Running Away from Home
by Sara Etgen-Baker
North Texas summers are always hot, humid, and quite dry. But in the summer of 1959, North Texas felt like a furnace; the scorching sunlight and intense heat ignited one of the worst droughts on record. The sidewalks sizzled and roasted my bare feet, and the July heat permeated the already parched ground in front of our home leaving huge cracks and crevices. The grassy lawns—yellow and burnt—smelled like bales of hay that had been sitting in the summer fields too long.
We couldn’t afford air conditioning so mother always opened the windows wide—even though the air outside was motionless. As the day progressed the heat singed the air in our tiny two-bedroom home frequently making it feel stagnant, oppressive, and suffocating. I often spent my summer days quietly sitting by the open windows reading a book, and—despite the motionless air—smelling the sweet smell of mother’s honeysuckle vines.
Occasionally, I escaped outdoors riding my Schwinn bike up and down the neighborhood streets pedaling at white heat speed until I could feel bursts of warm air blowing across my face and shoulders. When I stopped, though, I could both feel and see the heat waves rising up around me—baking my bones and roasting the rubber tires.
I thought about riding my bike to the city pool and jumping into the cool, clear water. I stopped, for I knew better than to go without asking my mother. So I pedaled home as fast as I could and offered up my seemingly simple solution to the summer heat.
“It’s soooo hot, Mama! May I go swimming today?”
“No, sweetie, you may not. It’s too expensive to go swimming,” mother explained.
“But I want to go swimming; all the other kids are going swimming,” I pleaded.
“No!” mother exclaimed, “Don’t ask me again!”
I pouted, ran past her, and shouted, “Well, fine! I’m running away from home—to Granny’s house. I bet she’ll take me swimming.”
With that proclamation, I entered my bedroom and slammed the door—huge mistake. My mother had zero tolerance for back talking and door slamming. “What was I thinking?” I thought to myself.
Surprisingly, mother didn’t immediately appear at my door. She eventually opened my bedroom door brandishing a doll suitcase and a brown paper bag stating, “If you’re going to run away, you’ll need a suitcase. Let me help you pack a few things.”
With that mother opened my dresser drawers; grabbed a change of clothes and my pajamas; then gently closed the lid and said, “I’ve called your grandmother, and she’s expecting you. Oh, here’s a sack lunch with a peanut butter sandwich and bag of potato chips. Now, give me your wrist.”
Next, mother tied one of her delicate handkerchiefs around my wrist and told me, “Be careful with this. Inside it is 25 cents so you can stop along the way and get something to drink.”
I was speechless and dumbfounded as she took my hand and escorted me out the front door placing my lunch sack and tiny suitcase in the rear saddlebags of my Schwinn bike. She hugged me and said, “Now call me when you get to Granny’s house. I love you.”
She calmly turned around, went inside, closing the screen door behind her. Even though my ego was bruised, I had to save face. I felt that I now had no other option but to hop aboard my bike. So, I rode my bike to a nearby park, camped under a huge shade tree, cried, and listened to the locusts’ soothing summertime lullaby. When I awoke, I smelt the handkerchief; it smelled like my mother. I knew I had to go home.
As I pedaled home I wondered what I should say and do if mother would, in fact, let me back home. I parked my bike removing the suitcase and sack lunch then gingerly opening the screen door. As I entered the living room, mother momentarily looked up from her crossword puzzle and said, “Glad you’re home.”
I returned to my bedroom, unpacked my suitcase, and then ventured back to the living room where I sat next to mother on the couch. She hugged me in silence, smiled, and kissed me on the forehead. Thankfully, my mother was not prone to indignation, guilt, or “I told you so.” Instead, she lovingly taught me a life lesson without ever saying a word—running away is never a solution for disappointment, frustration, and anger.