When I was about seven years old, I ran away from home. Today, the word “runaway” conjures images of pre-teens and teenagers going to the city, falling prey to pimps, sexual exploitation, and destructive drugs. I was just a chubby little girl with ribbons in her pigtails.
For some years I’ve tried to tease apart the strands of what I myself remember about my leaving and what I was told in family stories. At the end of Katherine Anne Porter’s “Old Mortality,” the protagonist muses, “At least I can know the truth about what happens to me, she assured herself silently, making a promise to herself, in her hopefulness, her ignorance.” Checking the text to write this, I found that I’d misremembered it. My version was, “At least I can know the truth about myself…” It’s a crucial difference, self-knowledge compared with knowledge about experience that acts on the self. Both are relevant as I try to piece together my experience of running away from home.
In most of my childhood photos I’m smiling. In others, I look preoccupied, as though I’m examining a treasure and trying to figure out what I’ll do with it once I get it into my tiny dimple-fisted grasp. Maybe my parents never took a picture of me when I was frowning or crying. If they did, I’ve never found it. But I was crying — sobbing — when I ran away.
I wish I knew what enraged or hurt me so much that I wanted to leave home. Whatever it was, it hadn’t undermined my practical approach to life. I had a plan. I’d take my money (a few dollars I’d saved up in change) and go to the bus terminal five blocks from my house and buy a ticket to Philadelphia, the nearest big city. I hadn’t figured out what I’d do when I got there. I imagined only getting on the bus, not getting off.
While I was foggy on details—where I’d go in Philadelphia, for instance — I nevertheless intended to leave for good. Even though it was summertime, I wanted to have warm clothes for the coming fall and winter. My mother let me pack a hard-sided gray suitcase with off-white stripes.
The open suitcase lay on the floor in the living room near the front door. I must have carted the clothes downstairs from my room to pack them, which would have required a number of trips. Maybe my mother put the suitcase there hoping that I’d weary of the task and decide to stay. Not a chance.
I couldn’t get everything I wanted to take into the suitcase, and I wasn’t about to leave clothes behind. I wore whatever wouldn’t fit into the suitcase, one piece layered over the other: Luckily I’d had the experience of wearing sweaters under jackets in the snow. I have a black and white photo of me, all bundled up in gloves, hat, scarf, leggings (all hand-knit by my mother), and jacket, standing with a snowman, looking like his little cousin, round, my arms sticking out from my torso at an awkward angle because of all those clothes.
I didn’t pack because I didn’t know how. Instead I stuffed the suitcase so full with multi-season clothing that I couldn’t close it. I wasn’t strong enough. I tried sitting on it, but that didn’t help. I wasn’t heavy enough. I couldn’t snap the latches shut.
My mother wouldn’t help me. That made me even madder, more determined to leave. But not without the suitcase. No sooner had I discovered that sitting on the suitcase wouldn’t work than our paperboy came to the door to collect his money for the week’s delivery of the Vineland Times Journal. He appeared on our front porch like a young deus ex machina.
What must he have thought? A composed mom with a little girl, face puffy from crying, dressed in a bizarre layered outfit, standing next to an open, overflowing suitcase. I was angry now because I couldn’t close the suitcase. I never thought of leaving it behind.
Mom wouldn’t help me get it shut, but maybe the paperboy would. This, as I remember it, was my mother’s idea, but she said I had to ask him myself; she wouldn’t.
He did ask her if it was all right, and she said it was. He pushed down the lid of the suitcase so I could snap the latches shut. Finally I was ready to go.
I worked my way down the wooden steps that lead from the front porch to the sidewalk, the suitcase bumping as I went. I was lucky it didn’t pop open. Even today I’d have trouble toting that full suitcase; I had to stop every 20 feet or so to set it on the sidewalk. I headed up the main street of town towards the bus station. Buses went to Philadelphia all day long.
I sobbed and struggled to carry the suitcase: over-heated from the effort as well as my layers of clothing, furious now that this was harder than I’d thought it would be, even more furious that my mother was trailing me in our navy blue Nash with the running boards I liked to sit on when it was parked in our back yard. Why wouldn’t she leave me alone?
The bus station was five blocks from my house. That meant I had four streets to cross, but I already knew how to cross those streets from walking to school. Maybe my life would have been different if I’d had one of those snazzy rolling suitcases on wheels, but they weren’t available until decades later. I made it just about half way, and I might even have got to the terminal had not my mom pulled the car over and opened the passenger door. She’d waited long enough for a positive response from me before she pulled over — maybe my shouting, “Go away!” when she’d slowed down had kept her from trying that maneuver earlier. It would have been fruitless.
Years later I learned that our next-door neighbor had watched me leave, and that she started to cry, too, at the sight of me toting that old gray suitcase up the street. Had my mother phoned her? If so, when? While I was filling the suitcase? And still later I heard that Aunt Mary (an honorific title) had filmed me carrying the luggage up the street. I never saw the 8mm movie she made that day, and I don’t know what happened to it, whether all our neighbors’ movies were tossed into the trash. If the footage survived, who would have it now?
These days I travel light. When I want to run away, I just get into my car and drive. Sometimes I look in the rear-view mirror and catch a glimpse of what looks like a navy blue Nash tailing me. If I try to see who’s driving, it vanishes, leaving me alone on the open road. • 8 July 2010