As a child, both my grandmothers would refer to me with affection as ‘the little devil’, in their native tongues of Hungarian and Dutch. They saw the spark in my eyes when I was attempting to ‘get away’ with something a child could get away with: sneaking a snack, leaving the dinner table early, getting out of doing chores.
When I reflect back on it now, I liken it to getting away from the temporary unpleasantness I was feeling of being stuck in ordinary reality. But back then, of course, I didn’t think that way. My needs were much more basic.
If I was hungry between meals, instead of waiting for the next one, sneaking a cookie or piece of candy helped abate the unease I felt in my stomach. Having to stay at the dinner table while the adults droned on and on about their complicated adult worlds was tedious listening for this only child. There wasn’t anyone my age to get into mischief with. So, if I could feign being tired or just bored, maybe I’d ‘get away’ with being excused from the table and could (at last!) find comfort in another room without having to endure all that noise.
Sidestepping chores was never an option, I was expected to do them, but I learned through the experience of vacuuming, dusting, cleaning bathrooms, raking leaves and shoveling snow how far I could push the envelope on completing the task at hand. What could I let slide? Not vacuuming under the couches? What could I complete ‘just enough’? The bathroom mirrors weren’t dirty, I could clean them next week. I learned the art of ‘taking the short cut’ so instead of being tied down to a mundane chore, I could have extra time to play, explore and do what kids want to do.
But I also learned just how far you couldn’t ‘get away’ with something. Cleaning up my room always seemed to get in the way of what I really wanted to do. Putting toys and clothes back in order seemed pointless because they were just going to get messed up again. I remember one year, probably when I was around five or six years old, I started carting the things I didn’t feel like putting away into the eaves of the attic. No one looked up there, and it seemed a large empty space to fill with my stuff I couldn’t deal with.
Week after week I began dumping my cast offs. At first it was a pair of pajamas and a board game with missing pieces. Then the stuff started to really accumulate: mismatched socks, discarded trading cards, a broken necklace, more pajamas, underwear, a coat that had a tear, a stuffed animal I didn’t like any more, etc. It didn’t matter what it was because I had this vast expanses of atticness to ‘hide’ all the things I couldn’t decide what to do with.
Not seeing those things in my room, I began to forget about them. I like to think now that I might have even felt ‘lighter’ and that this was an early lesson in “detachment”. But no, not really, I was a kid just trying to get away with something, trying to delay the inevitable.
That inevitable day came for me when my mom decided to do spring cleaning up in the attic. Sigh, it was so good while it lasted.
I remember the reverberating sound throughout the whole house of my mother yelling my name to come to her immediately. I climbed up the stairs with hesitant footsteps, hoping to lessen the impact of what was coming.
My mom actually just looked bewildered at all my things that had been stashed and discarded over the last several months. Remember, I’m an only child, so it’s not like I could blame this on a sibling.
I’m not sure what I said in my defense, if I even tried to defend myself, but I learned my first lesson in when you’ve taken something ‘too far’. Without exchanging many words, the expectation was for me to return all my things to where they belonged.
Humbled, I carried my things back to my room where I had to clean and sort through them, feeling myself getting stuck back into ordinary reality with each decision of the proper placement of objects.
That experience gave me a boundary on how far I could go with ‘getting away with it’, but it also began spur me on to get more creative with finding ways to stretch the margins of the mundane world.