. We became Batman and Robin one day, Sherlock and Watson the next, and our house was very easily transformed into the appropriate crime scene, desert island, or castle. We didn’t need to run away in order to have an adventure, and to be quite frank, I don’t think I even wanted to run away that day.

Yes, it was my idea. But I was always a homebody, much happier in the comfort of the known than in the presence of uncertainty. And Kathryn was absolutely essential; I never would have dreamed of walking past the stop sign at the end of our street without having someone with me. Even the furry consolation of Teddy, in whom I trusted most devotedly, would not have been enough for me to step past the familiarity of West Shallowstone Road. So why on Earth did a perfectly happy child who was much more contented with the realms of imagination than the risks of reality ever decide to run away?

 I believe the entire concept was a test of our mother. I don’t think we ever dreamed that our overprotective mother would allow us to run away. I probably assumed she’d get angry and forbid it, or would race after us or bribe us or lock us inside, depending on how adamantly we insisted upon doing it. In fact, if she had merely said, “Girls, I don’t think that’s a good idea,” or simply, “Please don’t,” we probably would have stopped dead in our tracks and then had a pleasant afternoon constructing a pretend restaurant in the dining room. I think we just wanted to know for certain that she cared about us enough to want us not to risk going out in the world on our own.

 But instead, she condoned the journey. So we were faced with no alternative but to go through with it. We couldn’t back down without looking cowardly. And even though my honor and sophistication were at stake, I know I could not have run away at all without Kathryn at my side.

It was originally a challenge to our mother, but it became a challenge for us, a test of our ability to be out on our own, separate from the comfort of dependence. I continued to hope that she would stop us. When I looked back at her before going past the stop sign, seeing her poised at the end of the driveway, watching us, I know part of me hoped she’d call out to us or run after us. But she failed our test.

 Ultimately, though, it was she who passed and we who failed. Her eventual “rescue” proved that she cared enough not to let us go out on our own for long. And our return proved that we weren’t ready for the separation from her either. We had wanted the reassurance that we were too precious to her to be allowed to do something risky. We weren’t looking for freedom; we wanted to make certain there was restriction. We were testing the boundaries of love, testing the limits of her protection. Mission accomplished.

 Kathryn and I never said any of this. For all I know, Kathryn truly was looking for adventure and was wholeheartedly disappointed when our running away did not succeed in providing us with a great mystery for us to solve or a magical land of enchantment for us to inhabit. I don’t know why I felt the need to test her. Our ears were always inundated with “I love you”s, and we received a steady supply of hugs, gifts, and attention. Our homemaker mother constructed her life to revolve almost entirely around us. Yet we still needed some reassurance that she would worry about us.

 I was only vaguely aware of any of these things at the time, preferring to disguise my desire as that of an adventurer. The adventure was incredibly enticing at the stage in which I still believed my mother would forbid it, in which case I could have whined about the injustice of the situation and felt sorry for myself. But the adventure’s enticing qualities diminished once it became a reality and not merely an imagined event. Something forbidden is appealing not only for the wistful longing of that which can’t be had, as well as for the angry challenge at its being forbidden, but also, for obedient children like I, for the fact that it will never become a reality. One can long for the benefits of such a thing without risking the dangers and drawbacks of it in actuality.

We never ran away again because our mother had passed our test, however subconsciously we administered it. Even later, as a college student for whom parents were often an irksome duty and a dreaded contact, it was still greatly reassuring that their separation from me was not easy for them. The obnoxious interruption of the ringing telephone, my mother’s incessant rambling and probing questions, were all welcome to some degree in that they made me feel wanted, loved. It was a comfort to know that I couldn’t escape to college 640 miles away for months at a time without their missing me and worrying. As annoyed as I was when my mother called to make sure that I arrived safely without the plane crashing or the train derailing or a stranger kidnapping me, I also knew that I mattered to her.

 Kathryn and I did not succeed in running away, yet we achieved our goal. We didn’t want freedom; we wanted the reassurance of protection, the comfort of a mother who loves too much to let go. Our mother still has trouble letting go, difficulty hanging up the phone or turning away from the airport window. And as much as I crave freedom, a world without her check-ups and interruptions and questions, sometimes I still want her to run past the edge of that driveway and follow, protecting me from the world beyond the stop sign.

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