Just because I was a chubby kid doesn’t mean I wasn’t a picky kid. I only liked food that tasted like sugar. Which meant that my mother had to force me to eat anything even the slightest shade of green. I would fight her by crying, whining, and stomping my feet. This only made things worse, she’d threaten to ground me or spank me and I’d immediately give in. Still, I held a grudge. (I was especially sensitive to any parenting methods that involved control or the bending my will. You’re not the boss of me, I would frequently scream).
I spent most of my childhood looking for a solution to this forced-fed dilemma. At the age of eight, I found one: My father was sick of the little kids falling off of their chairs, so he re-designed our dining room and built a wooden bench around the table. The bench was nailed to the wall and built like a box so that you couldn’t see underneath it. This bench was my answer. Anytime my mother forced me to eat anything healthy, I’d wait for her to turn her back, spit my food into my hand and drop it down the crack between the bench and the wall. The food would collect there, unnoticed. Genius.
Only, I have this terrible tendency, once I figure out how to get away with something naughty, I immediately abuse it. After an entire summer of hiding food under the new bench, I started to get sloppy. My mom would serve us mashed potatoes, I’d scoop mine up with one hand and shove it down the crack nonchalantly. It was not long before our dining room area started to smell. No amount of Clorox, scrubbing or deodorizer could fix the scent of my rotting food.
And then it was September and the beginning of a new school year. For me, the first day of school is a big deal. The night before, I’d set my clothes out in the shape of a body next to my bed and packed my Lisa Frank backpack with fresh notebooks, neatly sharpened pencils, and a brand-new scrunchie. Third grade is going to be different, I said optimistically, this year I’m going to be cool.
Unfortunately, third grade got off on a rocky start. My mother made us scrambled eggs for breakfast, I hate scrambled eggs. Without even checking to see if the coast was clear, I picked up my plate of eggs and tilted it down the crack. I looked up, my mother was staring in disbelief.
“What did you just do?” she fumed. The situation only got worse, she got a crowbar from the garage and detached the bench from the wall. Months of food, shriveled broccoli, tiny carrots, dried pasta shells--the entire a food pyramid minus the dessert layer, was there. Not to mention the smell.
After yelling for ten minutes, my punishment was two fold: I had to clean it up and I had to eat the rest of the scrambled eggs left on each of my siblings plates. To ensure that this happened, my mother compiled all their servings into one large serving, a heaping plate of scrambled eggs just for me.
“But it’s the first day of school,” I whined, “ I’ll be late.”
My mother didn’t care, “I will drive you to school once you finish cleaning. And don’t think your father won’t be hearing about this later,” she stalked off, still fuming.
While Tina and Julia boarded the school bus, I scrubbed the floor. Cinderella, Cinderella, I lamented, (it was a mistake letting me watch this cartoon, I referenced it every time I did the slightest bit of housework.) By the time I was finished cleaning up my mess I was over an hour late and my new school outfit was greasy and stained.
This only fueled my resentment. As soon as I finished, I marched into my mother’s room. She was busy nursing my baby brother Britain and looked up to see me with my hands on my hips.
“I’m done cleaning,” I said.
“Good. Did you finish your eggs?”
I’d forgotten the second part of my punishment. “No,” I glared at her. “I’m allergic.” (I used this line all the time in school, to great effect. It never quite worked on my mother.)
“Eat your scrambled eggs and I will drive you to school.”
“Noooooooooooo,” I wailed. The hour of kneeling and scrubbing had caught up to me emotionally, I forgot the fact that I was the culprit and had a total meltdown. Tears streamed down my face and I started saying things I’d later regret like you’re a terrible mother, and this is child abuse.
My mother, still breast-feeding, stood up, grabbed me by the wrist and dragged me into my bedroom.
“You’re not coming out of this room until you eat your eggs,” she yelled.
“How am I supposed to do that?” I sassed her, “There aren’t any eggs in here.”
When my mother gets angry her eyes turn a particular shade of blue, glass blue. She stared me down, ice eyes, and then she turned and huffed out of the room. A moment later she was back, a plate of eggs in one hand and Britain in the other, still sucking on her breast.
“Enjoy,” she set the plate of eggs on the floor, and walked out of my bedroom, my door slammed behind her.
“You’re not the boss of me,” I called after her.
Unfortunately, she was. I spent the next half hour staring at the yellow eggs and playing the game oh woe is me. This game consisted of me listing each grievance my mother had caused me during the course of my 8 year existence, I played it all of the time.
There was the laundry incident: I used to throw my dirty laundry under my bed. My mother warned me not to do this. When I didn’t listen, she decided to teach me a lesson by publicly humiliating me. I came home from school one day only to find the trees, branches and bushes in front of our house decorated in splashes of color. As the school bus got closer I realized what it was: my dirty socks and underwear. I’m not talking one or two pieces either, there were dozens of my private undies dangling for all to see. The other kids on the school bus thought it was hilarious, I was mortified. One point for mother, no points for me. I put my laundry in the laundry basket from that day forward.
