In the abstract, the “ah ha” moments in one’s life arrive with dramatic fanfare, lights flashing and Beethoven’s Fifth playing in the background. Yet, if my own experience is in any way typical, nothing could be further from the truth. Unannounced, they slip stealthily into the room through a door inadvertently left ajar.
The first of these realizations that I recall with any clarity occurred when I was twenty-two; legally an adult, just not a practicing one. I have always been a decisive person and at that time in my life, if ever I decided to do something, “wild horses,” could not avert me from the course. Some might have considered me stubborn, but I prefer to think of myself as determined. In any case, once uttered, my decisions were edicts, etched in stone. And, since I rarely had a thought that I didn’t express, the stonecutters were kept preternaturally busy.
It was the summer before I got married and instead of my usual job as a camp counselor, I was engaged in Summer Theatre at the University of Idaho. This weekend, I had come home to confer with my mother on various matters wedding related and to pick up the invitations. At some point during the course of the weekend, I had announced my intention to return on Sunday night. We had finished eating and my parents were settling in for the evening.
“Are you sure you have to go back tonight? Why not get up early and drive back in the morning, after you’re rested?” Dad stood in the kitchen doorway on his way to bed. He would be out of the house early the next day, in order to ensure that all the cattle, sheep, and swine that had come into the stockyards over the weekend were in the proper holding pens in preparation for the weekly auction.
“I’ll wake you up when I leave in the morning and you can be to Moscow by 8:00.” It was a reasonable suggestion and he waited for my response with his head cocked to one side, a gesture I knew well.
“No dad. I gotta go back - now.” I answered without making eye contact. It wasn’t exactly a lie, but it wasn’t exactly the truth either. I didn’t have a rehearsal until 3:00 the next afternoon, but I was antsy and just needed to move. “I’ll call when I get there if you want. Don’t worry.” This last I tossed off as I zipped out the door, clutching my purse and a bag of clean laundry, careful not to let the screen door slam behind me.
“Don’t drive too fast.” Mom called after me from the living room where she sat in her chair reading.
It was still light when I drove out our long drive way, apple trees bearing fruit lining one side and roses and peonies with spent blossoms on the other. The distance ahead of me was about ninety miles, a drive that in summer is neither difficult nor dangerous. The route was a familiar one, as most of my mother’s extended family, both living and dead, could be found either farming or buried somewhere in the Palouse.
At the first intersection, I turned left onto Sullivan, drove past my old high school, and soon the primarily residential areas were replaced by fenced fields, some of them full of corn and cantaloupe others with alfalfa. There was one large dairy farm along the route, flanked by pastures with a few head of cattle and horses still grazing lazily. In a few years, this pastoral landscape would be converted to housing developments, some of them designed by guys I had gone to high school with. But in the summer of 1965, it looked much the way it always had when my brother and I rode our horses out to Saltine Flats or drove my Uncle Alfred’s green Chevrolet out to cut down a Christmas tree and collect pine boughs to make swag for the front door.
At 32nd I turned west and drove another couple of miles until the road intersected with Highway 27, which I would stay on until I got to Rockford, where I would cross into Idaho and eventually turn south on to highway 95 following it all the way to Moscow. On this occasion, I didn’t get that far; I didn’t even get to Rockford, for by the time I reached Mica, about five miles south on highway 27, I turned around and started back. In the twenty minutes I’d spent behind the wheel, I had calmed down enough to realize that I really was tired and the drive ahead of me, which would be sunny and pleasant in the morning promised to be dark and lonely tonight. And so I turned around and drove back home.
“I’m back.” I called as I walked through the kitchen and into the living room.
Mom looked up from her book and held her glass out to me. “Top this up and fix yourself one and come sit with me.”
I took the glass from her hand, and then stopped by their bedroom door on my way to the kitchen, listening to see if my dad was asleep.
“Hi Honey.” He said clearing his throat.
“Sorry if I woke you up.”
“I saw the car lights as you drove in. I wasn’t asleep yet anyway.” He paused. “I’ll wake you in the morning.”
“Thanks dad. Good night. See you then.”
