In observation of Mother’s Day, I post this autobiographical piece which I originally presented at KGB Bar in 2007.
When I was not quite five years old, I ran away from home.
Mozart, I’m told, was playing the fiddle at three. Tiger Woods was swinging a golf club in his second year. Still I don’t think I was doing too badly in attempting to see the world at five, a good ten years younger than most runaways get the inspiration. I was a wunderkind of wanderlust.
Let’s get something straight. The action was well thought out, deliberate, even if it was also rash and dangerous in ways I could not possibly imagine. I had given the matter a great deal of thought. It wasn’t a case of a toddler wandering away in the parking lot. In many ways, it seems to me, I was the same person then as I am now, just at an earlier stage of a yarn whose twists I am still improvising. Whether this means I was precocious then or am infantile now is I guess a question for St. Peter, whom I hope to meet at some point in the far distant future. All this goes to say that, though I was not quite five, the gears were already turning. Nothing was said or done to me or around me that I wasn’t already forming an opinion about. I wasn’t, as sometimes the very young are presumed to be, a piece of luggage or a cute wind-up doll, or even a pet. I was a small human being, a quiet one, with thoughts buzzing around in his head. As a very wise folk saying has it, those are the ones you have to watch out for.
So: I knew what I was running from, and I thought I knew what I was running to. As for what I wanted to run from, what does one typically wish to escape? Generally not joy. I’m not a sob sister. I know there’s real pain and trouble in this world for children: war, hunger, disease, exploitation, sexual abuse. I was the victim of none of these. Still there must be some significance in the fact that I found my childhood home so unpleasant that I preferred to brave life’s unknown trials on my own — at the age of five — rather than suffer there another minute.
Knowing what I know now about the circumstances into which I was born, the whole scene makes a lot more sense; back then it was just kind of a bleak, Dickensian ordeal. My parents were common-law married. To be specific, that means my hillbilly father knocked up my mother, a barmaid who was eight years his senior, and they took a house together without the benefit of clergy, a Justice of the Peace, or even an Elvis impersonator. This wasn’t some hippie social experiment. This was a working class embarrassment. My mother was over forty when I was born. She’d already had two marriages and her first grandchild had already been born, one year previously. This new turn in the road came with no wedding bells, was no blessed event, no miracle – just bad luck. A major new hurdle to clear at a time in life when you’re getting your first grey hairs, and your back and knees and finger-joints start to give you trouble. It’s middle age. You’re dealing with what is most diplomatically referred to as maturity. From here on in it’s all downhill. Middle-aged people often cultivate the relaxing hobbies they will later fall back on as their principle occupations in retirement. If you are rich and 40, starting a family anew is almost modish. You hire an au pair and continue working at the magazine or the bank or getting a suntan or whatever the hell it is rich people do. If you are not one of the fortunate 5%, the stork can be a sinister bird, a bird of prey, a scavenger, as welcome a sight on the horizon as a flock of locusts or a funnel cloud. You’re looking at 18 years of worry, expense, disorder, and noise – and when you come out the other side you will be 58. So you might as well just say it now: your life ends right here.
I think I may be tipping my hand a little bit. The perspective I am describing is not my own but that of my mother. How do I know? Because she told me — in a thousand ways, big and small, all day, every day. Not just by gestures, but with words. “You are the source of my misery and my misery is considerable.” She wasn’t that eloquent of course. I’m not going to quote her exact words, but you can get some idea by recalling the ad hominem attacks of a thousand working class mothers on their two year olds as you watch them on the subway. Long strings of invective laced with profanity and seething hatred and violence — for the crime of a dropped lollipop. There were moments of humor and tenderness and affection. I was her child, after all. But these were like buoys on a sea of impatience, anger and resentment.
Now that I am in my forties, I can look upon her with some sympathy and even forgiveness. But it’s when I’m not-quite-five that I’m talking about. Not to put too fine a point on it, I thought my own mother was a witch. Not figuratively. Not because I’m too shy to say bitch (I thought she was that, too). But because in my limited frame of reference, with a world view principally derived from storybooks, that was the type of creature she most resembled. The specific witch I identified her with was the one in Hansel and Gretel. I was no doubt assisted in the fantasy by the fact that my ordeal was shared by a younger sister. And all sorts of other circumstances fed into it.
Like Hansel in the story, I felt trapped. You’ll recall that in the fairy tale, the witch keeps Hansel locked in a little cage out back while she fattens him up to eat. I had spent just about the entirety of my first three years in a play pen, a nylon mesh cell about the size of a card table. Mothers used to use these things so they could be sure the child was safe while they did their housework or just felt the need to chill out, talk on the phone with their friends of whatever. You’d just deposit the kid in this box with some toys and just leave them. I think these devices are illegal now; at least no one uses them any more. At any rate, it’s literally the same as a jail cell and I spent years in one.
