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Nashville Scene The Runaway Mom

It's late summer: Do your kids know where their mother is?

By Margaret Renkl

AUGUST 23, 1999:  So far this year I've seen exactly two movies in a theater: Shakespeare in Love, which made me drunker than any Merlot ever has, and The Runaway Bride, which had an effect more like Xanax. There is a subtle but important difference between the two. After watching Shakespeare in Love, I wanted to go home and throw my arms around my own lover and kiss him until our lips got all bruised and swollen with desire. Seeing The Runaway Bride merely prevented me from killing him and all these children I had because of earlier episodes of bruised-lip kissing.

I admit I wasn't expecting a whole lot from this summer's runaway hit. I rarely like Hollywood romantic comedies anymore because they keep pairing up aging male actors with fresh young beauties. Really, could there be anything grosser than Jack Nicholson pawing at Helen Hunt in As Good As It Gets, except maybe Harrison Ford's lunge at Anne Heche in Six Days, Seven Nights? And the few youngish male heroes tend to be irredeemable jerks who don't deserve the women they end up kissing (even sweet Tom Hanks played a nasty lying bizpig in You've Got Mail).

I went to see The Runaway Bride mainly because of the title. I'd spent fully four of the previous eight weeks with various members of my extended family, and I'd returned only the night before from yet another trip with the kids, this one without my husband. I think it was then--while I was sharing a double bed with my thrashing 7-year-old during the few isolated hours in which I wasn't pacing the floor with his baby brother, who hates sleeping in a portacrib--that I became sick, sick, sick of the thriving garden that is my family. The lush oasis I'd been cultivating so tenderly for years suddenly seemed filled with climbing vines and flowers that were threatening to wrap their little tendrils around my neck and strangle me to death.

Actually, the day I became a runaway mom didn't start out all that badly. The summer of togetherness was finally ending. School was beginning in a few days, and the family trips were over at last. If I could just fit in a long morning walk before it got too hot, I felt sure I'd recover my usual good humor and gratitude, my usual sense that life is full of blessings. With just an hour to myself, I thought, I'd be in shape again to tackle the mountain of laundry I'd brought back from Birmingham, sort through another mountain of mail, and make a Kroger run. By nightfall life would be back to normal.

As I was formulating this plan, though, my husband disappeared into the yard to water the tomatoes. True to form, he got distracted, pulled a few weeds, talked to some passing neighbors, and didn't return until an hour later, when it was already 88 degrees outside. While he was outdoors, the baby was standing at the storm door in the living room, watching his father adjust the sprinkler and pounding on the glass in an effort to get out and dance through the spray himself. If I picked him up to comfort him, he slapped me in the face, twisted in my arms like a trapped ferret, and threw himself at the door again.

Meanwhile the 3-year-old was sitting at the dining-room table, adamantly refusing to touch the breakfast I'd made him, and the big boy was asking, over and over again, "Mom, can I invite somebody over? You're the only one I've gotten to play with in days and days; please can I invite somebody fun over?"

When my unsuspecting husband walked back into the bosom of his newly reunited family, I greeted him with a screaming tantrum, stalked out the door, and headed for the only place I could think of that would offer me a two-hour vacation from my own life: the movies. No one there would prefer the company of his friends to me or wail inconsolably into my ear because I wouldn't let him escape unchaperoned into the dangerous world.

So of course, I was drawn to a movie called The Runaway Bride. And of course it was pretty much what romantic comedies tend to be these days: implausible, only mildly funny, and populated with exotically beautiful actors in exotically beautiful rooms and landscapes that bear no resemblance to any genuine human being, or any actual home, I've ever known. But though it didn't make me drunk with desire the way Shakespeare in Love did, it did make me feel a little better.

Truth is, I have a nicer life than Julia Roberts. I think I can say in all honesty that the four fellows in my own life are much more adorable, much less arch and mean-spirited than Richard Gere, and much less flaky than the losers Julia Roberts kept dumping at the altar.

But the other truth is that three-quarters of my leading men are only mine for the borrowing. In four days, I reminded myself as I drove back home to them, my oldest son will be in the second grade. For the first time his younger brothers will start preschool and Parents' Day Out a couple of days a week. By the time next summer rolls around and they're all back home with me again every day, the baby of the family will be talking in sentences, and no one will refer to him as "the baby" anymore.

As I slowly drove down, down, down the ramps in the theater's parking garage, I understood why there'll never be a movie called The Runaway Mom. With every step they take, our children are running away from us, hardly casting a glance over their shoulder as they go. Long before I'm ready, I know I'll find myself standing bewildered at the door of my newly cavernous home, my hand half-raised, uncertain whether to call them back or wave goodbye.


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