Mama Says
by Laura Fratus

(Plain Press, July 2006) You’d think by now that my kids would know this: when you ask a former librarian a question, the answer is always going to be “Let’s find out!”

A while back, my 10-year-old son Ned asked, “Mom, how far can a person walk in a day?”  He was, I’m sure, hoping for an immediate answer in the form of a number: 100 miles, fifteen blocks, something like that.  Even a vague answer like “pretty far” or “it depends” probably would have satisfied him.

But instead, he got the familiar threat that, while I didn’t know a really good answer off the top of my head, we could certainly find out. He groaned.

The first day of summer vacation was our golden opportunity. It was a beautiful day in the mid-70s, with nothing on the schedule, and two children whose skill at derailing Mom’s crazy schemes had grown a little rusty since spring break.

I dragged the kids from their beds, fed them a wholesome breakfast, fired up the GPS, and set off with them to “find out.”

To prevent the Big Walk from turning into the Bataan Death March, I gave the kids control over destinations.  They began by taking turns choosing the direction at each corner. When that ended up taking us around and around the familiar streets in our own immediate neighborhood, Ned got the bright idea to walk to the McDonald’s on Clark & West 33rd, where he probably figured we could spend the rest of the day eating fries and loitering in the Play Place.

But once Mickey D’s had worked its morale-boosting magic, his kid sister Audrey was ready to choose the next destination on the map.

During the course of ten hours, we passed along a ribbon of Cleveland’s west side that was narrow and twisty, but quite respectably long. We entered three municipalities, if you count the tiny sliver of Linndale’s border we walked along as we crossed from Brooklyn back into Cleveland.

What we saw was sometimes sad. Sensitive Ned choked up at the site of Riverside Cemetery’s “Babyland,” with its touching tributes of soggy stuffed animals from heartbroken parents. It was also genuinely, heartwarmingly happy, as when we sat next to four generations of one family devouring hotdogs together in Memphis Kiddie Park.

Parts of it were pretty horrible. Did you know that right beneath the Pearl Road bridge there is a vast graveyard of junked and burned-out cars leaning amid stagnant pools of greasy water? But we also encountered abundant and unexpected beauty. Flowers bloomed everywhere — in neglected vacant lots and in carefully cultivated gardens on streets where, as Audrey pointed out, “it looks like a little old lady lives in every single house.” Strawberries ripened and kittens played under a porch on busy Fulton Road.

The answer to our initial question turned out to be, “Two children and a middle-aged mother, sustained by junk food and maintaining a leisurely pace, can stroll for approximately thirteen miles in one day, providing they wear comfortable shoes and carry very little.”

But of course, in addition to that answer, we also ended with many questions.  

Why is there less litter on pretty Spokane Avenue than on my street? Do the residents pick it up more frequently, or do the passersby chuck it on the ground more rarely?  

What’s it like to live at the edge of No Man’s Land on lonely little Louisiana Avenue, where all you can see out your front window are the tops of trees and a wide meadow of high grass sloping down to the Norfolk and Southern line?  Does it feel like living in the country?

And what does Councilman Cummins think about that awful junkyard under the bridge?

The Big Walk was accomplished with a remarkable lack of whining and malingering. Both kids were left feeling proud of what they’d done, and pleased to already have a pretty good story to tell of this summer’s adventures.

So I’d like to press my luck and try some walks — shorter walks — in other parts of the city that we’ve seen on a map but never explored. Who knows what we’ll find out?


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