"Any truth is better than indefinite doubt."
~Sherlock Holmes, The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes
One: The Plan (1974)
I was visiting my gram the day I hatched my runaway
plan. A way to escape from everybody telling me what I should
At eight, the youngest in our crowded Western
New York farmhouse - Big Brick - I was different from the rest
of them; I sensed it. Everybody else had a regular name, but I
went by nicknames: The Caboose to my dad; The Baby
to my mom; Greg-ums to the others.
I longed to get away through the craggy forest behind our property and discover my own adventure. Something like Nancy Drew or the Hardy Boys might encounter.
My grandmother's living quarters had originally
been a two-car garage attached to our laundry room. Before she
moved in, Dad and some workers converted the space into a one-bedroom
suite with a kitchenette and separate entrance. A bay window in
the dining area looked out over the three-tiered lawn. Beyond,
an expansive field ended in a grove of fruit trees down by the
Gram was not satisfied.
Dad gave her the initial tour because she was
his mom. I tagged along.
She looked at the new appliances and fresh paint, her old-lady golden wig and large white earrings dipping forward in silent evaluation. As he showcased the living room, bedroom, kitchen, and bath, I watched her bracelets slide back and forth loosely on her bony wrists.
When they had seen the entire apartment, she drew
back, clasped her hands, and nodded toward the tan walls of the
living area. "Now, if ya had it to do over again, would ya
have picked that same color?"
I held my breath and watched my father closely,
to see if he'd yell. A heavyset man, he could raise his powerful
voice to shout or swear at a moment's notice.
Instead of shouting, he only snapped, "Aw, Mom," and brought the tour to a quick finish. I breathed more easily.
"They put me in the garage," Gram told
me later, her muted tangerine dress gathered about her legs as
she sat in the living room. I knew she meant my mom and dad, but
it was hard to understand why she didn't like the place. I had
to share a bedroom with my brother, Mike. With five older siblings,
somebody was always telling me what to do. To me, her three rooms
seemed spacious and private, a place where she could do what she
wanted when she wanted.
I visited her often, after school or during summer
days, winding down the back hallway of our home, through the laundry
room, to the double doors that entered her apartment. She served
me maple walnut ice cream when we sat at her small Formica table
in front of the bay window. She told true crime stories my mother
didn't approve of, stories of life ending mysteriously for unlucky
victims she'd encountered in her eighty years. Kids, dads, drunks
- no one escaped the cool hand of death in her tales.
"He was never up to no good," she shared
one day, about a man she'd known a long time ago. "He was
a hard man. A drinkin' man. That night he wandered out on the
tracks, he'd been drinkin', don't you doubt it." She stared
at me over her gray-framed glasses and stabbed an index finger
at my face. "That train came along and good night shirt!"
I recognized one of the strange phrases that often accompanied
her stories. Phrases like "Get off my foot!"
Or if she balled up her gangly fist and shook it in the air,"Smella
My mind spun. A train clacking through the night. The guy - maybe a crook! - crushed like a soda can, right here in our little town. I sat riveted to the chair, soaking up the intrigue between mouthfuls of creamy maple.
I hadn't been planning to run away. The idea
just sprouted one day as I looked out Gram's bay window at the
two hundred acres of farmland beyond the barn. Logistics immediately
pushed their way through the folds of my mind: what mysteries
I might encounter (find a lost treasure); which direction I would
head (north); what gear I might need (a compass).
Gram interrupted my thoughts of escape. "Go
into the bedroom and get me the picture with five boys in it,"
she instructed. "They took that picture and a week later
one of 'em drowned. Good night shirt!"
I located the small frame on top of her sewing
table. Reaching for it, I noticed the bottom drawer was not completely
shut. A hint of Reese's orange peeked out at me. I opened the
drawer another inch, slowly, so it wouldn't squeak. There with
her stationery and envelopes lay a ten-pack of peanut butter cups.
Perfect sustenance for my trip. I looked around the room. The
window was open a crack.
I could do it.
As I slid the drawer fully open, my mind saw Father
McFarland pull back the tiny window in the confessional at our
church, Saint Patrick's. There in the darkness, I would have to
shamefully whisper of my theft, praying the mesh screen masked
my identity. He'd whisper back my penance, concern evident in
his low tones. Would it be ten Hail Marys? Apologize to my grandmother?
