My younger sisters and I used to walk in the shallow river by my childhood home. In secret.
Mother buzzed off to work, and again I was put in charge. At eleven, I had finger-wagging and maternal sighs down cold. Three and four years older than my sisters, not only was I taller, but here first: I held the court. I can’t remember whose idea it was to go down to the river that first time, but boredom often inspires mischief in children.
Our home sat at the top of a wooded hill, the driveway lending great sledding in the winter and precarious bike races in the summer. Mother instilled a fear in us not to leave that hill. We’d never see the blue of the community pool in town, roast marshmallows over the grill, or hunt fireflies after dinner.
Whatever inspired us that day, three facts steered the decision:
1. Our mother would not be home for several hours.
2. None of the scattering of neighbors knew us.
3. Our chores were done.
Mother left a yellow legal-size sheet of paper each day with an endless list of chores to keep us occupied. Fold laundry. Weed front garden. Sweep garage. No white gloves awaited the surfaces scrubbed with Pledge, nor close inspections of dresser drawers to check the fold of our T-shirts, but certain punishment awaited if every task was not completed and checked off.
Close in age, my sisters always approached me as a pair with schemes, their bones holding the power of solidarity as two.
“Hey, Christina, I wanna go down to the river,” my younger sister began.
“Yeah, c’mon. I’m bored of The Price is Right,” my middle sister added.
“What? No, guys, we’d get in so much trouble.” I tried to sound grown-up. Restrained.
Two pairs of doe eyes peered up at me from under shocks of messy bangs. “Pleeeeeze. It’s like going to the bridge with Mommy, only we’ll go under!”
Something sparked in that tenuous moment before the decision was made. Instead of being bound by yellow legal paper, I could be free.
I released a unique sigh, one I’d recognize later in life once I became a mother. “Okay, but only for a bit. Pinky promise.”
We packed nothing. Our golden laughter and little-girl spirits burst out the door on a current of joy. At the river, cold water tickled our ankles and sediment swirled around our toes. Sunlight dropped in bursts through the oak leaves swaying high above us. Water bugs skittered on the river and large opalescent dragonflies hovered by the honeysuckle. Gathering strength with each visit, we fended off black snakes, caught crayfish (and took them home to boil), and collected shiny, smooth river stones. Under the one-lane wooden bridge, the opening of our senses freed us.
My body found definition on my own patch of earth that first afternoon. A place separate from my mother, from my sisters, from any expectation. I felt free, vital, and a part of something. I longed for the instant my toes hit the cold, trickling water.
A mother now for eight years, I have two sons, both of whom are eager to take life in big bites with wide spirits. When I was their age I wrung my hands, frightened of consequences and cobwebs, but I recognize a shared thread: a budding desire to find one’s place in the world.
Two weeks ago, upon my return from the grocery store, I realized I had forgotten three important, if unrelated, items: milk, lemonade concentrate, and flour.
That maternal sigh issued from my mouth. “UUUuugh.” While only a six-block walk, it’s an outing I was not jazzed about doing again so soon.
“What is it, Mom?” my older son sweetly asked, knowing this sigh could mean one of two opposing emotions.
“Oh, I forgot a few things at the store. No big deal, we’ll unpack then walk back.”
To this my younger son replied, “UUUuugh. Again? I’m tired.”
“Well, we have to go. I can’t exactly leave you here by yourself.”
My older son and I shared a moment of silent thought before the decision was made. It seemed as though the light bulbs lit at the same time.
“Evan,” I said, “would you like to go by yourself to the store?”
I tensed, regretting the words that hit my older son’s ears like peppy musical notes. Did I really mean that? Sending my older son out the door with nothing more than a twenty and a fabric bag? To walk the six blocks to and from the store with three things that his errant parent forgot?
My resolve holding, I fished a twenty from my wallet, told him exactly what to buy, handed him the apartment keys, and wished him well. And then I sat in panic awaiting his return.
Just how did we begin un-tethering ourselves from our own childhoods? Did we remove one thread at a time? Did we rip out fistfuls?
No mother wants her child’s pound of flesh exacted on her watch. No parent wants to see pain form in the corners of little eyes, and it is fairly certain we wish all implications of danger would vanish. But where is that fine line? When does the green light appear showing us that it’s go-time, when it’s the right time to allow us to begin the inevitable un-tethering we must do from our own child? When is it acceptable to say yes to growth when our whole body wants to say, “No, stay here under my wing—just a bit longer.”
After twenty-eight minutes passed, I panicked a little, knowing that would be about how long it would have taken me to do the same job. Evan returned at the thirty-two minute mark, and he was okay. Actually, he was better than okay. He was different. Better.
Like maybe he felt a cool breeze through his hair, watched his own feet as he walked, used his own voice—all electrifying his awareness. Better because he collected his own river stones, and in the process, gained the beginning of a sense of his own place on Earth.
Author’s Bio: CHRISTINA MARIE SPEED lives with her husband and two sons in a sunny fourth-floor walk-up in Brooklyn, New York. Her work has appeared in a variety of online and print publications, including Caper Journal, the Minneapolis Star-Tribune Online, and The View From Here. In her free time, she volunteers in her community, tests obscure recipes, and delights in random urban walks with her family. To learn more, visit her Web site.