For Proust, it was a mouthful of pastry mixed with tea that opened the floodgates and brought his childhood back with so much detail that it took volumes to describe it fully in his magnum opus Remembrance of Things Past. For me it was nothing so literary, nor so tasty. For me it was a sweaty run on a humid summer Saturday.
I was in Delaware this weekend to visit my mom in the wake of her recent hip-replacement surgery. Her operation was five weeks ago and ever since I have been trying to find a time to go see her. This weekend Erica and Isabel were in Montana, so it seemed like the perfect chance to head out on a road trip with just me and Ginger, (the Vomitty Wonder GoldenDoodle) in our 1999 Volvo sedan. I mention the car here not because it affects the story in any way, but simply because Ginger and I spent eleven of our 36 hours this weekend in the car and it struck me as rude to leave the car out of the narrative entirely. Now that the car has had its cameo, I shall not mention it again.
Anyway, I got to Delaware early Saturday afternoon and sat with my parents as Barack Obama introduced his Vice- Presidential selection, Delaware Senator Joe Biden, to the world. My parents and I do not see eye to eye on politics. We don’t even see eye to bellybutton. So as we watched Senators Obama and Biden give their short speeches, we nearly came to blows. At one point I remember towering over my mom as she commented on the foreign-ness of Barack HUSSEIN Obama’s name. I may have even said something like, “Oh Yeah?!? Why don’t you grab your cane and STAND UP and say that? Old Lady!” The atmosphere in their living room grew a little testy.
So at some point in the back-and-forth about flag lapel pins and abandoned first wives, I decided I should go for a run. For some reason I was having a hard time making myself run last week. Last weekend I did a great 12-mile training run up East Rock and back, twice. But ever since, my enthusiasm for running had disappeared. So I took the impetus provided by a good political mud fight and turned it into the spark that got me out the door for a run around my parents’ suburban neighborhood.
After just a few blocks I found my feet had an agenda. They took me out of Foulk Woods, into Chalfonte, through Surrey Park and over to McDaniel Crest, and then into Fairfax. (In northern Delaware each subdivision has a name and, to those in the know, those names carry much information about the socio-economic status of the people who live there.) I went by Bonsall Park, Fairfax North Park, and Fairfax South Park. I ran by 228 Waverly Road and 113 Woodrow Avenue--the first two houses I lived in as a child. Between the two houses, I passed by St. Mary Magdalene Elementary School, where I was educated from kindergarten through sixth grade.
As it turned out, I was on a tour of my childhood without having planned any such thing.
I ran by our old houses and the houses of my old friends, and the McDonalds where they used to sell ten cherry pies for a dollar on Washington’s Birthday, and the Wawa convenience store where I used to buy baseball cards, and the park where I used to play Little League Baseball, and the other park where we used to build rock-and-clay dams across the creek to create swimming holes, and Chris Campion’s house where his dad had Playboy magazines hidden in his sock drawer, and Mrs. Quinn’s house where we used to earn a dime for every Japanese beetle we could pick off her rose bushes and place in a Mason jar with gasoline, and the even-other park where we took archery lessons and got to shoot arrows at helium balloons as they floated up at the ends of long strings. I ran by all these places and at the end of my run it was clear to me that I had one heckuva happy childhood.
As an adult I look at suburbia as a sterile place where cars rule and people don’t know their neighbors. But the suburbia I grew up in was different. To me it was far from sterile. In fact, it was fertile ground for imagination, friendship, and just-plain-fun. All the neighbors knew which family I belonged to. By the summer between fifth and sixth grades I could pretty much ride my bike anywhere in a 20-square mile area with our house in the middle. My grandmother and several aunts, uncles, and cousins lived in that same 20-square mile area, as did many of my teachers and all of my friends.
I felt free and trusted and powerful in a way I am afraid to let my daughter feel. She does NOT have the run of the neighborhood. She does not have family every few blocks where she can stop for a drink if she gets thirsty. She might never know the freedom I had as a child to just explore the world without thinking of it as a dangerous place. Growing up in suburban Wilmington, Delaware in the 1970s was a real gift for me. I developed an ease and comfort in the physical world that allowed me to feel alright about going away to college. My security in the world made it okay for me to join the Peace Corps and live in Yemen for two years after college.
The freedom my parents gave me on my bicycle left me with a strong desire to see what is around the next turn or over the next hill, or even in the next country. I never realized it before that run two days ago, but my childhood in Delaware set the stage for so much of who I am today. My run through my childhood could not have come at a better time in my life. It was a good reminder for me of a time when the future was all in front of me and the only limits were those I placed on myself.
By the time I got back to my parents’ house our political differences were long forgotten and I had a good visit.