My friend Catherine likes it when I post stories about parenting, so this one is for her, though now that I think about it I’m sure she’s heard this one before. Anyway, many of you know, my daughter Eleanor was a precocious little tot. I think most toddlers are; it seems to me that during those years, they each bring a special kind of Hell into their parents lives at exactly the weirdest moment. When Eleanor was four (almost 5), we were living in the Bay Area in CA, in a suburb that butted up against Highway 1. If you strained, you could see across that highway to a tiny piece of the ocean from one of our windows.
One Saturday, Eleanor disappeared from the fenced back yard. I knew she could maneuver the gate latch (I believe I’d taught her how to unlatch it one day I was irritated about armfuls of groceries and whatnot). Still, I wasn’t very worried about where she might be. It was Suburbia. But after a few minutes of searching in the predicted places, I couldn’t find her. Josh couldn’t either. It was about 4 p.m. By 5 p.m we still couldn’t find her. We’d driven around the neighborhood a few times by then. She was wearing a pink plaid sundress that had straps that tied over her shoulders and little white cowboy boots with silver sparkly stars. I began to imagine telling this to the police. I began to beg the sun in the sky not to start setting. I began to think about her being cold. Or crossing the highway to get to the beach. If she made it across the highway, would she go into the water? Did she figure out she was lost yet? Was she scared? I mean, if I was getting scared, I couldn’t imagine what my four-year-old was going through. I told myself not to panic. Fine, be scared, Jody, but don’t panic.
I asked a woman, a mother, who was sitting on her front porch if she’d seen Eleanor. Yes, she said, but she just assumed that she was running to catch up with someone. It seemed like a weird answer, and I figured she didn’t want to be bothered with someone else’s kid (I’d often heard her yelling at her own three kids). I stopped at a restaurant that was nearby that had patrons sitting in front of the bay window and asked if anyone had seen Eleanor. A young couple said yes. At this point, I was becoming a little impolite. I said, didn’t that seem weird to you? And they said, well, yes. “But we didn’t want to get involved.” They really said that. And that was when the real panic set in. What was wrong with people? Their lack of interest, or fear of being seen as a kidnapper, or whatever it was that was stopping people from getting involved was the real danger. And I was very. very. scared. Josh and I had split up to find her, but we were in contact and when I told him about all the people who’d seen her, he was just as pissed as I was.
It was about half an hour later that I found her. (She’d been gone less than 2 hours) The sun was setting and she was crossing a street not a block away from our home, but at the moment I saw her, a car was breaking somewhat suddenly to make way for her in the street. I ran to her under the dirty look and shaking head of the dude in the car. I did that crying/hugging/yelling WHEREHAVEYOUBEEN thing all mothers do, even though I told myself not to. It’s impossible not to do that, like trying to keep your eyes open while sneezing.
What amazed me was that Eleanor was so calm. I asked her if she was cold. Yes. I asked her she was hungry. Yes. I asked her if she was scared. No. What were you thinking about, I asked. She said she was singing a song to herself that she made up called, I’m Just A Lonely Little Girl. Did you know how to get home, I asked. “No,” she answered,”I couldn’t find you.” She’d been walking for over a mile in a meandering loop around our neighborhood. I called Josh and when he joined us, the first thing he said was, why didn’t you ask someone for help? She shrugged. I’m sure she saw our fear and anger and confusion and relief. And then Josh said, “If you ever can’t find us, go ask a stranger for help. Strangers will help you find your parents, but you have to ask them.”
Those words seemed like strangers. That’s not what we were taught as kids. I wondered if there was a better solution. We could have put a different latch on the gate and protected her from “escaping” again, but I like that we armed her with the motivation to talk to strangers instead. Allow me to be a little bit cheesy here and say that in one way or another and at some point in our lives we all get lost. We shouldn’t fear asking for help. Or offering it.