01/14/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

Motherhood Tales: My Little Runaway

When my husband, Ranald, was small, a neighborhood girl tried to flush herself down the toilet. Her mother found her standing in the john, next stop China. Ranald told me the story after our daughter Elizabeth, 9, packed her bags on Columbus Day and split.

Lizzy's long goodbye began with a banging upstairs once we came inside after raking leaves with Trevor, 12. Sidelined due to a cough, cold-cranky Lizzy's jealousy must have swelled and blistered as she observed Trevor from her bedroom window driving the John Deere tractor to the leaf dump by the Fall Kill Creek that divides our property en route to the Hudson River.

"What was that?" Ranald asked me after a thunderous rumble. Translation: 'go see what that is.'

Go check?" I asked rhetorically.

He clumped up the stairs, and down, with his ominous giant's fee-fie-foe-fum tread. "She's packing," he said. As the banging continued upstairs, it took me a sec to get what was happening: Lizzy was running away from home.

How very dare she? I thought. I couldn't be a better mother than I am, I read child-rearing books. I managed my anger -- not well, but better. I sent her to a country club private school where she got lessons on her own Martin guitar. She met the children from the cast of the Narnia movies -twice! It was obscene, what she had.

How could she want to run away from us? I clobbered myself. Aloud, I joked to Ranald: "Now, my parents, my sister -- that was a family to run away from." I grew up in a suburban ranch house where my older sister scorned me and adored our parents. She was anchorwoman perfect; I was lazy-eyed, needy, tantrum-prone and uneasy with other children. I had a snail's eye view filled with rage, if a snail is capable of rage.

Lizzy cut through the dining room without looking at me. She was 'Dr. Livingston, I presume,' purposeful. A Swiss Army backpack slashed across her chest. She pulled a pink rolly with her left hand and carried a white cardboard suitcase in her right. I let her pass out the back door and then detoured to pee. Ranald said I'd better catch Lizzy before she reached the road. I zipped, not questioning why it was my responsibility - or why it was me she was fleeing, not both of us.

Physical danger wasn't imminent even though we lived on County Route 16 where cars barreled along at 55 mph and deer were regularly squashed and ditched, along with possums, bunnies and the rest of the Bambi cast. Our driveway stretched one-tenth of a mile. Mature maples lined the stretch nearest the house. Lizzy was a small determined figure of heart-crushing beauty, a Victorian fairy. Her loose golden hair caught the Hudson Valley honey light that inspired Frederic Church and Thomas Cole. Gilded leaves sparkled around her. She was a beauty that stood out everywhere but in her own esteem.

When I leapt outside, Lizzy was approaching the elbow turn onto the bridge. It spanned the Fall Kill, connected the house to a bumpy gravel driveway that emptied onto CR16. As I trotted behind her, I fake wailed: hu-yuh hu-yuh. "Don't leave me, Elizabeth," I cried, knowing no neighbors could hear me because we're so remote. "Don't' leave me with the boys."

Unfazed, Lizzy veered right and stepped onto the bridge which separated our Hansel and Gretel cottage from the world. By the time she had crossed the bridge, I was only yards behind. I called "Lizzy," pleaded it really. She turned. Her face was serious and set, unmarked by tears. She put down the rolly and the cardboard suitcase and let me approach her. She turned back toward the house. I pulled her into a hug.

"What's buggin' you, baby?" I asked with a low, buffed voice. A large-mouthed bass jumped to my left, pushing out ever-widening circles. A painted turtle slipped, peeved, from a sunny log.

"I haven't accomplished anything yet," she said.

"You're in the fourth grade," I said.

I felt her weight pillowed by my breasts. Had she really turned? I didn't want to rush it, but now she had the attention she craved. It was love she wanted: from her sarcastic tween-aged brother; from her peers; from every fan of every pop star. She was thirsty for adoration.

"I'll walk you up the road if you want," I offered, my back to the house. "I'll help carry your bags."
Lizzy handed me the box and the back pack. She kept the rolly. She made a step toward home, and immediately stooped to pick up a bright maple leaf that lay like an open hand on the pitted tarmac. She shared her find with me - a cottony spider web covered the leaf's surface - and we bent together to examine her discovery. She prodded the white fluff gently with her nail. She was instantly enthralled, and for a moment she became teacher and I student.

"You'll be a scientist," I said. It thrilled her when they dissected cow's eyes at school; I was a conscientious objector when faced with dismembering fish in fourth grade.

We walked back over the bridge. I was a step ahead, the box of clothes light in my right hand. She scraped the rolly behind. As we entered the dappled shade beneath the sugar maples lining the last part of the drive, the rolly spilled open. Her clothes tumbled out like a sitcom gag. I saw her polka dot shirtwaist, and a hand-me-down blue velvet party dress she'd been desperate to wear but I wanted her to keep for a special occasion. She stopped to stuff them back. It was clearly intended to be a long trip, if the winter holiday dress was any sign.

Ahead of us, Ranald stood on the back porch in his ubiquitous overalls, legs set wide, watching our progress. He was at my back the whole time waiting to run in should a crisis erupt. "Dad will give you a tractor ride" I said.

"I'd like that," she said.

"Put on jeans, Liz," he said, not welcome back, or what the hell, or the wrath of God will meet you next time. We passed him and went inside so she could drop her stuff and grab pants

"I forgot belts," she said to me.

"Alright, well, next time..." I said.

"Next time?" she asked.

"No," I said. "You're not going to run away again."

"I might," she said, not wanting to lose ground. "And I always know you're fake crying, Mom. And you could have sent over Tommy; because I need a cat."

"But where would I send him?"

"I don't know where I was going. But I would call you when I got there."

"What don't you like here?

"It's hard to have an older brother."

"That's not really what's bugging you, is it?"

"It's everything. And you still owe me an ice cream. I'm going outside, Mom."

The tractor kicked in and I didn't need to look out the window to know that she's riding in her father's arms on the big wide seat as they made swaths on the lawn. And the soft, filtered light was mercilessly beautiful, like beams coming through stain glass and promising redemption. How very dare you be unhappy with light like that?

I remember running away from our apartment on South Citrus in LA. I laid out a blue bandana, centering pj's and a pink-haired troll, tying it to a yardstick, putting it over my shoulder, "hi ho," and passing the poinsettias to the postage stamp of shared lawn, but never reaching the sidewalk beneath the bright light that fell so hard it hurt.

My good friend Nico said that, as an adopted daughter, running away was inconceivable. With three adopted siblings - one who was sent back to the orphanage - she remembered weathering family strife hidden beneath the piano. She would never run away for fear they'd let her go; she was terrified of being returned. I wondered if her adoptive parents had kept the receipts, or if there was a must-return-by date. And I was oddly comforted that Lizzy could run away without looking back because, unlike Orpheus, she was secure that I would be right behind her.

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