Finding My Way to Trust

Grownup lessons from a classic children’s book.

by Amy Wallace
Photograph: Illustration by David Cowles

"And he set off on his walk, taking his big purple crayon with him."
When I was four years old, my mother put me in a borrowed yellow Karmann Ghia with a man I’d never met and pointed the car west.
We had been living in New Jersey for only a few weeks when my mom decided on this course of action. She believed my father, a young philosophy professor who was just starting at Princeton, had cheated on her. But that wasn’t all. At the local supermarket, she saw other faculty wives trudging from aisle to aisle, screaming children in tow. Suddenly, she knew she didn’t want to be one of them. How much her moment of clarity had to do with the fact that she’d met someone else—a graduate student back in California—I guess I’ll never know.
When that graduate student came East to pick up a friend’s yellow coupe and drive it back to the other coast, my mother saw her chance. She asked if we could bum a ride. We left Princeton without saying good-bye to my father. By the time he came home to a dark apartment and found my mother’s terse note, we were long gone.
“All I took was the hi-fi and the records,” my mother told me recently. After a beat, she added: “And you.”
I’m told I spent the five days of our 3,000-mile drive curled up in the backseat, quietly watching our velocity tear at a sheet of opaque plastic taped over the missing passenger window. When we arrived in Oakland—that would be my mother, the graduate student and me—the three of us moved in together.
It was the fall of 1966; you couldn’t turn on a radio without hearing the Mamas & the Papas singing “California Dreamin’?” (“I’d be safe and warm, if I was in L.A.”). Now we were back in California, where I’d been born. But I felt anything but safe and warm.
I wouldn’t see my father again for almost a year.
“He didn’t want to get lost in the woods. So he made a very small forest, with just one tree in it.”
According to a story my mother likes to tell, for my sixth birthday I asked for only one present: an alarm clock. Although we lived directly across the street from Mills Lawn Elementary School, I was often late to first grade. My mother and her boyfriend were not hippies. (I’ve been corrected on this more than once.) They preferred the term radicals. They lived together without marrying, took me to antiwar demonstrations and held late-night strategy sessions in our living room about how to overthrow the establishment and bring an end to the Vietnam War. Their activism was mostly admirable, idealistic, even romantic. But since their ideals often got discussed late into the night, getting up in the morning was a constant challenge.
I didn’t like being late to school. First of all, it called attention to me, which I strove to avoid. More important, school was a place of consistency. There was nothing chaotic about it, and if I could have lived there, I would have.
As a kid, self-sufficiency was part of survival. I ate breakfast alone, packed my own lunch, then tiptoed into my mother and her boyfriend’s bedroom to dig through their pockets for milk money. By the time I was nine, I was sent to visit my father and his new wife every summer. The trip involved flying through Chicago, changing planes, then continuing on to Minneapolis, where he’d moved. I always did this trip solo, which made me nervous at first, and then, once I’d mastered it, made me think I was perhaps more capable than I’d realized. But the satisfaction I felt in being resourceful was often tinged with loneliness.
I felt different from other kids. That feeling was exacerbated by my lack of a religious education. Being raised by atheists obviously meant I had no church, no temple, no Sunday school or Hebrew school to complain about having to attend. When my friends bemoaned how those classes cut into their free time, I laughed as if I were the lucky one. But I wondered why I wasn’t among them.

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