Some events in childhood stay with you forever, especially the ones that have unexpected consequences. The time I ran away from home was one such event.
As a sixth grader, I am the best punch ball player and Double-Dutch rope jumper in the school yard. I have big breasts and a head of unruly curls. I want a bra, but Mommy doesn’t think I need one. When she was a girl, it was fashionable to bind girl’s breasts to flatten them, the flapper look. She always regretted having been bound like that and doesn’t want to me to experience it. The result? I’m a different kind of flapper, with my breasts bouncing like two beach balls.
Mommy, by the way, seems to have a lot of regrets. She cries a lot, but she won’t tell me why. We don’t always get along, so I wonder if it’s me. But when I ask Daddy about it, he just looks sad and says, “You’ll understand one day.” I ask him, “Do you?” but he doesn’t answer.
I am a champ in the schoolyard, not so in the classroom. My teacher, Mrs. Horgan, wants us to draw a mural on the blackboard. We can use her dazzling hot pink, chartreuse, royal blue, amazing chalk. I am a great artist! Does she ask me to work on the mural? No-o-o! Lillian Hartmann is the teacher’s pet and gets to do all the good stuff. Mrs. Horgan doesn’t even see me. She’s the meanest teacher in sixth grade!
One day, I wake up worried. Our assignment was to make a puppet representing a character we’re studying and it’s due that day. My puppet is incomplete and I don’t know what to do. Mrs. Horgan is gonna kill me! I simply can’t go to school, but Mommy and Daddy will make me unless I have fever.
I know, I think, I’ll run away from home.
I write a note: “Dear Mommy & Daddy, I’m running away from home because you don’t love me. Bye.” I take my lunch and a five-dollar bill from my treasure box. I’ve been saving the money for something important and this is it. I leave my note on their night table. They’re still asleep when I leave.
I can’t return until school is over, so I plan to stay away until 3 o’clock. If I walk to Aunt Betty’s house in Forest Hills, it’ll take a while, I think. I don’t worry about what’ll happen once I get there, about whether she’ll call my parents and snitch on me. I just know Aunt Betty’s is a safe bet.
I’ll follow the route Daddy takes with the car, I think. So I walk from my home on Shakespeare Avenue in the Bronx to the Major Deegan Expressway, turn left toward theTri-BoroBridge and continue walking, on the highway.
What would you do if you were driving on the Major Deegan and saw a 12-year-old girl on a mission?
“Girlie, get off the highway,” drivers yell, as they whiz by. I realize they’re right, that this might be dangerous, and leave the parkway. I find myself in a strange neighborhood. Now what? How do I get to Aunt Betty’s from here?
I spy a subway station, enter it, pay my fare and board a train. I’m comfortable riding the subway alone because I’ve done it when going to my photography class on 14th street.
So that’s where I head, to 14th Street.
I ride downtown, cross over to the uptown side and ride all the way back up to my home stop,161st Street. Then I repeat this trip, back and forth. For hours. Eventually, I’m bored and have to go to the bathroom, but I hold on. I can’t get off the train–I have no place else to go–and I can’t go home until 3 o’clock, or else.
So I ride, hour after hour. Watching people get on, get off, all kinds of people I’ve never seen before.
Finally, it’s time for me to get off, too.
At home, I find everyone upset. My parents can’t believe what I’ve done and can’t understand why I wrote that note. Of course, they love me. Why would I think they didn’t?
The police have interviewed my teachers and classmates. They’ve talked to a girlfriend who attends a different school, and questioned a boy I had a crush on. He’d once asked me to go to Palisades Park with him and my parents hadn’t let me go, so they thought maybe I’d run off with him. The police ask me where I’ve been. Everyone calms down when I explain.
But it isn’t over. There will be consequences.
The next day, at school, everybody knows what I did and mean Mrs. Horgan tells me she still wants that puppet.
Days later, I turn it in. My prince is dressed in blue and red. I make him a cap and a cape; I do a good job, but Mrs. Horgan lowers my grade.
My parents decide that I should talk to a therapist. I go, but I refuse to speak. Week after week, I sit in her chintz, wing-backed chair and stare at her bookshelves or my shoes. She’s not going to get me to talk, I think.
Since I’m uncooperative, my mother decides to go, and she takes my spot in the wing-backed chair.
Mommy’s in therapy for four years. She smiles more and our relationship improves. But I feel guilty. I was so bad that my mother had to go into therapy because of me.
Years later, I’m in therapy, too. My therapist suggests that I did my family a favor by giving my mom an opening to get the help she needed.
As for me, I learned that you can’t run away from your problems.
And, oh, by the way, I finally got my bra!