Then there was the incident with the piano lessons: My mother played the piano in church every Sunday and believed it was a necessary talent, “Every congregation needs a pianist.” I was forced to take lessons twice a week. I had absolutely no interest in learning how to play—it was our first real battle. I would do everything in my power to make us late for my lesson. When this didn’t work, I would forget my sheet music and say that I was unable to practice. My mother, with four kids to deal with, would drive us back to the rehearsal space and pick up the music. She was unbreakable. Mr. Meisner, on the other hand, my teacher (an Austrian immigrant and concert pianist) did not fare as well. When I realized my mother wouldn’t fold, I started working on him. Day by day I’d destroy his love of music with whiny faces, rolling eyes, and heavy fingers. And to kill time, I’d insist that I practice each song in the air before putting my fingers on the keys. This above all else, drove him crazy.
“This child cannot be taught,” he told my mother. When she tried to persuade him to keep trying he put his hands in the air and said, rather dramatically, “because of her, I will never touch a piano again.”
These are just two examples, but every day with my mother was a battle of wills. Don’t have seconds, clean your room, take a bath, go to sleep, don’t watch tv, read a book, be nice to your sister. Her demands were unceasing. And now, on an important day, my first day of third grade she wanted me to eat an entire plate of scrambled eggs, eggs which had once belonged to my dirty fingered, slobbery mouthed siblings. Every child has a breaking point, this was mine. I’m running away from home, I decided, I can’t live like this.
It wasn’t all that hard to do, with the house to clean and Britain to take care of, my mother was out of the way. She won’t even notice I’m missing, the thought disturbed me. I got a piece of paper and wrote a note just in case it was true. It said something to the effect of: I’m running away from home, I can’t live like this. I set the note next to my eggs, re-packed my Lisa Frank backpack with clothes and my teddy bear. Fortunately my bedroom was on the first floor, I opened my window, kicked out the screen and climbed outside.
Walking across the yard and over to the gravel street, I secretly hoped my mother would look out the window and spot me. I pictured her calling my name, Elna, Come back, we need you in this family. This didn’t happen. I made it all the way down the hill and to the paved street without anyone so much as noticing.
When I got to my school bus stop I stopped. It was the farthest I’d ever been on my own. To my left was the main road, to my right, Second Street, a back road that consisted primarily of hills. You can do this, I coached myself, don’t look back. I held my Lisa Frank backpack tight and headed up Second Street. I was Columbus setting sail, venturing into unchartered territory. Uphill, downhill, uphill, downhill. After what seemed like an eternity, but what was probably more like 20 minutes, the road dead-ended on a forest. I peered inside, it looked scary, blackberry bushes, tall evergreen trees, and darker lighting than the street. But I wasn’t about to let this deter me. Running away from home meant facing my fears. And so I raised my head high and walked into the trees. I was brave, but also worried about getting lost, and so after walking for a few feet I sat down on a stump and took a break.
It was quiet in the woods. Sure there was rustling, the occasional bird, and a grasshopper that hopped by, but for the most part, everything was still. I don’t do well with stillness. The minute I’m still, everything catches up to me: my actions, my conscience, my ability to reason. All that, plus I could hear my stomach grumbling.
I’m hungry, I looked in my back-pack for something to eat, nothing. Oh no, I kind of have to pee. I’m incapable of squatting, I’ll only urinate with dignity.
The list went on from here: What if I have to go number two? And where exactly am I going to sleep? And how am I going to watch TV? Running away had seemed like a good idea at the time but now there were all these details. Who’s going to wake me up in time for school? What happens when it’s Sunday? For the first time in my life I was “the boss of me.” There were so many things I’d never considered.
On top of that, I missed my family. It’d only been an hour and already I wanted company. Being alone is boring, I thought, What will it be like if I’m alone forever? Sure my parents were embarrassing (my dad had a beard and my Mom was always the pregnant lady), but we got into water fights, and they told scary stories and let us play pranks on their friends, so it broke even. And, if I thought about it for a long enough period, my mother wasn’t really all that bad.
Hoot, hoot, I heard a loud noise, it was coming from behind a tree. Ahhhhh, I didn’t have time to figure out what it was, I ran, arms flailing, back to the street. Downhill, uphill, downhill, uphill, downhill, uphill, home. I made it past the cherry trees, through the gravel and over to the garage, when I heard my mother calling my name.
“Elna,” she screamed, “El-naaaaaaaaaaaaaaa.”
There was panic in her voice. I ducked behind a garbage can. She walked into the garage, she was standing a foot from me, only she didn’t know it.
“Elna,” she called my name again.
I thought about everything I’d learned in my hour and a half as a runaway. I wanted to tell her I was sorry, admit I needed her, say I loved her, say I missed my family, only that’s not what happened.
I stuck my head out from behind the garbage can, “I’m right here,” I said, “Stupid.”
Poor choice of words, my mother cooked eggs every night for a week.