What do you remember as your first grasp on the wildness of freedom? Was it when your mother, hesitant and hovering, finally agreed to let you walk to the bus stop by yourself? Sunny last days of September, second grade. Your school bag banging against the hem of your dress as you trooped cautiously down the sidewalk, concious of the freedom and the danger and the value in your steps. You were alone, deliciously, terrifyingly wonderfully alone. Alone, but still. You didn’t have to turn around to know your mother was watching. You didn’t have to look back, because you knew she was there.
This is how most of us—how I myself, first knew freedom. It was a gift we were given by someone qualified to bestow it. Mother, may I? That walk to the bus stop. The first time we cut our sandwich with a big person knife, the first time we wander the stores at the mall on our own. Once it starts, the cycle never stops again. We crave the newness of it all while, never admitting how very much we hope our parents are lingering in the imperceptible behind.
Our mother lets us shave our legs in the shower for the very first time, arming us with a razor and our father’s shaving cream: “You do know how…?” She asks hesitantly. “Geesh, mom. Yes.” We roll our eyes and she holds her tongue until the bathroom door closes behind us. Is she still standing outside that door, thinking we might call out for her help? We are eleven or twelve, we’ve asked her first, not for permission, but rather– so she knew. We have tasted a little freedom by then, we have learned to roll it around in our mouth like a big, round grape—-to savor it for the feeling alone. Alone and free—we like the possibility of it all. So. Much. Possibility. We want more. We want to do it ourselves. By the time we get our first period, we tell her only after we’ve raided the green box under her bathroom sink. Casually, in the hall way outside her bedroom door, we stop her with the news. We are owning all the information and offering up as little as possible. It’s no big deal. But of course, it is all a very big deal. After she steps in her room, she lays down on her unmade bed and scans the ceiling for the right way to feel. Not sadness, not pridefulness, not nervous. Just different. Bereft of the opportunity to share the gift of this change (or the curse) and relieved, maybe just a little, that we didn’t need a fumbling tutorial.
The first wheelspokes of freedom are breathtaking as a child, both when we are that child and afterward. Once we gain momentum, once the wheel starts to turn, we don’t want it to end.
Until we have children ourselves and we see the freedom differently.
The little girl in our house is learning to ride a bicycle. She’s my step-daughter, my children are mostly older now. I’ve done this before, a time or twenty-five. Out in the street, I placed one hand under her seat, running along beside her in flipflops and a dress. Go, go, go—pedal faster! That’s it, oh no. It’s okay. You’ll do it. Try again. One morning she could barely stay upright and the next, she’s whizzing around our little cul-de-sac, blond curls flying behind her. Look at me! Look! Look.
I looked, her father looked. We saw her roll by, picking up speed, pedaling harder, determination fixed on her little mouth. We watched and applauded. Her father’s smile was the mirror of one I knew well. It was firm, it was grateful. Underneath, it was fixed to fear.
As a parent, the freedom is overwhelming. It is worrisome. It is tremendous. We have a child and every moment after is spent letting them go, in little bits. With every step, since their first step, the child is walking away. Tumbling around the edges of the couch in the family room, wobbling up the staircase. Mary Janes pounding the pavement, through the wet dewed morning, on the way to the bus stop. Shaving her legs in the shower with the radio blaring. Every single step, a little further she goes down the road alone. Riding her bicycle around the circle, around and around. Dizzy with joy and hard fought privilege. Look, look! She calls out to her father and me. But she doesn’t glance up to see if we are watching.
She knows without looking, without turning around. We are there.
Freedom is a two-wheeled spin, a lone bright flash under the streetlight. Freedom is holding back secrets of your own body alive, sharing what you want to share and keeping the rest for yourself, only. Freedom is the leathery smell of your new shoes on the school bus on the way to second grade.
Childhood is knowing that no matter how far away you ride that bicycle, someone unseen is always watching out for you, somewhere.
Parenthood is wondering just how long to stand outside before you turn around, gather up the shadowing sadness and walk back home again, alone.