A Free-Range Childhood
Critics flooded Manhattan mother and blogger Lenore Skenazy with negative remarks when she wrote about how she and her husband allowed their nine-year-old to ride the subway by himself.
Judgmental comments poured in. “Don’t you know that children get kidnapped and murdered?” The experience led to Skenazy’s book, “Free Range Kids: How to Raise Safe, Self-Reliant Children (Without Going Nuts with Worry).” She argues that we can’t protect our children from extremely rare events. It’s like trying to protect them from lightning. I agree.
Growing up in a small town, I was free to roam. I flew out the door and came home when the streetlights came on. Mom and Dad watched over me. But usually from a distance.
They never hovered. Not by a country mile.
I remember wanting an adventure when I was a nine-year-old that involved a bus trip. A girlfriend and I asked our mothers if we could take a Greyhound to a nearby town. We would go and return the same day.
Getting permission didn’t take a lot of persuasion in the years before helicopter parents. Mom may have had her worries, but what I heard from her was, “Here’s some money. Go ahead. Be careful.”
This meant boarding a mud-splattered bus that we saw as a shiny silver chariot to paradise ten miles away. The bus would pull up on a side street next to Kissel’s Variety Store. Tickets were sold in the back.
My ten-year-old friend and I pushed our money across the counter to buy tickets from Mrs. Kissel, the woman who owned the store with her husband.
The Kissels didn’t have children, but there was a constant flow of kids through their store. Inside was an enticing glass display case, a treasure trove of nickel and dime candies. Neccos, Big Hunk, Look, even those funny candy cigarettes with the red tips.
I often walked the short distance from my parent’s insurance business to Kissel’s Store. The first few times I visited the store, Mom held my hand as I crossed the first of two streets and then stood there on the corner observing while I went the final distance alone. As time went by, I learned I could help myself to pennies from the insurance agency’s petty cash box. I would say, “Bye, Mom. I’m going to the store, ” and I would skip across the street alone, buy some candy, and return.
When I was a little older, Mrs. Kissel helped me make ceramics in her craft studio at the back of the store. I spent hours painting glazes on the bisque doodads under her watchful eye. Mom never complained about paying the small cost of my new hobby. In my young mind, Mrs. Kissel was simply selling things and I was buying them.
Mrs. Kissel’s usual passive demeanor shifted the day my friend and I asked for the bus ticket out of town.
“Just a moment,” she said, picking up the telephone. “I need to call your parents first.”
The minutes ticked away. The bus was due any moment.
She finally sold us the tickets after our mothers assured her that we had permission and weren’t running off to join the circus. Our trip was uneventful, but I still remember it.
Years passed. I rode another Greyhound bus to college and made one cross-country bus trip to New York City.
When I visited my hometown forty years later, Mrs. Kissel was still selling tickets for the busses that pulled up to her store. She remembered me as clearly as if we had seen each other the day before.
A few years after my visit, I heard of her passing. I cried when I read the obituary. I learned she lived to be 92 and that her full name was Lonabel Kissel. To me she’ll always be Mrs. Kissel, someone who watched over me.
Some say it takes a village to raise a child. Others say it takes a family. I needed a village, a family, and Mrs. Kissel.
Kristine Mietzner is a writer based in Northern California.