When my son, Jacob, was 5 years old, I dropped him off at a Seattle day care center, not knowing it was closed for Good Friday. He knocked and knocked on the front door. Nobody answered.
This disaster predated the cellphone. Jacob — blond, blue-eyed, impish — had nothing but my business card. He had asked for it several days before. He was proud that I had one, like the other moms. He had zipped it into the pocket of his red jacket, the one he wore when I dropped him off that day. I was a magazine editor on deadline, young, stressed.
Jacob eventually stopped knocking. He sat on the concrete steps. He did not know what to do next.
My child on the milk bottle, my child on the evening news. Those images haunt me. Yet this story has a surprising twist. Recently, I asked Jacob what that first moment was like. Was he terrified? Twenty-six years have sped by. He’s a lawyer in Seattle.
He laughed and said: “Mom, stop beating yourself up. I have vivid memories of that day. It was an adventure.”
In my shame I had forgotten that children long for new things. They love to explore. In fact, we were experimenting that day. Jacob’s day care provider lived in a rhododendron-draped house in fancy Laurelhurst, at the bottom of a green hill near Lake Washington.
Jacob wanted to run into the house by himself that morning. He wanted to know what that felt like. He had been complaining of being babied. So I watched him go to the door, pull back the screen and knock. I could swear the front door opened. He looked back and waved me off. “Go, go.”
An hour later, a man called my office. “You have a very intelligent little boy,” he said in a cheery voice.
“Yes, I know.” I waited for him to explain himself. He identified himself as a store manager. He said Jacob was with him at the market on Sandpoint Way, a four-lane arterial several blocks uphill from the day care.
“That can’t be my son,” I said.
“Well, he’s got your business card.”
At first I thought Jacob had run away from day care. When he was 3, he had figured out how to burrow under our backyard fence. I caught up with him at the neighbor’s house across the street, minutes later.
Once I grasped this latest horror, I shoved manuscripts into a bag and told the manager I’d come right away. “He must be so frightened,” I said.
“Nope, he hasn’t shown a bit of worry. He marched right in here this morning. He asked, ‘Where is the phone? I need to call my mother.’ He’s very self-confident.”
Jacob sat on my lap the rest of the day. We watched TV. He held the channel changer and ate Popsicles. He is my only child. We learned, and are still learning, how to do this job together.
“I wasn’t scared,” he now insists. “I wondered, could this really be true? Nobody’s here? At first I thought I should wait. But I was afraid of being bored. I didn’t see how I could wait around all day.”
“Why did you go to the store?”
“I knew you had to find a public place to phone.”
“What’s the main thing you remember?”
“I ate so much fried chicken,” he said. “They said I could eat anything I wanted. And I did.”
“You weren’t scared a single second?”
“You have to remember I had wanderlust,” he said. “I always did. I had already been thinking about riding a bike up and down those hills, down to the lake, everywhere. I couldn’t wait to do that.”
He can still recite my office number. He knew he could call me anytime.
“You have to let kids do things,” an Italian aunt used to tell me, when Jacob broke his arm snowboarding or nagged me for skydiving lessons. “If they live, they’ll be strong.”
She meant we can teach courage as well as carefulness. When we stress safety above all else, we forget our trapped childhoods, how we longed to climb boulders, ride ocean waves or float like Huck Finn on a river raft.
We forget how young we were, when we first hungered for freedom.
Candace Dempsey is an award-winning journalist, travel writer, and the author of Murder In Italy, the true story of Amanda Knox.T