old (2007), Uncategorized

walking, ca. 1980

Before moving to Texas in late 1981, my family lived in Elmhurst, a Chicago suburb in which my parents had spent their entire lives, though on different sides of the railroad tracks that sliced through the town’s sleepy center. Three houses north of us was the Illinois Prairie Path, a crushed limestone-covered trail my friends and I would ride a few blocks to the east, a few blocks to the west, back and forth, for hours. Going too far in either direction — past the bridge to the left or past the park to the right — was the next best thing to running away, but the few times I dared, I always fell off my bike and skinned my knee or absentmindedly ran into a tree while trying to ride without any hands, as though an invisible barrier kept me tethered in place.

Not that my range of motion was necessarily all that small. Spring Road — two short blocks to the east — was the busiest street near us, four lanes with no stop signs to slow down north-south traffic. And starting when I was about five, my mother would send me to the White Hen convenience store — across Spring Road — for a gallon of milk and, sometimes, a loaf of bread. Some of my earliest memories are of standing for what seemed like hours, praying and waiting for the stream of cars to stop and let me pass so I could get the milk and bread — and even worse was getting the milk and waiting an equally long time to cross back over Spring Road. I was always so proud to arrive home without getting run over by a car or dropping the milk. It wasn’t until I had children of my own and saw how small and weak and, well, incapable five-year-olds are that I found this situation odd.

By the time I turned seven, I’d been yanked out of Lincoln Elementary (the neighborhood school just south of our house) for throwing books at my first-grade teacher and enrolled at Immaculate Conception, the educational arm of the Catholic church we attended every Sunday. It was about a mile and a half away, in downtown Elmhurst, and when it rained or snowed, my mother would give me twenty cents for a round-trip ride on the city bus. Barring inclement weather, though, I walked to school.

It was easy at first. I didn’t necessarily know how to get back and forth on my own, but some older girls from our neighborhood also made the daily trek, and I learned to stay close enough to see them but far enough away that they wouldn’t see me (and therefore tease me). But one day a few weeks into the school year, following them, it became increasingly clear that they were walking in a completely different direction, and I panicked. I tried to retrace my steps, and I got lost. I tried to retrace the retracing, to see if I could suck it up and ask the older girls where to go, but they were gone. I started wandering aimlessly around downtown Elmhurst, frantically looking for landmarks or familiar houses or even a police officer, but it was all jumbled around in my head, and I probably wouldn’t have even been intelligible if someone had asked my name.

After some time, I found an Illinois Bell office. My dad worked for them, albeit as a cable repairman, so he wouldn’t have been there, but I thought that if I could just get inside, someone would be able to find him, and he would come get me. The only problem: the building was for employees only, with only one door, and the entire enterprise was surrounded by a chain link fence topped with sharp metal spikes. In my tiny seven-year-old brain, the only logical thing was to scale the fence, which I did, slicing my knee up in the process (and, sadly, tearing my Catholic schoolgirl uniform skirt). Bleeding and torn and exhausted, I pounded at the company’s door for what seemed like hours, until an angry old man opened up, took one look at me, and shut me out. I pounded some more and a different old man opened the door, and saw what must have been a pathetic sight: a sweaty bleeding sobbing little girl with dirt smudges on her face wailing, Help me! I’m lost!

By the time my mother was called, I had been missing for nearly two hours. I can still hear the sound of the wheels squealing as she pulled the car around the corner and screeched to a halt in front of the phone company. She ordered me inside, scarcely thanking the old man, and proceeded to yell — no, scream apoplectically — until her face turned beet-red and she quite nearly lost her breath. That mile-and-half drive home was excruciating; I don’t know what was scarier: I can’t believe you’ve DONE this to me! I have dinner in the oven! at 110 decibels or my mother blowing stop signs and red lights to get home, where — she swore — I’d be sorry.

At home, I was grounded and told to change into my pajamas. I went to bed without dinner, but only after my mother had me pull down my underwear and spanked my bare bottom a dozen times with a flat wooden spoon, and only after I wrote I will never get lost again 500 times in neat second-grade print on looseleaf paper — crinkled sheets I’d find years later when going through boxes of my belongings my mother gave to me after she cleaned out our storage space. I readily accepted the blame. I knew I should have done better. I fell asleep before my father came home, since I didn’t want to hear how much I’d disappointed him, too. I didn’t know why, but I knew it was all my fault.

I was 25 before I realized that other seven-year-olds probably got the twenty cents to take the bus every day. My own son was seven when I realized my parents never hugged me when I was scared and that other parents probably would have given their children popsicles, hugs, and kisses. But this is just a story. It really isn’t even about me anymore. It’s just something that happened a long time ago.

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