Word Count: 2631
“Home is where, when you have to go, they have to take you in.”
Five-year-old Brendan is vibrating, in the way only small boys can, with absolute fury. That spring season he had made a dirt and grass kingdom under the apple trees for his garter snakes. Tonight however, rain threatens and Brendan feels the snakes should come indoors like all civilized beings. It is futile to point out the obvious: snakes do not mind rain, I do mind snakes, snakes should be free, he has nowhere to put them in his room, snakes need live things to eat, I hate snakes, and so on. And the rain does begin, softly, almost invisible in the deepening twilight. Brendan is wearing a long tattered red plaid robe, the belt tied tightly around his tiny waist and dangling into the box of wiggling snakes. He is scuffing the grass with his enormous red rubber boots, now angrily kicking against the trunk of the tallest Macintosh tree; fragrant white blossoms are also raining down onto Brendan’s shoulders.
“Stop,” I tell him, in my sternest parent voice. “Stop hurting the tree.”
These words are enough to knock him off his quivering axis. Spinning, he rushes by me. “That’s it!” Unshed tears, or raindrops, make his blue eyes seem dark with sorrow and desperation. “I’m leaving!”
I am torn between laughter and love. Stupidly I repeat his words. “You’re leaving?”
He reaches down, snags one of the snakes, and stuffs it in his bathrobe pocket. With all the small boy dignity he can muster, he pulls himself tall. “Yes, you don’t love my snakes. I’m running away to Grandma’s.”
Wise parenting books tackle this very subject. A good parent assures their child that running away solves nothing, have a good talk, exchange opinions, be in charge, blah, blah, blah.
I simply stand there; my mouth hung open, watching his rapidly departing back. Seconds later, I finally show a flicker of intelligence. I rush after Brendan, down our dark lane, trailing him to my parents.
Our farm rests at the end of a small dirt road. A hundred yards south, my parent’s home is nestled behind a forest of cedars and hemlocks. Brendan carefully clamors over their split rail fence to take the nominal shortcut. Racing down their driveway, I actually beat Brendan to the house. My father greets me at the back door and I whisper to him about their impending visitor. Without batting an eye, he winks, nods and heads to the front door. The doorbell chimes and I sneak out and back home. Halfway to the farm, I realize I forgot to tell my dad about the snake in the bathrobe pocket.
That was almost twenty years ago. My parents, amused and pleased to be a refuge for their young grandson, comforted Brendan and sent him home. They never knew, until now, about the snake.
Brendan, Austin, Sara, Danny, Emma Rose, John Patrick, Yuanjun, MeiMei, and Shen Bo—it seems we have always had a house full of children. Running away became a strange rite of passage for them. Brendan, the eldest who started the precedent, is now in his twenties. Emma Rose, age twelve, and John Patrick, age eleven, each had their turn at flight from home. Three of our children came to us from China. Yuanjun and MeiMei, both age nine, arrived here from Shanghai at the age of six. Our youngest at age seven, Shen Bo is from Ningbo, China. Each of them fell into the pattern as well. Only Austin, too dreamy, and Sara, too determined to scold us, never made the trip down the lane.
This is the story of each of those small journeys. It is not so much a tale of how and why they ran, but of whom they ran toward in their haste to be done with strict parents, sanctimonious siblings, and sharing, always, sharing.
Emma Rose has forever had a touch of drama so it was no surprise when, at age five, she was carried away by her passion and fury over some imagined slight. Her older siblings, Brendan and Sara had not allowed Emma to be the banker when they included her in a game of Monopoly. Absurd! After all, she could almost count to one hundred and was a full year older than baby John. When Emma ran away, she carried it too far, literally. She loaded her bike with grocery bags on each handlebar, an enormous backpack over her shoulders and cruised right past my parent’s house toward the wide world beyond. She almost made it to the big road but my father and a galloping Brendan caught her at the mailboxes. Trailing, I found all three of them of them panting at the end of the lane where the grove of alders now spread their branches over the road. But back then, the alders were still young and useless. As we confiscated Emma’s bike and pulled her out of the hot sun, she kicked and struggled. She was appeased only when Grandpa promised Emma she could spend the night with them. She turned from anger to delight in one breath.