I went into the kitchen and poured a little Johnny Walker into a tumbler then added ice, water and more Scotch into mother’s glass then returned to the living room. I handed mom her drink, then sat down across from her in dad’s chair.
“Thanks.” She smiled and looked at me for a moment. “I’m glad you came back.” Then returned to her book.
“Me too.” I pushed back in the chair so the foot rest came up and closed my eyes.
I wish I could report that I never again felt compelled to blindly follow some rule or convention, mine or someone else’s. Sadly, that hasn’t been the case. Nonetheless, it has been instructive, and occasionally it saves me from barreling down a path I have set out to take for no other reason than the preconception that it is what has to be done.
For instance, several years later the memory surfaced when my daughter and I were in a department store. I don’t recall the mission we were on, though it is safe to assume that it was something specific as I rarely undertake shopping unless I have to. Having paid for my purchases, I turned to see Katie, who was three at the time, holding a baby doll. I watched her for a moment, as she cradled the doll in her arms. She must have sensed me looking at her for she looked up, smiling sweetly.
I knelt down to eye level. “That’s a nice little baby, isn’t it?”
“Can we buy it?” I shook my head.
“No honey, we can’t. Now put it back.”
“But why?” She asked as she gently returned it to its display stroller.
Oh honey!, I thought to myself, if only you knew! Because, of course I knew - knew if you ever gave in, even once, when a child asked for something, it would never end. That a ‘given into child’ would morph into a manipulative, spoiled teenager, destined to go straight into juvenile detention. Worse, all of the havoc wrecked along the way would be traced back to the mother who took the line of least resistance and caved to the demands of the child. I was already skating on thin ice as an older mother of an only child. This was one of the principles of parenting that was most certainly engraved in my library of stone tablets.
All this I said to myself as we bustled out of the store into the parking lot. Once at the car, Katie waited by the backseat door while I put the packages into the trunk of my red Dasher. Maybe I would get the doll for her for Christmas or her next birthday. I reasoned. After all, it was exactly the kind of doll that I wanted her to have. A baby doll, without a lot of bells and whistles. The eyes opened and shut but other than that, it was just a sweet little doll, perfect for a three year old. Still – I knew the rules. Everyone did.
When I opened the car door to help her into her car seat, I could see she was crying; silently, holding her body still, and biting her lip while tears welled up in her eyes. I stood there looking at her for a moment. “Let’s go.” I said and she started to climb into the car. I took her hand and pulled her out.
“No. This way.”
“Where are we going?” She asked looking up at me.
“Don’t you think we had better go back and get that baby before someone else takes her home?”
Her eyes widened with surprise and cautious delight.
Together we sprinted though the rain and back into the store. She named the doll Elizabeth after the baby sister of her friend Megan. Katie took good care of all of her dolls, but Elizabeth always received a measure of special attention. She slept in the little blue cradle that grandpa had made and was routinely tucked in with a poem or a song. And Katie turned out fine as well. Didn’t throw tantrums. Didn’t end up in “juvie” and I don’t recall that she ever again asked for anything.
I confess that I still find rules and routine attractive, but I realize they don’t have to be sacred. They often simplify things, “Monday – wash day, Tuesday - Ironing,” helps establish a welcomed rhythm to my life. And there are simply some things that might never get done if they weren’t obsessively observed. Running comes to mind. Inspired one New Year’s Eve by a friend, who told me she had run a five mile race at that day, I got up the next morning, determined to be a runner myself. Once I made the decision, I never again asked myself if it was something I wanted to do; if it was too cold, or too dark, or too rainy. I just got up every morning, laced up my shoes and ran out the door.
Still, that evening in July of 1965, when I managed to throw that stone tablet out the window and turn around, marked a turning point. I realized I could change my mind and my world would not collapse. I marvel at my parents’ wisdom and forbearance – they didn’t know I would pull U-turn and come home on that particular night, but they were willing to let me discover when I was ready to bend my own rules. I will never stop being a decisive and determined person, but as the years go by, I’ve come to value flexibility right alongside structure. Defining oneself and then acting accordingly is a fallacy; it is through our experiences and actions that we truly come to know ourselves.