The dangers of reading to your children include that they begin to think for themselves, that their reading comprehension and vocabulary skyrocket, and also that they may reenact the fictional scenarios they encounter.
Of late, my daughter has been big into the Ramona books by Beverly Cleary. There’s lots to emulate from the tales of Ramona. We learn how to be good sisters, how to accept criticism from peers and teachers, and how to speak your mind to your parents without getting in trouble. And, recently, Ramona inspired my 7-year-old daughter to try something else: run away from home.
Ramona declares toward the end of “Ramona and her Mother” that she will run away because she does not feel loved or appreciated. My daughter was likely feeling the same. She is a deeply emotional, sweet empath who feels all the feelings and feels them to their fullest extent. She was mad on this particular Sunday afternoon because we could not go swimming, an activity she loves. I also suspect she was nervous about going to camp for the first time the next day. Deep down, though, my refusal to take her swimming wasn’t what set her off on the road. I think she needed to know she was loved unconditionally.
Post-pandemic and post-pandemic divorce, my daughter has often “tested my love” by acting out. Kids do this and it’s something on my radar as a “bid” for my affection and attention. No matter what she does, even if it’s terrible, she wants to be reassured that I will not abandon her. She did this kind of thing before the divorce ... but we’d seen a big uptick since the split and we often discuss with our family therapist how to encourage my passionate kid to be a lover, not a fighter.
When she declared her intentions to run away, I took a page from Ramona’s mom, Mrs. Quimby, and brought my daughter a suitcase, already packed with her rain gear ... and two 10-pound hand weights. Mrs. Quimby’s plan is to make it so Ramona cannot run away. When Ramona figures out the plot, Mrs. Quimby says, “I couldn’t get along without my Ramona!” Ramona runs to her mother’s arms, feeling loved and accepted. End of book.
My daughter found the weights and yelled, “I know what you’re doing and it isn’t going to work! I’ve made up my mind and there’s nothing you can do to stop me!”
She finished packing, including her newest stuffed animal, a diary and markers, and several changes of clothes. I suggested she wear her boots so she’d be protected when the weather turns. She raised the hood on her bright pink sweatshirt, slung the bag over her shoulder, and slipped on her boots.
Her 5-year-old brother and I opened the front door and bid her adieu. The family dog sat attentively for a tearful goodbye.
“I might come back someday,” my daughter told the dog.
“Yes, but dogs don’t live forever, so she’ll be dead then,” I said, deadpan. Too far? I was a little nervous that my daughter wasn’t going to chicken out.
“Please stay!” pleaded her brother.
“I’m sorry,” she said. “This isn’t the place for me. I don’t know where it is, but I’m going to find it ... out there.” She looked up the hill and set off, not turning around even once.
I had a backup plan. Not only had we read the books, but we’d also watched the newest movie, “Ramona and Beezus.” In it, Ramona actually does run away and her mother puts the baby monitor in her bag so she can talk to Ramona and help get her home. I put a walkie-talkie in my daughter’s suitcase. When she was halfway up our street, I pulled out my walkie-talkie and said, “We love you. Please come home.”
My daughter stopped. She put her bag on the ground and started rifling through it, frantically looking for the walkie. This was it! She was going to tell me she’s coming home.
“It’s in the outer pocket!” I told her. She continued rifling and found it.
My son spoke next, “Please come home! Over.”
My daughter didn’t reply. He repeated the message.
“I turned it off!” she yelled down the street. She repacked her bag and set back off.
“Get your shoes,” I told my son as we watched her approach the crest of the hill. In a moment, we wouldn’t know which direction she went.
He obliged and we started trailing her. She didn’t turn around but once and when she did, we ducked behind a big SUV. She likely spotted us and walked faster, rounding the corner onto a busier street. I hurried my son along but his legs are little and it was a hot, humid day. She was getting pretty far up the street.
“Call to her,” I implored him.
“I love you!” he called. “You’re a good sister! Come home!”
She stopped. Turned.
“Do it again,” I told him, wanting him to be the hero.
“I love you!”