When robust John Patrick was born, he was in the habit of howling from dinnertime to late evening. No amount of nursing, swaddling, unswaddling, carrying, burping, or jollying would soothe him. To relieve my husband and other children, I had the habit of walking down to my folks each night. John Patrick’s bellowing, like a siren on a highway, announced our coming. My mother would plant him on my father’s lap where John Patrick would eventually calm, regard us with a Buddha like ken, and finally fall asleep.
My dad would carry his namesake to the dining table where I would sit for hours with my parents, sharing their dinner and trading arguments of politics, religion, and family. Those were some of the best hours of my life. At last, I would come home with the sleeping John Patrick, my parents’ magic still strong. My husband would think me brave for dealing with John’s colic each night, the other kids relieved not to hear such roaring. I was actually sad when John’s colic abated after six weeks.
When our son Danny died from SIDS at age five months, it was I who ran away. Tormented with grief and agony, I paced constantly. As my feet carried me along the lane and down hours of unknown roads, my father invariably joined me without question or complaint. Mile after mile, day after day. I walked half hoping I would be struck by a fast car and end the wretched misery. My father made sure I lived. It was weeks before I could stay planted at home.
Yuanjun ran away the second week home from China. He was, he announced, going to find a plane and head back to Shanghai. His grandparents in China let him eat sweets whenever he chose. He had lived in the city-not this horrid country life-and he had simply had enough of it. I stayed close on that journey down the lane; truly frightened Yuanjun might run away into danger. My heart ached for him and his loss. Strange then that it was his American grandparents, who spoke no Mandarin, that pulled him off the lane and into their hearts. They plied him with sweet mints and gingerbread cookies thus proving his point: Grandparents give sweets. Half a world away, it was still true on this dusty country lane.
When John Patrick became old enough to have his feelings hurt, it became his turn. Convinced I was giving his siblings more attention than him, he simply vanished one morning. No announcements as the others had done. We were frantic, as John, slow to rile, could, when finally pushed, become more wounded and bitter than his older brothers and sisters ever manifest. Who knew what length he would go to to prove his grievance? We called my parents to alert them.
“Which one now?” my mother inquired, a woman experienced with missing persons.
I felt like I was filing a police report.
“Yes, it’s John this time, Mom. We have been looking everywhere for him and…”
“Marybeth, what would you do if we didn’t live here? I mean, have you noticed this seems to be a habit?”
What could I say?
My father found John in the woods across from their home. Poor John was not afforded much dignity. Our dairy cows had followed him across the pastures, over the stream, around the fallen trees and into the deep woods. My father found them all, the Jersey cows patiently scrubbing John’s bare legs with their rough tongues, John trying to be invisible among the shadows.
After John washed at my parents, he joined them for lunch and a root beer float. As in his baby days, he came home much later, sleepy and content.
Out of jealousy, more than any other cause, MeiMei ran away too. It was a rainy fall day as she stood on the porch to telephone my mother with the news.
“I’m running away to you right now!” MeiMei sounded pleased.
My mother must have protested but MeiMei was firm. “No, no. It is my turn and I am coming now. Better start looking for me.”
She came in, handed me the phone, gave me a big kiss and hug, and sauntered off through the cool drizzle.
My mother called back in an hour. “Next time,” her voice sounded pained. “Don’t let them come sopping wet.”
Another hour passed and she called again. “MeiMei has to come home now. She has talked our ears off for two hours and I think that’s plenty. Honestly, we aren’t your babysitters.”
Brendan went to retrieve MeiMei. It seemed fair since he had started the whole pattern so many years earlier.
Finally, there was only one more child to make that indignant journey from home. Shen Bo had just turned seven when he became aware of the burdens of being in a large family. Everything was a hand-me-down, always first to bed, never allowed to “have fun.”
Shen Bo felt tormented by his older brothers in particular. They could run faster, they were immeasurably stronger and, therefore, complete bullies. Shen Bo was through with us all. Normally impulsive and madcap, Shen Bo planned his escape meticulously; only the best for his flight from home. He carted up several laundry baskets and began filling them with his things. Unlike the other kids, Shen Bo would stay away a week, a month, a year! Yet how to get five baskets of belongings to the grandparents?
