by Lynn Campbell
Who runs away from home when they are five years old? Tanya did.
She was pushing six, actually, being an October baby. A wee woman of the world! Very independent and grown up was she, after being on her own at school, succeeding all on her own at Play-Doh sculptures and singing “The Wheels on the Bus” (every word memorized perfectly, but sung off key.)
It was in 1960, the summer after kindergarten when Tanya flew the coop. There was a wicked heat wave, the kind that is only tolerable if you have a cottage surrounded by towering shade trees, and spend all day floating in a cool lake in an inflatable flamingo. Her substandard alternative was a blow-up kiddie pool full of lukewarm water, a couple of drowned houseflies, and some residual sand from the sandbox scratching her bottom. And worst of all, also in the pool was her cousin Wendy.
Aunt Betsy was babysitting Tanya during summer break, and of course she brought along her own little girl, Wendy. Whiny Wendy. She wasn’t very mature or sophisticated for a young woman who was soon turning four, Tanya observed. Maybe this was because Wendy had not yet ventured out into the big world of kindergarten.
Wendy had round blue eyes that were almost too big for her delicate little heart-shaped face. Those eyes easily sprouted tears whenever her mother ventured into the backyard to check on “the gals” as she referred to her young charges. The commercials on the soap opera she was watching blared out the window. Instead of staying with the children in the play yard, Aunt Betsy preferred to spend her time sitting by the living room fan to enjoy a hot air breeze, a coffee cup always in hand.
In Tanya’s expert opinion regarding the roles and responsibilities of adults, Aunt Betsy should have been braving it in the backyard with the kids. Or she should have let them indoors to sit by the fan and watch cartoons. Didn’t the word “babysitting” actually imply sitting with the babies? Her mother never left her alone outside, unless she quickly ran into the house to fetch her an orange popsicle. Tanya’s kindergarten teacher never left the class alone either, not even at lunchtime or recess.
Tanya was tired of toast and jam for lunch every day. Aunt Betsy said it was too hot to boil hot dogs, her favorite. She was tired of Whiny Wendy always getting her way, complaining that Tanya didn’t let her have a turn on the only swing. That was a bold-faced lie! She was tired of Wendy getting the coveted last orange popsicle while she got stuck with grape, which she didn’t like. Plastic cups of tap water weren’t cutting it either. Why couldn’t Aunt Betsy strain herself and make some Kool-Aid? (orange of course.)
Another cardinal sin: Aunt Betsy always said no when the ice-cream truck came by. Tanya’s daddy always said yes and dug into his trouser pocket for change to pay for a cold treat. Tanya’s favorite was the Buried Treasure, an icy, cone-shaped confection of vanilla ice cream and orange sherbet. The plastic stick had a figurine on the end, maybe a pirate or a puppy or a fairy. Tanya had quite a collection. She was very proud of it. She blamed Wendy when the fairy mysteriously disappeared.
It was a big disappointment when the old guy with the beard and the knife sharpening cart came through the neighborhood, because his bell sounded kind of like the one on the ice-cream truck.
Tanya didn’t like Aunt Betsy any more than she liked the knife-sharpening man. And her coffee smelled funny. She missed her mommy and despised Wendy, and was just as fed up as a five-and-three-quarter-year-old young lady could be.
It was pretty easy to run away from home on Aunt Betsy’s watch, since she didn’t pay much attention anyway.
Tanya rounded up her necessary supplies. Into her blue-metal doll pram, she packed her favorite doll, Raggedy Ann. Somehow, Rag had got a mysterious blue stain on the forehead, ever since Whiny Wendy had been an unwelcome guest. But Tanya still loved Raggedy Ann just the same, perhaps even more. Both were victims of the toddler intruder. She added her blanket with the worn-silk edges, the one with the moon and the stars motif, just in case one day, far into the future, it would turn cold outside.
A ball, Tanya thought, that would give her something to do. It was a small rubber ball, colored red, white, and blue.
She also took along her little notebook that Santa had put in her Christmas stocking, the one with the white kitten on the front. And some crayons, purple and yellow, the latter broken in half. All she could write were ABCs and 123s, and three letter words like dog and cat and sun.
Tanya wasn’t a very good artist. She couldn’t draw very well or even color between the lines. Mommy would say “What a nice picture of an airplane, Tanya!” when in fact she was going for a butterfly.
But she brought her notebook along anyway, looking to the future, because she wanted to be a famous writer one day, so she would need these important tools of the trade. She was confident that she would learn how to spell more words in grade one and be on her way to a successful literary career.
She packed a small, framed photo of herself as a newborn with her adoring parents to remember them by. You couldn’t see much of Baby Tanya in that little black-and-white picture. Mostly blanket, tiny little eyes peeking out.
She was almost ready for takeoff when it occurred to her that she might need something to eat. She snuck into the kitchen and grabbed a box of Rice Krispies. They weren’t as good dry, but she couldn’t starve to death. She would need sustenance, like the hikers and mountain climbers that she had seen on the TV documentaries that her daddy liked to watch. They nibbled on dry packets of things for energy as they made tracks through forests and scaled high into the mountains. Little Tanya felt like she imagined that they must feel—independent and emboldened, ready for adventure.