I loved most things about church. Mystery peeked
out at me from every corner; darkened shadows whispering the secrets
of Saints long dead. At Mass, I watched the priest lift his shrouded
arms toward Heaven, muttering prayers only God could hear. Desire
to be holy like him, like my mother, always flooded me. To be
a son of God. To belong.
But the confessional was another story. Whenever
I entered the tiny wooden room, I felt embarrassed and exposed.
My budding crime came to an abrupt halt. I considered the Reese's
carefully. Was it worth it?
"Do ya see it, Honey?" Gram called from
the living room.
"Yeah, I got it."
I grabbed the frame and, with no time to consider
further consequences, the candy as well. I shoved the ten-pack
through the narrow gap of the open window. The orange wrapper
flashed as it fell to the grass outside.
I handed Gram the frame. She pointed to the different
children in the aged photo, including the one who had met with
an untimely death. Normally this would hold my attention, but
I worried about the peanut butter cups melting in the afternoon
She talked mother's tears; I pictured tears of
chocolate dripping off my candy. I finally told her I had to go
and raced through the laundry to one of Big Brick's back doors.
Outside, I crawled low under her window to snatch the Reese's.
I felt them through the wrapper. They were intact.
I brought the orange package to my bedroom and
laid it on my sleeping bag, then gathered more supplies. A pillow,
some Hardy Boy books. I looked at the pack and evaluated. It needed
a goodbye note.
I sat on the corner of my bed and wrote a long
letter to my family, listing how sorry I was to leave, but for
them not to miss me. I drew eight round faces - my mom, dad, gram,
my five older siblings - and penned streams of tears running down
their tiny paper cheeks.
There wasn't a dry eye on the page.
The goodbye note went in with the other supplies. I rolled the sleeping bag into a tight cylinder and hid it in the back of my closet.
The excitement of my impending departure distracted me from the guilt of my theft. I did worry that Gram would miss the candy and tell my dad but, as two days passed, the paternal wrath I expected never materialized. I continued to imagine my adventure, waiting for the right opportunity to escape.
The next morning I woke to rain, a steady, pounding
curtain of water on the upstairs windows. Using the delay of weather
to tighten my plan, I decided to add a map to my runaway kit.
On my adventure, I'd travel further than our rural twin towns,
Macedon and Palmyra, where I'd lived all my life. Heading to the
downstairs bookshelves, I pulled out a thin road atlas - which
promised Up-To-Date Construction Information in a little
yellow bubble - and carried it upstairs.
Opening my bedroom door, I discovered Mike and
Anne, my brother and sister, sitting in the center of the carpet.
Mike was six years my senior and wiser about everything.
He wore his brown hair short and straight-cut across the bangs,
giving him a serious, tough-guy edge. He wrestled at school -
which showed in the tight bulge of his arm muscles.
Just a year younger than
Mike, Anne was often at his side. My tomboy sister, her hair hung
in a long dark splash to her shoulders, curling slightly near
the ends, as if in defiance to the straightness of the rest. Her
boldness earned my brother's respect. I envied her.
My sleeping bag lay between them on the floor,
unrolled. Mike had my goodbye note in his hand and was reading
They were in hysterics.
"What - is - your - problem?" he asked,
barely able to get the words out.
I reached for the note, my face flushing with
familiar warmth. He held it toward me, waving it back and forth.
I grabbed, missed, then snatched it from him. I tore it up quickly.
"So you're gonna run away?" Anne transitioned
from laughter to concern.
My meticulous plan evaporated into embarrassment.
"NO," I said.
The impact was gone - now that they knew about
it. Besides, it was really raining outside, and the reality of
sleeping on soggy grass diluted the portrait of my grand escape.
"Where'd you get the peanut butter cups?"
Anne interrupted my thoughts.
"At the store," I said, mentally adding lying to the list I'd review with Father McFarland, as Mike tore open the package and divided the spoils among us.
? ? ?
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Are you living in Jupiter's Shadow?
you hiding in others' expectations
whether they are unspoken expectations from society
or unquestioned expectations from family and friends
or unconfirmed expectations from God
instead of just being who you really are?
you convince yourself of what you "should be?
Or how you "should look?
Or whom you "should love"?
Leave the shadow behind. Know yourself.