I can no longer remember what caused the argument between myself and my mother on that particular day, long ago, but it probably wasn’t serious. At the age of 11, I had not yet acquired even the maturity expected of a child but already owned all the moodiness of a teenager. I was prone to statements like “it’s not fair!” or “you just don’t understand!” or “I wish I were never born!” and other such melodrama. While often silly, these churnings of my mind were not mellow-drama from my point of view… it was all intense drama to me.
Whatever the cause of the friction between us that day, it caught fire when my emotions got the better of me and I swore horribly at my mother, using a cuss word I didn’t fully understand then but that burns me with shame to remember now. The word launched from my lips, flew across the room, and struck her. The pained expression it marked on her face made me briefly but keenly aware that I’d crossed a terrible line between she and I, yet the insight was but a flash; I was still possessed by the boiling emotions that had conjured the vile incantation in the first place. Rather than reverse direction and apologise on the spot, which was certainly required, the momentum of my juvenile petulance flounced me not just across that terrible line, but also out of the house altogether.
I couldn’t believe it myself; I was running away from home.
Of course, I was really running away from what I had just done… but if that realisation came to me at the time, it was quickly trammeled underfoot by self-righteousness; I immediately re-cast myself in the role of a bold outlaw, on the run from injustice and a world that didn’t understand him… YEAH… Muttering grimly to myself, as I often did at that age, I stomped off to the far side of my tiny home-town; unfamiliar neighbourhoods where I felt I would not be pursued by my foes. Though it seemed to me then that the forces of oppression (ie; Mum) would round up a posse and try to hunt me down immediately, it is obvious to me now that this was not so; my mother had other children, including an infant, to watch over that day, and my father was at work.
Now that I was finally FREE, I thought of where, actually, to go… I had no idea at all. After considering my options, I head towards my friend Stephen’s house… then, half way there, thought better of it… I cannot now remember why. Perhaps, even then, I subliminally realised that I would appear absurd to anyone else, including a child of my own age, and therefore wanted to stay alone in order to enjoy my outlaw persona for a while…
It was a summer day; possibly during the end of year school holidays. I angrily kicked stones along the road, frustrated that the pockets of my shorts were empty of anything useful to a fugitive (not even a pocket knife) and my flimsy T-shirt would be useless after sundown. Even summer evenings can be cool in my home town, up in the mountains. I mused that it would have been superb to have prepared an escape package in advance; a bag of money, clothes and food, stashed somewhere in the garden, to be snatched up with a dramatic flourish as the parting-shot of a most-marvellous exit. That is what I should have done… This regret over my lack of forethought and stage-craft was an annoying pebble in the boot of my defiance; although I wasn’t actually wearing boots, I was wearing Flip-Flops, which was yet another source of regret for the great outlaw that day.
Well, too late to worry about that now; I am out in the world now and never going back.
As afternoon turned to evening however, my thoughts turned to home. I wondered how the family was dealing with my absence. I bet they miss me now that I am gone… A picture formed in my mind’s eye; my mother slumped distraught at the dining-table, in a kitchen bustling with police men and ambulance men, all offering comfort to the rest of my family members, each now heart-broken by the ME-shaped hole in their world. This vision of their pain was very moving… so much so that it moved my legs back towards my own neighbourhood. I suspect that my “compassion” was merely a glove-puppet manipulated by my ego, fascinated by the vision of a family hollow with the loss of ME and wanting to see this charming tableau for itself. Or else, it was my hollow stomach in control; simply walking the body across town towards its dinner. Whatever was driving my machinery, I furtively made my way through the darkening streets towards home, entered the vacant paddock behind our house, quietly jumped over the fence into our back yard and stealthily crept up to the house to peer inside…
I have a vivid memory of my family as seen from the kitchen window, though I am not sure if that is actually possible, given that that particular window would have been too high for me to peer into at that age… so either (A) I saw the kitchen from the bottom of the backyard where it was possible to see into the room, though from a distance (B) I pushed something up to the window to stand on, to get the closer view that I seem to remember (C) I actually saw my family through the (much lower) window of the TV room or (D) what follows is actually the memory of an entirely mental picture; inspired by the sounds I heard coming from within as I crouched in the dark outside.
Whatever the case may be, the memory I now see in my mind’s eye is not the the touching Pre-Raphaelite oil-painting of abject misery I had imagined and scurried home to see, instead it is the very picture of a family happily eating their dinner; exchanging stories from their days’ events and laughing at one-another’s jokes. My ego was outraged by this cheery Norman Rockwell scene; No one seemed disturbed that one member of the family was absent. My stomach was also perturbed; every last one of my family members was heartily and noisily enjoying their food. As tempted as I may have been by the sight of all that tasty chow, the affront to my ego was too much to bear, and away I stomped once again, into the gloom. My wounded-prince performance was pitch-perfect and spoiled only by the fact that nobody saw it, apart from the stray cat that lived in our yard.
I skulked in the shadows at the bottom of the garden while my wounded ego and rumbling tummy battled for the decision of what to what to do next. Meanwhile, the more thoughtful part of me tried to make sense of the difference between what I had imagined my family would be doing versus what they were actually doing… surely my family must eventually become worried at my absence… surely they will come to understand that I am serious and not kidding around… While evening became night, I watched the house intently; scanning for any sign of a search party… where were the Policemen? The ambulance men? Where was the visual-sweep of the yard by a concerned relative? I would have settled for even a perfunctory, bored glance out of a window by an uninterested relative…
Surely such a thing must happen eventually? No?
