I was lucky to have been what’s now called by hipsters a “free-range kid”: raised in the parenting style of the ’60s, which has also been labeled benign neglect. Basically, we were fed and clothed and taught basic manners and academic skills for as long as our parents could stand it, and allowed to play the rest of the time. We lived in the suburbs and the neighborhood was ours for the rambling, even at four and five years of age. Other mothers stood on their front porches and called to their children to come in for dinner; my mother was much too dignified for that sort of thing, but somehow we just knew when it was time to go home … most of the time.
My best friend Karen – who acquired that position by being the only other child my age on our street – had allergies. I never saw any evidence of this, but her mother would shriek at the thought of the tamest of excursions and she would happily submit to her mother’s restrictions. Karen couldn’t go out for picnics in the woods behind our house with my sister and me because of the pine pollen; she couldn’t go rolling down the hill across the street because of the grass; most of the time, she wanted to stay indoors at her house and color. I felt some contempt for her; even then I knew a child was not supposed to be so spiritless. She was, however, my only choice for a same-age playmate, and she did have an enviable collection of Barbie furniture and accessories. If my sister wasn’t available, spending time with Karen was better than playing by myself.
She did come up with one good idea for an adventure, a game we called, “Follow the Mailman.” The rules were simple: we followed our pleasant and very tolerant mailman as he walked his route until Karen got tired of it, and then we went home. Our short legs could keep up with his long ones only because we stayed on the street as he walked up each driveway and front porch to place letters and small packages into a box mounted next to the front door. Karen usually got tired of the game around the end of our street.
One day when she was indoors coloring, no doubt within the lines, I decided to play Follow the Mailman alone. Our mailman had white hair and looked rather jaunty in his blue uniform. I liked walking along behind him. I thought he had the greatest job in the world and that I’d like to deliver mail in a blue uniform when I grew up. I didn’t get one bit tired of the game.
Suddenly, he turned around and spoke to me. “Do you know your way home?”
It seemed like an odd question, but I looked around and saw a pink house with a turquoise door I’d never seen before. I had no idea where I was. “No,” I replied.
He sighed. “Well, I guess I’d better give you a ride, then.” He jerked his head towards the car in front of the pink house. Was that his car? Did he live in that house?
Wow, I thought. Not only did I follow the mailman, I followed him all the way home. I did the whole route. I can’t wait to tell Karen about this. He opened the car door for me and I hopped in.
What followed has been told to me, but I have no memory of any of it. The mailman delivered me safely home and apparently my mother gave me quite a talking-to and perhaps a spanking. A few days later, he approached her while she was outside weeding the front walkway. He told her that I hadn’t followed him again, but had shared with him the lesson she’d tried to teach me. I’d looked up into his cheerful face and smiled coyly. “My mommy says some men aren’t nice – but you are,” I’d said.
That might have been the source of my mother’s first gray hair.