In 1965, when I was eighteen, I ran away to Portland, Oregon. Running away was an act of rebellion, but also of faith. In one beautiful leap I would escape my family, my past, and the insufferable person I’d been living with for the past few years—my teenage self. This person was quite obviously screwed up. She had way too many problems. No one wanted any part of them, especially me. In Portland I could reinvent myself and leave the past behind.
My brother agreed to drive me to the airport on the condition that I stop to say goodbye to my parents. So on a gray November morning, I found myself driving down the flat Midwestern streets where the silent, respectable houses stared impassively out of the dawn. We turned a corner, and my brother slowed down. There it was—the familiar red brick bungalow with my writing alcove overlooking the maple tree.
My brother pulled over and turned off the engine.
“Do I have to go through with this?” I asked. My heart was thudding heavily and my mouth was dry. I had called my parents only that morning to tell them I was leaving.
“You know the deal,” my brother said. He grinned and tilted his Che Guevara beret rakishly over one eye. “Come on, let’s go.”
I followed him slowly up the front steps into the house. Inside, my parents were sitting at the kitchen table, breakfast dishes scattered around them.
Please mom, don’t make a scene, I prayed. Just let me go.
When she saw me, my mother’s face cracked open like the eggshell on her plate, and she started sobbing. My father watched in silence. I suspected that he was secretly relieved to be getting rid of his expensive troublesome daughter with her therapy bills and college tuition.
“Why does she have to go?” my mother cried, as though she were appealing to an invisible jury who would render a verdict on the crazy actions of her daughter.
How could I explain what I didn’t understand myself, that it wasn’t only what I was running away to that mattered, but what I was running from?
To my mother I said only, “My boyfriend and I want to be together, Mom.” (“Boyfriend” was an overstatement; I had spent one weekend with him the summer before.)
“Can’t you just get married?” my mother asked.
“We’ll get married—later.”
I was putting up a smooth front, but inwardly I felt guilty and callous. How could I cause my mother so much pain just when my dad was divorcing her? She may have been a disaster as a mom, but at least she had tried, and in her own inscrutable way she cared. Now I was walking out on her when she needed me most.
My mother started crying harder. “But you’re going so far!”
“I’ll write every week, I promise, Mom.”
I’d hoped for a clean silent break. This break was anything but clean and silent; it was noisy, messy and painful. But it was, finally, over.
Almost. As I was walking out the door, my mother gave one last anguished cry. “She doesn’t even have money for an emergency phone call!”
Emergency telephone calls were sacred in our household. My mother was always giving my brother and me money for them that we promptly spent, knowing she would replace it.
This time, however, I was prepared.
“Yes, I do,” I said, digging into my pocket and producing the nest egg I had put aside for my future. I had exactly one dime.