A few weeks ago, on Thanksgiving day, I heard my sister-in-law say, “No, Eliza! You’ll pinch your fingers!” from the other room. My mama instinct kicked in–heydon’tyellatmykid was the first thought–and the second was, Oh, good. I wasn’t there, but someone who loved her told her not to slam her fingers in a door.
That–and other recent child-related news–reminded me of an infamous story from my childhood, commonly referred to as The Time The Girls Played Chicken on the Highway. “Chicken” is an overstatement; at 4 and 6 years old, we weren’t drag racers by any means. But here’s the basic story.
The road that runs in front of my house is a secondary road; to most folks, it’s more like a tertiary road. It’s essentially a logging road, and it connects to the main road at a wicked blind curve. The road continues into our local baseball field and playground, so I crossed that blind curve hundreds, even thousands, of times in my childhood.
The first time I ever crossed that road, I was four. Possibly five. I left the house in search of Samantha, my older sister; I think it must have been autumn, because I was wearing my blue jacket. Like in any childhood story, my real memories are mixed up with the stories I’ve been told, but I do know my first clear memory was walking up the road, looking for Samantha, and seeing her standing at the edge of the highway. (Any road with two yellow lines painted down the middle qualified as a highway.)
I knew she’d gone past Mrs. Ferguson’s, and that we never went past Mrs. Ferguson’s. But I soldiered on; she was Samantha, so it had to be OK. When I asked her what she was doing, she said four words I’ll probably recite on my deathbed:
“I’m playing traffic school!”
And then she instructed me to run across the highway, which I did, unquestioningly. She told me to run back, so I did. This probably went on for some time, and my next very clear memory is of standing on the yellow lines, in the middle of the road, and of a car coming around the bed and slamming to a halt in front of me. The driver looked surprised. It was Mrs. Brezovsky, the mother of my BFF. I ran to my sister’s side of the road.
At this point, things get fuzzy for me, so I’ll let my parents tell the story. “I got a call from Mrs. _____, who said, ‘I think your girls are playing chicken on the highway.'” That’s my mom. Then my dad chips in: “I hauled ass up the road and smacked your asses all the way home, crying,’I love you!I love you! Don’t ever do that again!'”
I don’t remember getting spanked, but I remembed that Dad spanked me, and why, and up until recently, that was the moral of the story: Dad NEVER spanked us, and when he did, by God, we remembered why and never made that mistake again.
Now that I have kids, though, I take a different moral from the story. You might be surprised to know that it’s not “never let your children out of your sight.”
Rather, the lesson I take from this is (and pardon my vulgarity): What the fuck is wrong with people? Let’s go over my mom’s part of the story again, in finer detail: a neighbor looks out her kitchen window, which overlooks a blind curve on a road where the locals regularly exceed the speed limit by thirty miles an hour. She sees two little girls, 4 and 6, or maybe 5 and 7, running across the road. Stopping on the yellow lines. Running back. And her first action–in fact, her ONLY action–is to pick up the phone and call their parents. Check that: look through the phone book, find their number, and call their parents. No running out the door to stop them; not even any shouting from the front porch. Just a phone call.
We lived a good city block’s distance from the curve, I should add. At least five minutes, probably more, passed between her seeing us and my dad making like The Flash. In that time was, I think, when Mrs. Brezovsky reflexively saved my life.
And what was Mrs. _____ doing in the meantime? I don’t know. Maybe tending to her sick mother. Maybe watching The Brady Bunch. Probably watching us from her window.
Which brings me full circle: If you see my kids about to hurt themselves, feel free to say no. If you see them in a life-threatening circumstance, you have my blessing to scream at them, loud enough to make them cry, if need be. You can even, say, make physical contact if it means pulling them out of moving traffic.
I can’t always be there, so I’m depending on your help, OK? I promise, I’ll return the favor someday.