Her doll buggy was bright blue in color, with two white stripes on either side. Very decorative and distinctive. She thought of them as racing stripes. This toy pram full of necessities served as Tanya’s getaway car, a little girl’s equivalent to a homeless person’s trundle buggy.
There was only one place to go. Only one place that she knew how to get to: her public school. It was at the end of her residential street, past all of the little wartime bungalows with their neat lawns and pretty flowerbeds.
Dear Raggedy in tow, Tanya ventured up to the school, feeling a buoyant sense of freedom, but when she arrived at her destination, her joy melted into disappointment like a popsicle in the hot sun. Because it was the summer holiday, the doors were locked, and the playground was empty except for a bit of litter and someone’s lost baseball cap. Her beloved school yard, usually full of happy faces and voices, was deserted. There was no one playing hopscotch and no one on the slide. Tanya felt lonely and strangely out of place, but she endeavored to make the best of it.
There wasn’t much to do, so she ate a handful of dry cereal and then started bouncing her ball against the brick wall. Perhaps it was this noise that attracted Gordie to the school yard. He lived two doors down, and, like Tanya, he was a man of the world, a kindergarten graduate, fully prepared for the challenges of grade one. Gordie stayed home with his older brother while his mom was at work. There was no dad.
Brother Jack was as big as a dad. He looked big enough to be in high school or college. But it turned out that he was just tall, and last year he was in grade seven. The brothers both had what Tanya called “sticky-outy hair and sticky-outy ears.” But they were both very nice and they smiled a lot.
Gordie and Jack came by, baseball gloves and a worn ball that was once white in hand.
“Hey, kid, whatcha doing?” Jack asked. “Are you here by yourself?”
“Yes,” Tanya felt very grown up when she announced that she had run away from home. She was truly an independent woman now.
“I don’t like my aunt. She’s our babysitter but she doesn’t even sit with us. I’m running away from home until she goes away forever.”
“Did she, uh, hit you?” That was Jack.
“No, but I still don’t like her. She’s not fair. She won’t cut my crusts off, she doesn’t listen, her coffee smells funny, and her kid is whiny. And I’m pretty sure that she peed in the kiddie pool and she lied about it. She lied about not having a turn on the swing too.”
Jack assumed that the cousin had peed in the pool and hogged the swing, not the aunt.
“Hmmm,” Jack regarded the situation with a thoughtful frown.
“How about we go up to the plaza for some chips? And a cold drink? Wouldn’t that be good?” Jack asked.
The plaza was a short walk, a couple of blocks, but in this intense heat and with her short legs, and the pram to push, little Tanya was sweaty when they arrived. She felt like they had walked miles and miles, enduring weather-related hardships but soldiering on, like those hikers on TV.
Jack assured her that it would be safe to park her doll buggy outside the restaurant. They could sit by the window to watch through the glass to make sure that Tanya’s prized possessions were safe, he suggested.
The lady she only knew as “Gordie’s mom” worked the lunch shift at the fish ’n’ chips shop. She had kind eyes and a pink floral scarf wrapped around her hair. Gordie’s mom always smelled of vinegar.
After Jack whispered something in her ear, Gordie’s mom put a big plate of French fries at the kids’ booth and three cold, orange Fanta pops with plastic straws. Being very thirsty, Tanya downed her drink so quickly that that she burped loudly and then started to hiccup, making the boys laugh. Gordie’s mom brought her a refill and told her to take it easy. Tanya had never had a carbonated beverage before. She was glad that the pop came in orange flavor.
Gordie’s mom disappeared into the little back office/storeroom where there was a telephone on a desk crowded with receipts and ledgers. She had to get in touch with Tanya’s mother. She flipped through the telephone book. She wasn’t sure where Tanya’s mother worked, and Tanya wasn’t sure either.
First, Gordie’s mom called Tanya’s neighbor Marilyn, who sometimes watched Tanya after school. Luckily, Marilyn and her family had just got home from their annual two-week summer camping trip. Marilyn gave Gordie’s mom Tanya’s mothers’ phone number at the office.
This summer, Tanya had really missed playing with her next-door friend Davey, an older man who had graduated from grade one. He was Marilyn’s son. “No guests” was one of awful Aunt Betsy’s awful rules.
Running away from home was pretty fun, thought Tanya. Here she was enjoying French fries and laughing and joking with the boys instead of being stuck in the backyard with Whiny Wendy all day.
What a surprise when Tanya’s mother rushed in, all flushed looking. She was wearing the blue-cotton shirtdress with the full skirt that she wore to work. It swished with her hurried steps. Tanya inhaled the familiar, comforting scent of her perfume.
When Tanya’s mother scooped her up into a big hug, there were tears in both of their eyes.
Tanya never saw her Aunt Betsy again.
Photo credit Artur Aldyrkhanov (Marseille, France) @aldyrkhanov
Lynn Rhodes Campbell is a freelance writer, based in the friendly village of Sunderland, Ontario. For the past nine years, she has written feature articles for Focus on Scugog magazine. She started out her career as a newspaper reporter after studying journalism at Ryerson University. Previously, she worked as the writer/photographer/news editor of the Uxbridge Times-Journal, wrote high-profile columns for the Toronto Sunday Sun. Lynn’s comic novel, entitled Journal of a House Sale: Buy My House Please! was self-published in 2012. Despite other career pursuits over the years, she has always enjoyed writing fiction and poetry in her spare time.