Note: This is a quick little story that I hammered out while writing with my students last week during a lesson on description and detail, as part of a unit on narrative writing. I am blending a lot of material from George Hillocks and Francis Christensen, two of my composition teacher heroes. It is the product of one and a half hour-long class periods, and I only did the most cursory job of editing. Still it is a demonstration of the kind of thing I have done recently with students in class.
One day when I was around five years old, I saw my young life flash before my eyes.
It was on this particular day that my mother and I had to run to Dominick’s, one of the local grocery chains where I grew up. All of the grocery chains had banks in them, even back then. If I recall correctly, my mother needed to run into the store quickly and cash a check, long before drive-up ATMs.
In retrospect, it was around this time that my mother was clearly working on separation issues involved in parenting a young child. Periodically, she would leave me securely in our van for a few minutes at a time while she ran in some place. This was the case on this day.
My mother pulled our van in front of the grocery store, in the fire lane, told me that she was going to run into the store, that it would take about five minutes, and that she could see me through the glass storefront the whole time she would be gone. My job was to sit tight and wait for her to return. The directions were easy enough and I understood them. Yet, I was a bit of a nervous young boy and was unsettled by the prospects of being alone without a parent or other adult in immediate reach, The only times this wasn’t the case was if I was busy playing at something, absorbed in my own world, not wanting to be bothered by anyone. This was clearly not one of those times.
Within a minute or two after my mother departed and locked me in the van, I watched her enter the store from the front passenger seat. Despite being able to see her the whole time through the giant, glass front of the grocery store, I started to feel a little panicky. It was hard to sit still in the big empty van. Plus, I could clearly see and even read the red-lettered no parking sign in the fire lane where I sat, alone, on the powder-blue seat of our big white van.
Being a bit of a rule wonk, like most kids that age, it always troubled me that my mother would pull up and park in the fire lane. She used to always say that it was only for a minute. On this occasion in particular, she said I would be in the car so it was almost like not actually parking – or at least that is how I remember her attempting to justify things like that when I was a boy. As if I could move the car were a police officer to come or by chance an actual emergency were to occur. Nevertheless, sitting in the van and feeling pretty confident that it shouldn’t be stopped where it was contributed to my nervousness.
The longer it took my mom, the more fidgety I became. While it may have been a mere few moments, it seemed like hours to the five year-old me. I grew so uncomfortable that I made up my mind to jump out of the van and go get my mom. So I reached for the handle, pulled it, and started to open the door, just as my mother came out the storefront’s exit.
At this point, my fear of being alone subsided quickly. Yet, now I was worried that I was going to get into trouble for not listening and attempting to leave the vehicle, which obviously would have been a little dangerous. I was pretty sure that I would get a serious scolding. So I desperately tried to close the door before she noticed anything.
There was one major problem. At five, I wasn’t actually strong enough to pull the van’s door closed. So I did the best I could, desperately hoping that my mother didn’t see the partially opened door. Luckily, at least to me, she didn’t.
She jumped in the van, praised me for being a good listener, and put it in drive to leave.
One thing I should mention was that this was the 1970s, long before there were seat-belt laws, not to mention the fact that most people, at least the ones I knew, didn’t wear them anyway. I still think from time to time, how amazing to me it is that I didn’t end up flying from a vehicle at some point, considering how much of my childhood I spent playing with toys, unrestrained, in the back seat of pretty much every vehicle we owned. Needless to say, neither of us were wearing seat belts at this moment.
As my mother began to accelerate, there I was clinging to the van door, hoping and praying that I would not be caught for trying to leave the vehicle. It seemed like it was going to work, until my mother made a left turn to go down the aisle of the parking lot towards the exit.
As the van reached the apex of the turn, it quickly became clear that I could no longer keep the door looking closed. I tightened my grip on the door handle, now with both hands, hopelessly trying to hold it as closed as possible. In a matter of seconds, before I even knew what was happening, the door flew open with me still clutching the handle, now for life, and my string bean five year-old self going nearly horizontal out the side of the moving van.
I will never forget how vivid the asphalt of the parking lot seemed as I looked down, while flying outside our van’s cockpit. It was as if time slowed. I could see every pebble and fleck of faded color in that pavement below me. On one level, if for only a split second, it was kind of awesome. I even felt a little like Superman.
Of course that feeling was instantly overcome by the sheer terror that rose from both my mother and me. In a flash my mother did her own superhero turn, reaching across and beyond the gap that separated the two front seats, grabbing me by the seat of my pants, jerking me back towards her and into the still moving vehicle, before slamming on the breaks and trying make sense of what had just happened.
We both looked at each other in a kind of stunned, suspended moment, my mother’s face agape with a mix of shock and horror, as she tried to find her breath. Me a bit disoriented but grateful not to have been sent flying through the air, untethered and likely to ping off of a parked car or careen across the parking lot in a smear on the pavement.
Now that I am a parent, I understand this frozen moment even more, the rush of adrenaline that accompanies danger, the shock that grabs hold almost instantly in the aftermath, the sudden speechlessness of being completely overwhelmed, and the strange, ill-feeling of graciousness at the recognition of what has just happened and how closely worse consequences were avoided.
“What were you doing?!” roared from my mother’s clenched throat, tears welling in her eyes.
“I…I…opened the door before you came back and…” I began to gush, relaying the whole story in a flurry of what probably sounded like incoherent gibberish.
My mother pulled me across the the van and into her lap, squeezing me and pressing her cheek atop my head, and with an involuntary gentle rocking, rather quietly said, “Don’t you ever do anything like that again.”
I can’t remember how long we sat there, together in the driver’s seat, in the middle of a grocery store parking lot, with the passenger door wide open. At some point, my mother put me back in the other seat, closed the door, collected herself, and we went on about our day. Very little was said about what happened after that. To this day, I think we only ever talked about this event once, when I was well into adulthood.