My parents still laugh about Shen Bo’s arrival. He had assembled, from all his brothers he had complained about, a long line of litter carriers. Each bearer hefted a heavy basket to the door and silently departed. Shen Bo enjoyed an evening of being an ‘only’, the center of my parent’s undivided attention. First, he played chess with my father, changing the rules constantly to insure his own victory. Then supper and then a second supper . . . Perhaps, yes, he could stand a bite of ice cream and cookies. And oh, had he told them he liked two pieces of toast before bed? Shen Bo had brought all the accouterments of comfort. He ringed the guest bed with a nightlight, his favorite lamp, a radio lifted from his older brother’s room, two pillows, and a menagerie of stuffed animals.
Oh, he felt crushed when his visit was over in a day. The bearers were not as pleased to bring him and his things home the next morning.
And here is where it gets hard. For, though my children grew up, my parents grew old. Young and active when Brendan and his snake first ran to them for comfort, they are now in their late seventies. My mother has had the tidal wave of health problems begin: breathing problems, heart palpitations, painful arthritis, and so on. Still sturdy and fit, my father has had attacks of vertigo, weakness, and fatigue.
Sometimes, when I am in a verbal battle with one of the children, or bemoaning some mundane task, I forget how precious, how brief, time really is. As our children have grown up and my parents grown older– with such breathtaking speed– I have been struck by the poignancy of this fact over and again. A moment ago, Brendan was a small boy running away down the lane and now he is a man embracing his future. A mere day ago it seems, my parents held my own hand; shielded my child self with their love and strength. Their love remains but their strength fades. Where was I when this happened? In the space of a sigh, everything changes.
The Blackfoot warrior, Crowfoot, said, “What is life? It is the flash of a firefly in the night. It is the breath of a buffalo in the wintertime. It is the little shadow which runs across the grass and loses itself in the sunset.”
I want to run to my parents and hold them here forever. I cannot envision someone else living in the home my father built; cannot imagine no longer making the sweet walk down the lane to greet them. Parents, like best friends, have known you forever. There is no need for pretense, no words that must be left unsaid. For my children, my parents have always been a sanctuary. My parents scoff at such a description.
“Stop trying to butter us up.” My mother complains. “You’re probably just trying to get us to baby-sit more.”
Yes, she talks tough. Yet there my mother is with each of the truants, attending them, listening, and agreeing. There is my father, carefully walking them back home later, holding their hand and discussing, with every one of them, how to deal with a pesky brother, a bothersome sister, or a bossy mom and dad.
My parents are a refuge, in every sense of the word. Small wonder then, that each of us has found a way to them at time of crisis or fury or grief. Even the children worry about a future without their grandparents. Yuanjun quizzing my father as they pick raspberries.
“What does it feel like to be old?” Yuanjun pauses to ask. “Does it hurt?”
Shen Bo peeks up from emptying his bucket of berries into his mouth. “You aren’t going to die yet, are you?”
And John Patrick’s eyes suddenly watering. “I don’t want you to die!”
My mother sits nearby in the wicker chair Brendan has carried over for her. She gives a loud chuckle. “I think we’re good till eighty at least. Not that we can keep putting each of you up in the spare bedroom. But eventually…” she glances over at me, “eventually, it will be our turn to run away.” Sara and MeiMei give her a puzzled stare. “I mean,” she continues, “we’re not going to live forever. Who’d want too?”
I open my mouth to speak but she forestalls me with a raised hand. “It will be Marybeth and Mark’s turn to handle the runaways, their chance to be the grandparents.”
She starts to chuckle. MeiMei drifts into Grandma’s arms and begins to imitate my mother’s laugh. They sound like the only two who have understood a secret joke. Finally my mother continues. “Oh, Marybeth, I hope they send you lots of grandchildren running down the lane! Somewhere, somehow we’ll be watching and laughing. Just wait. You’ll see what it’s like to be the place they all run to, the place that harbors the runaways. My only advice, be sure to always, always, keep the jar full of gingerbread.”