Weight of a guilty conscience

Martin King set himself a goal for August – 100 blog posts about childhood memories in one month. Sounds like climbing Mount Rainier in one day, from sea level to over 14,000 feet. In other words, a bit of overwhelming madness.

Fortunately for his sanity, and in deference to the 24-hour day, he enlisted some of his social media pals. Martin and I connected via Twitter, where the hashtag for his 100-episode fest is #100blogfest. You can follow him there or stop by his Web site to see what memories the stories he’s gathering there might stir up for you. The variety of experiences, locations and reflections are great fun.

Here’s my contribution. Thanks for including me, Martin.

Civilizing the little critters who start out as infants is challenge enough, but every parent has nightmares about keeping them safe. My mother’s nightmares were multiplied by my impulsiveness when a street lay between me and my destination.

If a friend waved, I’d propel my four-year-old self across to her, eager to share my latest treasure of a stone or a flower or a bug. When the kindly old woman across the street showed me a plate of freshly baked cookies, I’d dash over for the proffered treat. If a stray cat slunk through the grass by the fence that bordered the vacant lot, I’d run to give it a pet and acquire my latest bout of ringworm.

Working five and a half days a week for a seed company, Mother had to rely on the friends and relatives who looked after my brother and me. For the most part, I didn’t give my loving caretakers any trouble. The major exception was that darned street.

Harrison Street was a quiet, residential road, but the occasional car did drive by. That’s what worried my mother. I’d probably have paid more attention if traffic were heavy. But during the day, when she was away and most neighbours were at work, the street was quiet. I’d forget the warnings.

Then one day what my mother feared most happened. I ran into the street just as a car drove by. The driver couldn’t have been going fast. I was knocked down but barely scraped. He got out, saw I was OK, then got back in and drove away.

That I had been struck by a hit-and-run driver didn’t register. That I had disobeyed one of my mother’s cardinal rules did. I looked around and didn’t see anyone watching so ran back into the house, washed my scraped knees and put on something that would hide the damage.

I made two vows that day: I would never run across the street without looking, and I would never tell my mother.

I still keep the first vow, but I broke the second. Guilt weighed heavily on my heart for years after the accident. I figured I would be in deep trouble if Mother ever found out. By the time I was out of elementary school, the incident had faded from my mind but not the lesson.

Married and in my thirties, I drove from Seattle, Washington, to Napa, California, for a visit with my mother. We were sharing memories when I thought of the accident and told her the story.

I was stunned. She had known about it all along. She said if I had told her she would have felt obliged to punish me. Instead, she let me punish myself. The weight of a guilty conscience was far more painful and effective than a quick scolding.

Personal responsibility. My mother figured that was worth more in life than a boatload of nagging.

She was a smart woman.

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