But the attention of the household was elsewhere… I could hear the theme music to various TV shows of the time, one after another as the night wore on, accompanied by the raucous laughter of a telly-watching family sitting comfortably inside, while I hungrily shivered (with cold) and quivered (with rage) in the bushes outside. Grimly, I resolved to wait until everyone was asleep, then sneak inside the house, grab a few things (the bundle I had ruefully imagined earlier) and then depart, never to return. Ever again…. EVER. For real this time. This momentous decision was reached as my family, up yonder, noisily enjoyed the bald-head patting, high-speed antics of Mr Benny Hill.
Behind our house was an empty plot of land (used as playing fields by the primary school across the road) where I went to hide from the cackling mockery of my family and wait until they chortled themselves to sleep, choking as they did so, hopefully. As I’d done many times before, I lay in the grass and looked up at the stars… On that particular night, My thoughts were every bit as dark as the sky above me but nowhere near as beautiful. The night sky in the Southern hemisphere has infinitely more constellations on view than in the Northern sky. One feature of my home town to this very day is that the streets are not well lit at night. This lack of light pollution, plus the fact that my home town is up high on a plateau, means that the view of the night sky is even clearer there than most places. It is really something to see. On that night however, the beautiful, tiny clusters of distant worlds out there in space merely reminded me that I longed to be somewhere else.
They’ll be sorry when I am gone… said my ego. My stomach made the argument that the “punishing them with my absence” strategy didn’t seem to be working. Despite having a noisy stomach and a whiny ego as my companions that night, I felt utterly alone. My dog Jock; my tiny comrade from early childhood, had been “put to sleep” the year before, otherwise I would have had some warm-bodied company out there in the dark, not to mention a furry pirate for the noble outlaw to run away with… but as things stood, I was alone with my thoughts; Stewing in the brine of my own mind…
I checked on the house. Some lights were still on but the house itself was absolutely silent. I made my move. In my memory, it was around Midnight, when I finally re-entered the lair of my oppressors… but allowing for the time-dilation effects of childhood memories (not to mention childhood hunger) I now suspect it was much earlier when I stealthily entered the back door which, like all the other doors in our house, was never locked (well, not until after a robber finally crossed the threshold 20 years later). In trying to piece together my frame of mind from that time, I believe that I intended to quickly grab supplies and head out immediately, to make good on my thus-far poorly executed escape. However, it is entirely possible that on some unconscious level I wanted to be caught, (as caught I soon was). What I am absolutely sure of now is that, as I entered the house, there was no hint of remorse for my earlier brutishness towards my own mother.
None that is, until I saw her sitting alone quietly in the kitchen waiting for me. I have no idea if my mother had planned to be there alone when I came home. Clearly the other children were in bed and my father, who played the Dirty Harry role when Mum and Dad did the “good cop bad cop” routine, may have gone to bed too (no doubt the evening’s hilarious TV entertainment had worn them all out) so the final showdown was between just she and I, in the exact same Saloon where the whole shooting match had begun; the family kitchen. It makes sense to me now that she may have wanted to handle this situation on her own. I would love to ask her now what was on her mind that day but sadly she isn’t around to tell me the answer any more. My mother died many, many years ago.
If she’d had a stern expression; hands on hips and a mouth full of recriminations, I could have kept up my “persecuted outlaw” performance but my mother’s wide-open face and compassionate eyes made that impossible. She gave me nothing at all to fight against… and, as I stood stunned, staring at her, my conscience, which had thus far been kept at bay by self-righteous mutterings, finally saw its chance and did what it had been trying to do all day; it gave me a thorough-going, savage internal pummelling, and relished every moment of it. I was overcome with emotion. During the thrashing emotional battle inside of me, the ego-fog was blown away, revealing what I must have known all along; I had wronged her and not the other way around. I was the bad guy in this story and nobody else. The extent of my theatrical posturing that day was the degree to which I had tried to convince myself otherwise.
I burst into tears at this realisation, apologising profusely for what I had done. I was absolutely mauled by my shame. Pounded by guilt. But more than that, I was overwhelmed by gratitude, for though it may not have been in my conscious mind until I saw her waiting patiently for me, at that moment, I saw with great clarity that she was so much better than I… and how much more she deserved than what I had given her.
She welcomed me into her arms and I knew then that all, unbelievably, was forgiven… which made my tears flow even more freely, rather than less, as you might reasonably expect. When I had calmed down a little, she had me sit down at the kitchen table and attempt to compose myself as she prepared me some food; my dinner was being kept warm in the oven all along. She had not forgotten me. This too, provoked another blubbering wave of emotion. I wolfed the food down hungrily, through wracking sobs of tears, in that way only children can do… and as she watched me eat, Mum stroked my hair and gave me silent comfort through touch, in that way only mothers can do.
This is one of the earliest memories I have of my conscience having a profound effect on me, forcing me to see myself not just in the 3rd person but also firmly in the wrong. It is one thing to say “sorry” because you know it will get you off the hook, and it is another thing altogether to actually be sorry because you realise what you have done is wrong, or hurtful to others. It was many years before I finally gained a fully functioning conscience; one that operated without authority figures present, or fear of punishment or other external consequences, but that allowed me to make moral judgements purely on my own… The conscience I have now isn’t perfect; it still sometimes takes some reflection for it to kick-in, though I do believe it is a reliable moral compass… but if I have have any conscience at all today it is largely due to the long-suffering parenting and compassionate moral example of my own mother.
Vicki Patricia Baker (nee Stuart) 1943-1982