“There’s nothing you can say!” she yelled and crossed the street.
Enough was enough. This cute rite of passage was going to end up with me on the news.
“You can’t walk over there. The cars can’t see you!” I yelled and ran up to her. “At least let us walk you to the bus stop.”
She nodded resolutely and took my hand (my heart!).
I sat her down at the bus stop and told her the next bus came at 7 a.m. (a lie).
“Good night,” I said.
“Good night,” she replied, sitting on the bench. Her feet didn’t touch the ground.
“Watch out for coyotes,” I said and took her brother by the hand, starting in the direction of our house. “You know,” I said, turning around, “Since it’ll be a while, you could spend one more night at home?”
“All right,” she said, resigned. “One more night at home.”
She took my hand and walked home with us.
Had I won? No. She set an alarm for 6:45 a.m. and placed her bag by her bed.
“Will you read with us one last time?” I said, starting to worry she might actually wake up and try to leave again. She agreed. I chose, of course, “The Runaway Bunny” by Margaret Wise Brown.
As I read, I pointed to the words the mother bunny says, asking my daughter to read them.
“‘If you become a bird and fly away from me,’ said his mother, ‘I will be a tree that you come home to.’” She cried as she read the words.
So did I.
She leaned on my shoulder and read the mother’s line, “I will become your mother and catch you in my arms and hug you.”
Our big fat tears fell down our lookalike cheeks and she let me kiss her.
I had her read the runaway bunny’s last line: “‘Shucks,’ said the bunny, ‘I might just as well stay where I am and be your little bunny.’” I was sure I must have convinced her to stay by then, but, NO! She said goodbye to her brother, telling him once again that she’d miss him.
I tucked in the kids. My poor son was exhausted from the emotional toll of the day. My daughter let me read her another chapter from that troublemaker Ramona. I went downstairs. I came back up and she had snuck into her brother’s room and was pretending to be asleep (a mother knows). I picked her up and carried her back to her bed. I tucked her in and kissed her temple. “Goodnight, my little bunny,” I said. She theatrically sighed as if in her sleep.
I went downstairs and, within minutes, she appeared at the banister. “I’ve decided not to run away tomorrow.”
I won. I was immensely relieved I wasn’t going to have to call the police to retrieve her, but I plastered on a look of surprise and joy.
“You have? What fantastic news! What made you decide?”
“I want to go to camp tomorrow. It sounds like fun,” she replied.
“Yes, I think it will be. No other reason?”
“I want to keep playing Mario Odyssey,” she said.
“Oh. Yes. Of course. Well, I’m so glad. I love you.”
She hesitated. Then, “I love you, too.” And she flitted away.
I found her dead asleep, like a baby, with her arms over her head, in the center of my bed. She stayed there all night and, when I woke her up for camp the next morning, she didn’t mention anything about running away.
It’s a classic childhood power move and she was never in any danger, but I wondered how much the past year had impacted her decision to pack up. Last spring, the poor thing had lost her school, a place she was thriving. She lost the ability to see her friends. Then, as the pandemic summer started last year, she lost her parents’ marriage and the only home she’d ever known.
Now, as the pandemic (hopefully, please, hopefully) lets up and she gets to rejoin society in the form of summer camp, she does so in a mask and coming from one of two houses, having not socialized with more than one or two peers since last March.
Most of us are feeling a bit anxious and excited to rejoin the world after everything that’s happened. Most of us are coming out of this pandemic, if we’re lucky enough to come out at all, irrevocably changed. In my daughter’s case, the love that created her and the love her parents had for each other is gone and, by extension, it’s reasonable that she might worry will the love for her disappear too? Will her friends and family still love her, no matter what? Will mine? Will yours? Nothing is the same and yet, will I be lovable, again? Yes, my little runaway bunny, we will love you forever, no matter what.
Laura Wheatman Hill (she/her) lives in Oregon with her two children where she writes about everything and teaches English and drama when not living in an apocalyptic dystopia. She has been published by CNN, Real Simple, Parents, JSTOR Daily, and others. You can find her at laurawheatmanhill.