Unleashed

My son Jeremy was like most babies. First he crawled, then learned to pull himself up to standing position on the side of the coffee table or couch. Sometimes my husband would hold him up on his feet while I sat across the room and called, urging him to take that first step. Much to the disappointment of his grandparents who enquired daily, he was reluctant to venture from the security of his father’s hands but finally he did. He could walk. By the following day he was running.

Jeremy reveled in his accomplishment, darting as quickly and as far as his little legs would take him, all the while giggling with devilish enjoyment. We proudly laughed at his antics but with our second child growing inside me I struggled to catch him and eventually bought one of those toddler harnesses with a long strap to prevent him from escaping and getting into danger.My next-door-neighbour was unimpressed. “It’s like a dog on a leash,” she scoffed, leaning over her front gate, “you’ll stifle him.”Would the leash stifle him? I wondered as we made our way to the park, stopping to pick a yellow daisy at one house and to pat the tabby tom at another. We reached the playground and I removed the harness. Jeremy ran toward the sand pit without a backward glance.I settled on a seat nearby where I could watch him but my neighbour’s comments continued to trouble me. I thought back to my own childhood and a girl who lived in my street, Jenny Peterson. Her mother was strict, very strict and I recalled my mother predicting a calamity. “She needs to give that girl some space,” she said, “a little freedom is a good thing as long as you have boundaries.”My parents practiced as they preached and I was always given a long rein to find out for myself about the world. I made mistakes, of course, but they never said I told you so. Best of all they gave me the confidence to reach out and embrace life, knowing that if I fell I would have a soft place to land.Jenny, on the other hand, couldn’t move without her parents’ permission. When we were five, most of us still loved to play in the sand pit like Jeremy, making castles, moats and tunnels, burying ourselves under piles of sand with only our heads sticking out or trying to dig to China. Jenny would pause and watch longingly on her way to the corner shop to fetch milk or bread for her mother. We always called out, asking her to join our fun but she would shake her head and run quickly home.But on one occasion as we constructed our biggest castle ever, aided by a heavy fall of rain the previous night making the grains of sand stick perfectly together, Jenny dropped her string bag containing milk and bread and ran to join us. She rolled up her sleeves and began furiously digging the moat then sat back on her haunches watching in wonder as it filled with water. Her hands and arms were coated with sand, her dress sopping and she had a streak of mud across her left cheek. She grinned at us, her perfect white teeth gleaming, then suddenly she froze.“Jennifer!” Mrs Peterson loomed over us, her shadow falling across the castle like a giant thundercloud. We waited for a tirade but she didn’t need to say another word, her dark face said it all. Jenny ran to pick up the string bag and followed her mother home with her head bowed.From that day Jennifer never went to the corner shop unless her mother accompanied her and certainly didn’t dare look across at us as they passed the park. At school she played alone in a quiet corner.When we moved on to high school we found it boasted a new state-of-the-art library and Jenny found a new haven. She was there every lunchtime perusing a thick tome although sometimes on the rainy days when we all craved a warmer locale, I caught her observing us above the pages with a sad look in her eyes.Although the curriculum back then was rather conservative, it was deemed that we should be given sex education during the course of biology lessons. Most of us heckled to cover our embarrassment and red faces but our young teacher gave as good as he got and became quite adept at putting us in our places if we overstepped the mark But mostly our curiosity kept us aloofly interested even though we pretended we already knew it all.One warm afternoon as our teacher embarked on a discourse about sexually transmitted diseases, we were disturbed by a commotion in the hallway. Suddenly, Mrs Peterson burst through the door, her irate face much redder than any of ours, and her arms outstretched menacingly. She marched over to our teacher and berated him, tearing almost physical strips from him, as he stood stunned with his mouth gapping. Then she grabbed Jenny’s jumper, nearly ripping it over her head as she dragged her from the room. From that day our science classes reverted to frog dissecting sessions and long lists of plant classifications.As the end of our high school days approached we thought more of the plans for a formal dance than of our exams. No one thought to question Jenny about her choice of dress for the big event, assuming that there was no way her mother would allow her to attend.The night finally arrived, a perfect night, warm with a star-filled sky and a gentle breeze. I waited on the steps of the hall with my friends, nervously daring each other to be the first to enter, when out of the shadows stepped Jenny in a beautiful pink gown. I gasped, we all gasped, as she shyly joined us. One of the boys recovered quickly and took her arm to lead her inside and we followed like sheep.Jenny didn’t sit out for a single dance that night. The boys fell over themselves and the girls giggled with her as though they had always done. Her shining face showed how much she enjoyed being part of the crowd.Then, as the clock struck midnight, her face fell and in a scene reminiscent of the Cinderella story she ran from the hall. I heard later that she had been set a curfew and though only a few minutes late, she had earned her mother’s wrath once again.After our exams I started work at a local store and pretty much forgot about Jenny until one night at dinner my mother divulged the latest gossip from the hairdresser. Tired of her mother’s oppression, Jenny had moved out of home.I heard lots of stories after that but none of them good. Jenny had quickly become involved with a bad crowd and was living life in the fast lane. Her neighbours reported a volatile argument on the day Jenny returned for some of her things with Mrs Peterson threatening dire consequences if she ever darkened her doorstep again. She was no longer her daughter.It was several years before I heard anything of Jenny again. Her mother, presented a sad lonely figure on her once weekly shopping trip and was hardly ever seen on other days. The postman rarely stopped at her mailbox and if he did, she waited until dark to collect it.I married and we found an affordable home just around the corner from my old neighbourhood. Many former residents had moved on but my parents stayed in their small but comfortable home and I often visited, especially in the weeks leading up to Jeremy’s birth when I craved Mum’s shortbread biscuits and her welcome advice.It was on one of my visits, as I waddled around the garden to inspect Dad’s prize roses that we noticed a small red car pull up in front of Mrs Peterson’s home. From the driver’s seat emerged Jenny, her belly almost as swollen as mine.We stared, quite rudely I guess, as she waddled up the front path, her head held high and eyes firmly fixed on the front door. We heard the knock even from three doors down and I held my breath as we waited for the outcome.Slowly the door opened and the two women stood silently staring at each other. Then tears began to stream down Mrs Peterson’s face and her prodigal daughter stepped forward and wrapped her arms around her mother.
Now Jeremy is waving excitedly toward the end of the playground and I can see his friend Sam running toward him. Two women follow and the older one makes as if to call him back but she is stopped by a gentle hand movement from the younger one.Mother and grandmother join me on the bench. The boys begin digging to China.

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