I grew up in a beautiful old home in upstate New York. Winters were freezing and snow drenched. Summers were warm without too much humidity, and the evenings were cool. Spring always took its time, and Fall was/is by far, my favorite season of all.
Our home had a decently long driveway positioned on the left side of the house. At the end of it sat a two car garage, which helped to fence in the small, triangular shaped back yard and screened in back porch. Though we didn’t get to sit out there as much as we all may have liked, on a special occasion we grilled out and had back porch dinner.
I loved and still love the smell of the cooking outdoor grill, when the air is not too hot and the meal is long and lazy. I recall one particular summer afternoon when we did this, it was a Sunday 1978. At the time we had a college student living with us to help out my working parents in exchange for room and board. I loved having her around. She used to braid my hair sometimes and helped me with school work once in a while. I guess it was like having an older sister or at least how I imagined it.
Our live in student was a runner. I was athletic as a kid but no one in my family was really a runner, so I admired her initiative when she would put on her shorts and sneakers and say “I’m going for a run.” I always wanted to go with her. On this summer Sunday, she was kind and generous enough to say “I will head out on my own for a bit, but come to the end of the driveway in 30 minutes I will be back to get you so you can join me. Be ready.”
I did just that. I counted down the minutes and headed out to the driveway early! As I stood there entertaining myself I recall staring at the long row of peonies. They were Divine. Their petals ranged in color, from fuchsia to pale pink, to white. They were abundant and unassuming. Mom nurtured them every year and they created the perfect border between our driveway and our neighbor’s house and back yard to the left side of it.
As all of nature projects, the peonies had so much dignity. They hung kind of casually, but their blossoms were unapologetically vibrant and strong. I didn’t have the vocabulary to label them in my child’s mind, but I did have the connection to their natural goodness, and I enjoyed staring at them while I waited for my running guide to come around the corner to get me for our “run.” All the stems and leaves seemed like their own playground for the ants which loved to crawl into them and explore.
I remember noticing my own shadow, in the driveway and was playfully interacting with it, and the flowers. No cares in the world, I was just being a kid. But my gaze was interrupted by an approaching vehicle. Without notice, a royal blue, Ford pick up truck approached the end of the driveway. It stopped, the driver reached across to the passenger side and rolled down the window which was closest to me and uttered: “Want a ride?”
A complete stranger, whose face is blurry to me now, had a deep but stern voice. This man put the fear of God into me. A fear so profound, that my stomach is flipping at the mere recollection of this event, that happened while standing next to the peonies, on a summer Sunday over 40 years ago.
The panic ripped through me, from my ears and my eyes, through my neck (where I was trying to breathe), down into my torso, down my legs and feet, and out through my little sneakers which developed jets in their soles. I ran up that driveway with a speed that felt like I was on a hoverboard just above the black pavement. I raced into the back screened in porch where my parents were still having dinner. I don’t remember what I said. But they knew something had happened.
When I relayed the truck approaching me and what was said, Dad and I got into his car and started driving around the neighborhood. We never did find the blue pick up. But we tried until sundown.
I share this story because we don’t talk enough about the ways in which our sense of safety and well being gets stolen from us, especially as children.
Tragically, there are much more violent and aggressive ways this happens. But there are also subtle moments, events and messages that rob us of our own security when we are not looking. That day I learned that neither peonies, nor I, were as safe in the world as I’d thought. It was the beginning of looking over my shoulder, never quite being able to enjoy solitude, and a heightened sense of what helplessness might feel like.
Mercifully, I knew to run. My parents were there to reassure me I was safe. But so many children are not so lucky. They get into the car with a stranger, or are physically forced in. Youth stolen and spirits forever marred. I was spared that tragedy, that day. And I am grateful.
But I am not grateful for the association that I have with blue Ford pick up trucks and the reminder that the world is not safe. I did not grow up with the on-line (internet’s) threat of predators, something that further victimizes our children. But there was still danger. There was still an induction, a baptism into the world of “I am not safe.”
If we take a moment, we may all be able to identify a moment, the moment, where we were robbed of the innate and natural assumption that no harm would come to us. If this is true for you, talk it over with someone you trust. Be compassionate with yourself. Mourn the loss if necessary.
If you have children, talk to them too. But for my parents telling me to run like hell if someone ever offered me “candy” (a lure that would be hard for me to resist today!) I might have just gotten into that pick up truck. You may not think your kids are listening or are old enough to hear you, but they are. Had my parents not spoken up loudly and often, well, who knows?