Friday, January 14, 2022

Just Beyond The Limits

Yesterday morning as I sipped my morning coffee a five-year-old girl emerged from the house next-door, walking a puppy. 
My neighbor's son, his wife, and their two children have been visiting her for the past couple weeks and the kids have taken over dog-walking duties, although this is the first time I'd seen the girl walking the dog without her older brother.

You don't often see preschool aged children out and about alone, even in our quiet area, so I anticipated that I would next see the boy running to catch her up, but when, after several minutes, he didn't appear, I began to wonder if maybe the girl had slipped out without telling anyone.

It's the kind of thing a young child might do, one who feels she's being treated as a "baby," one who feels the urge to taste independence, who wants to prove her competence to herself. I've noticed that her ten-year-old brother tends to "mother" her a little, earnestly instructing and correcting her when he's the responsible one. Maybe she was attempting to escape that.

I wasn't worried because, after all, I had eyes on her, but I imagined that her parents probably would be rather frantic if they should find her missing.

A five-year-old out walking the dog alone would have only been unusual in my childhood neighborhood because back then we didn't feel the need to put our dogs on leashes. Not coincidentally, it was also a time when dogs were often, sadly, killed by cars. Our family lost two beloved pets that way. Parents would often warn us about the dangers of traffic as they shooed us out the door, even as they, perhaps contradictorily, allowed us to play in the street. They warned us about other potential dangers as well, like rattlesnakes and rabid dogs. I never came across either in my day-to-day play, but I still experience a shadow of fear about snakes and stray dogs. I don't recall being warned about strangers, maybe because we knew and trusted our neighbors, and strangers rarely turned up on our quiet suburban cul-de-sac, and also because the media hadn't yet begun to make the rare horrors seem so imminent. 

I once more live in a place where the neighbors all know one another, where rattlesnakes and rabid dogs are not an issue, and while there might be traffic, the path upon which the girl was walking the dog is one that winds through a greenbelt, not adjacent to traffic.

As the girl receded farther along the walkway, I wondered how far she would go. As a boy, we often roamed just beyond the limits that our parents had imposed. When I was this girl's age, we were expected to stay on our street, but often stepped just beyond that limit, hearts pounding. That's where the adventure was and it called us despite our parents' admonitions. For instance, there was a new house being constructed one street over. How could we resist the lure of a partially constructed house? Today, it would be called an "attractive nuisance," but as a kid, these unfenced sites were impromptu playgrounds. The best places always seemed to be just beyond the limits.

There is a point where the greenbelt walkway turns. Would the girl take the corner? If she did, she would have been out of sight. When she got to there, however, she stopped, waited for the dog to relieve itself, then started heading back. It was at this moment that her father emerged. He stepped cautiously from the door, craning to look along the walkway, peering toward his daughter. Then suddenly he hopped back out of sight, obviously not wanting her to see him.

My heart melted for him. I expect the girl had argued for the right to walk the dog "all by myself." I imagine she had negotiated this adventure, agreeing to go no farther than the corner. I also imagined how the father was feeling, fluttery, nervous, his baby out there on her own in the world. He hadn't been able to stop himself from checking on her, but he also knew not to rob her of her moment, which is why he hid before she spotted him. I imagine my own mother would watch us from the windows, feeling at times as this father did. As she said to me when our daughter was born, "You want them to be independent, then you worry when they are."

As the girl headed back toward home, she walked briskly, then broke into a full on run, the tiny dog struggling to keep up. She cut across my lawn, shortening the distance to home. Her face was flush and full of joy.


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