As for the cannibalism, believe it or not, I had reason to fear it. Not a real reason, of course, but I had cause for suspicion. I don’t know if it was for a joke or if my mother thought she was being playful or affectionate, but she used to make this scary face, say she was the witch fromSalemand that she was going to eat me up. I am an actor. The gene had to come from somewhere. Her scary face was a good scary face. So I was never amused by this routine, it filled me with terror, uneasiness, disquiet. The affect was enhanced by the fact that she looked kind of like a witch. In her youth, she had been movie star beautiful. Big black and white photos all over the house reminded us of that. But at the time of which I write, she was about 46 years old. Years ago, she’d mangled her arm in a drunk driving accident with her second husband (who also happened to be her first cousin) and some sawbones had so badly set the thing it now looked like a couple of fat, puffy sausage links with a claw at the end. She seldom used this appendage but to scare us when we made noise when she was on the phone – or when she was doing her Witch from Salem routine. Also, she was a denture wearer, whether as a result of bad dentists, bad brushing or that car accident, I don’t know. But their were times when those teeth were out, usually in the morning when her hair was also a rat’s nest, and she was just lighting her first cigarette of the day, and she might as well have been cackling and throwing frogs into a cauldron. So you see, when you start to add all that up, a pointy hat and a broomstick would just be overkill.
So that’s what I was running from. What was I running to? Like I said, my head was full of stories. Stories are all about runaway children. Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz, Huckleberry Finn, Pinnochio. They feel cruelly used at home so they pack their belongings in a bindlestiff and hit the road. Others, like Alice in Wonderland, or Jimmy in H.R. Puffenstuff just kind of find themselves transported to a magical land on their own. But either way, the children meet a bunch of strange and loveable characters and have a series of adventures. The adventures are full of danger but never for an instant is the child even remotely harmed. It’s like “rockabye baby”. A cradle containing a baby falls out of a tree, but somehow it’s not a fatal disaster…they just kind of gently float down and land on a soft cloud. So that was my plan. I was gonna get me one of those. A magical adventure where nobody gets hurt.
Initially I thought I would literally pack a bindlestiff, that’s a hanky on the end of a stick, just like a real hobo, and I would put a can of baked beans in it. And I actually tried it, but couldn’t quite nail the mechanics of the thing. So provisions were out. But I would go anyway. And I simply waited for my daily opportunity. Everyday in mid-afternoon, the three of us would lay down for a nap. My sister in her crib, and my mother and I on the sofa. Now, I was almost five. I had no desire to lay down and keep still for an hour at this time of the day. But my mother, 46 and exhausted, did. But of course, who would keep an eye on me while she slept? So daily, she would do this thing where she’d hold my squirming little form tightly on the sofa until we both conked out, and I guess it usually worked. But I always found it hot, uncomfortable, smothering and one of the many ugly facts of life I hoped to escape. So one day I waited for her to start snoring and I set out.
Beyond adventure, I had no clear destination in mind. As I walked down the road, it dawned on me that the most interesting and romantic and exciting place I knew how to get to was the beach, which was two or three miles from my house. So I headed that way. The rest of my actual journey is somewhat prosaic and uneventful. It turned out there was no magical world of adventure to run off to. It was just more of the same world I had always known. We’re just kind of anchored to earth in this reality, and there’s no rabbit hole to fall down, no magic word you can say, no tornado that will lift you up to lift you out of it.
But there is a wonderful consolation prize. When I arrived home (delivered there by a family friend who’d been suspicious when she saw me walking down the road by myself), the yard was full of neighbors, policemen, firemen, friends, relatives and strangers. The incident was in the town newspaper. I had been catapulted from my confinement into a spotlight. Ah, what an evil, evil lesson. This running away episode is the Ur-event of my existence. I have relived it a thousand times, by fleeing jobs, school, relationships, and countless other unpleasant obligations, and placing all of my focus and effort on the dubious goal of attracting the attention of strangers. But what is that? It ain’t wisdom. As experiences go, it’s kind of like the frog who swallowed a lead sinker. You can jump but you’re only gonna bump your ass again.
Here’s part two of that lesson. Five years after my little jaunt, another little boy in my hometown disappeared. My family knew his family. The boy’s uncle was a high-strung bullshitter, one of countless drunken characters who would come by our house every weekend and stay all day, carousing with my parents, leaving behind garbage pails full of empties. The boy’s sister was a girl my sister and I knew from elementary school. This was pretty close to home. This boy, who was about nine years old, wasn’t home a couple of hours later like I was, although he did have the neighbors, the police, the fireman, friends, family and strangers out looking for him. And looking for him. And looking for him. The story made the local paper, and then the nearest metropolitan paper, and the radio and the tv. For weeks and weeks. And then he was found. His remains were found at the house next door to his. He had been dismembered, cooked and devoured and the person who had done it was someone else we all knew in this small town. He was one of the local characters, a former star of the high school drama club, who now walked around town in a cape and a deerstalker cap and was best known as the host of the Halloween Haunted House produced every year by the local Chamber of Commerce. The murderer’s father had been a member of the town police department. This young man killed and ate a helpless child. The thought is so horrible to contemplate that the mind refuses to grasp it. You try to forget it. Or maybe that’s why we invent stories about trolls, and monsters, and cannibalistic witches. To cushion it all in a dreamlike mist so that we can pretend that we are not living this nightmare.
And I can’t help thinking, there but for the grace of god go I. My mother, who sometimes looked and acted like a witch, in the final analysis, fed and clothed me, sent me to school, took me to the doctor and worried like hell when I ran away. This other kid’s next door neighbor dressed like a magician, then used the trappings of magic and romance to commit a real life atrocity. I think there is a moral to be shaken out of all it. There is no escape from reality. Attempts to do so can be Quixotic, they can be tragic, they can be unbearably gruesome. And the best you can do is mindful, be alert, be kind to your loved ones and protect them, and above all teach them to steer clear of weirdoes. All else is illusion.
Copyright (c) 2007, Trav S.D.