People are usually surprised, if for some reason it comes up in conversation, to learn that I was a timid child, afraid to be away from my home until I was an older teenager. They’re surprised because for the past 25 years I have organized and led travel adventures for women and students. Prior to earning a living this way, I traveled by myself to places that required hours or days cooped up in planes. I wasn’t afraid anymore, but I used to be.
I have read that children who grow up with furry pets are less likely to develop allergies, however I was not one of them. The accumulated damp and mold of a newly opened summer cottage, pollen, cats, feather pillows, wool blankets, the family guinea pig, caused my eyes to itch, water and swell. I sneezed, wheezed and rubbed. People often ask me if I have a cold because I sound congested.
When weekend sleepovers with schoolmates were planned I could not bring myself to attend, what if there were feather pillows? wool blankets? I was embarrassed to bring my own, and truthfully, it wasn’t only the threat of an allergic reaction that kept me away. I was scared to be away from what was familiar to me. The odor of cooking cabbage seeping into the hallways and mixing with the smell of old carpeting in apartment buildings scared me. Chicken sandwiches with mayonnaise and glasses of milk, a combination I’d never had before, served at strange kitchen tables, made me anxious. Eat, be polite, keeping focused on the time I could leave.
As a young teenager, the summer between seventh grade and eighth, I was invited to spend a week with my aunt and uncle at their cottage on a lake near Plymouth MA. My aunt had three sons and always wanted a daughter so tried to bring her nieces into her life. When I was invited I accepted, I was old enough I thought, to spend a few nights away from home. I was wrong.
Almost as soon as I arrived I wanted to leave. I tried not to get caught crying in the bathroom, my stomach in a knot, disgusted with myself that all I wanted was to go home. Too ashamed to say it, I found another way. My aunt and uncle had a German Shepherd named Prince. This was back in the days when German Shepherds were still confident, friendly dogs without the anxious vigilance of so many of the lines today. Prince did make me a bit stuffy and I saw my exit and I ran for it. If I was sick I could go home, but I wasn’t sick, but I could pretend to be, so I began sneezing and rubbing my eyes, making myself wheeze when I breathed. My mother was called and I was taken to the emergency room where I was diagnosed with asthma and given pills and had the bottle for years and never needed them again.
I did finally learn to be able to sleep away from home. At age 15 I had a beautiful, blond boyfriend and if this was a different kind of blog I’d tell you more about that, but for now let’s just say that I had found a reward that was motivating enough to make me want to sleep away from home. And then during my first year in college in Ohio I hitchhiked with a friend to his home in upper state NY. I was given his sister’s room, and I had an epiphany. Her bed was a double, larger than the twins, or bunks I had at home or in college. And the bed, along with a thick quilt, had a top sheet.
I’d slept in hotels with top sheets when traveling with my parents but at home we had comforters that served the dual purpose of blanket and top sheet. Beds were easier to make that way and I never felt deprived. But in this bed in an unfamiliar, new house, I felt warm, safe and comfortable. I loved top sheets, the smooth cotton coolness that warmed to body temperature. I could have stayed in that bed forever. I began to look forward to staying at other people’s homes because I discovered that there are beds which are more comfortable than my own. Nowadays other beds have more room because there are fewer dogs sleeping in them, and I enjoy the opportunity to stretch out, and, I reluctantly admit all are infinitely cleaner due to the absence of those dogs.
What I believe made me as anxious and scared as I was, more than worrying about sneezing, was the sense I had that like someone arriving onto a sports field, I had shown up after the rules were explained and everyone, except for me, understood them. Maybe lots of people feel this way, unsure of what to say or how to behave as they navigate through childhood and adolescence. I still feel this way on occasion when I’m faced with a situation I’ve never experienced before, which could be the definition of life. Perhaps this is why my heart goes out to the dogs who are afraid, who don’t know the rules, are affronted by the scents and sounds of shelters, new homes, cars, playgrounds, city streets. The dogs who just want to be home and know nothing of the subterfuge of pretending to be something other than what they are. The very least it seems we can do is provide a place which is safe and comfortable, offer them a top sheet and maybe one day have to make room for them on the bed.