I grew up in a yellow, rectangular house. It perched on a hill on a five acre lot, and we had everything: a pool, woods, a tree fort, a zip line, a rope swing, a tether-ball pole, a garage roof to play on, a sledding hill in the winter, a baseball field in the summer, and plenty of room for a roaming imagination. Lest I overly glamorize it, picking up sticks (what we seemed to end up doing most Saturdays) was an endless, sappy project, and shoveling the driveway in the winter could take several hours, even with four people (granted, the youngest one often ended up playing instead of shoveling).
About a quarter mile down the dirt road from our house was The Park. When I was tiny little, I think it hosted a wooden play set—but it rotted, so they tore it down, and put up swings instead. Four swings, with thick silver chains, hard black rubber seats, and sturdy green support beams that were just the right size to shimmy up.
Our community used to have a picnic at The Park every summer—there was a clown making balloon art with any color balloon you wanted, lots of people, and lots of food. We'd always go down for a while and eat, and my parents probably talked to people, and my siblings and I probably stuffed our pockets with the free candy on the picnic tables. Okay, we definitely did. We were children of true culture.
One year, when I was still small enough for my dad's deep brown cowboy boots to come past my knees, we went to the picnic in installments. I was in the on-foot group, others were on bikes. After eating our fill and participating in some neighborhoodly activities (getting a blue balloon something, chatting with strangers, and taking candy), my sister, brother, and I headed home. They'd been part of the on-bikes group.
Too small and chubby to have any chance of success in the impromptu race one of us started (competition is a fact of life in big families), I was running up the hill behind them (I like to think of it as striving valiantly). But as they kept getting farther ahead and my chubby legs got more tired, I stopped running. When a black SUV pulled up and stopped next to me, the bikers were too far away and focused on victory to intervene. Through an open window or door, the nice people offered me a ride home. I didn't know them, but I did know I'd have great bragging rights if I beat the older ones home. I nodded my blonde head, clutched my balloon close, and climbed in.
The ride home took less than two minutes, and I don't remember any of it. I probably chatted happily. What I do remember is gloating at the end of the driveway after they dropped me off, and waiting for the older ones to get home so I could proudly boast my victory. To my shock, the pride only lasted about as long as the car ride—right until my parents found out. I had my bath, then put on my flannel Winnie-the-Pooh nightgown (white, with a cotton candy pink ruffle around the bottom), then got the first (that I remember), and perhaps most severe lecture of my childhood. Any parent can imagine how it went—anyone else just needs to know that accepting rides from strangers is definitely a no-go.
Until then, I didn't know. After that, I knew. I definitely knew.
And after the scolding had ended, and they'd wiped my tears away and my mom hugged and kissed me, my dad held me as I cried off the sting of the reprimand. Even when I finished crying, he stood and held me and gently swayed back and forth.
For a very long time.
And that's how the story goes in my mind, and that's how it ends.