By Lorri Mcdole
We’d eaten all the salads and burgers and cookies—alone deviled egg sat quivering in a puddle of melted ice—and had run out of things to say to the people who live just around the corner. The annual block party finally over, we smiled and waved as our stranger-neighbors dragged their lawn chairs out of the middle of our cul-de-sac and down to their own.
Then the rest of us pulled our chairs up on the grass, got out the portable fire pit and frozen Margarita buckets, and left our children—three-year-old Haley, five-year-olds Ryan, Alex, and Tanner, and eight-year-olds Alaina and Shayna—to play in the street.
Which isn’t as bad it sounds. One of the reasons we live on a cul-de-sac is to give our kids a relatively safe place to play. Cars don’t speed by on their way to somewhere else because they really can’t get there from here.
But just because our neighborhood is a mecca for little kids doesn’t mean that our kids stay little forever. Once upon a time they cuddled close—for stories, songs, the sound of our voices—but now our children run around wild, tempting fate as if they’re as lucky as cats. They have the knack, mostly, for avoiding bicycle headers and slipping through tight spaces in the nick of time, but they’re also still small enough to be misplaced, run over, grabbed under the arm like a sack of potatoes and made off with.
And the mothers, what of us? We call on God—we pray, cajole, would seduce Him, if we could—but mostly we sit empty-lapped, older by the minute, wives telling tales around the fire.
But some families live on these circular blocks long enough for their kids to grow up and get driver’s licenses. And sometimes—like when the teenaged neighbor is driving home from his job at Safeway and his gaze is diverted by a friendly fire—the illusion of safety is the real danger.
I was playing a board game with my kids on a dark winter night when there was an insistent knock at the door and then a long stuttering ring of the bell. Our cul-de-sac is more like a commune than a collection of single-resident houses, with kids flowing freely through open doors in summer and pounding on doors and bells in winter.
But this time it wasn’t a kid, it was Darcy, the mom next door.
“You haven’t seen three little kids, have you? A third grader— Elizabeth?—and two younger brothers, maybe four and five years old? They went out to the mailbox and never came back.”
I knew which family she was talking about, but they were new to the neighborhood and I hadn’t met them yet.
“When their mom went to check, they were just …gone,” she ended lamely. And then she threw her arm out like an amateur actor, pointing to the top of our cul-de-sac ‘T’.
I ran out to the sidewalk and saw two police cars, the mailbox, and a woman sitting on the curb, rocking back and forth with her head in her hands. One of the police officers walked over to peer in the mailbox, as if one or all of the kids might be hiding in there. I felt like I was watching the Amber Alert play out somewhere far away on the 10 o’clock News.
But here was Darcy, whom I knew too well to ignore, asking me to help her stop the lava-like dread that threatened to wash away our world. Our fingers in the dike, we stood silent, trying to disown the same thought: we’d gotten lucky. Our own children were safe and sound, this time.
We found out what happened the next day. Tired of waiting for their mom to get off the phone and take them to Bingo Night at Sierra Heights Elementary, the three kids had gone out to get the mail just as their dad pulled into the driveway. They were so excited to see him and so upset about missing Bingo Night that he decided to pack them into the car and take off. He called and left a message, the story goes, which his wife somehow didn’t get.
What we, the other mothers, are still dying to ask (but can’t because we still don’t know the family well enough; can’t because the question is stuck in our throats like in a bad dream) is this: Is there life after your children are swept from the face of the earth, even if, by miracle or just everyday magic, they reappear?
When my daughter was three months old, I gushed to my mother about the Diaper Genie, a contraption that seals off disposable diapers in a smell-free container. I’ll never forget the shock on her face, the hurt in her voice.
“You’re using disposable diapers? It used to be my favorite thing, washing and drying and folding all those little white diapers for you!”
Mom smoked during each of her three pregnancies; raised us on starch, sugar, and fat; and allowed us to go to the corner store for candy as soon as we turned six. Every summer morning she sent us out to play with the neighbor kids and counted herself lucky if we didn’t come back till dinnertime.
This was during the 60’s and 70’s, long before anyone worried about spending time (quantity or quality) with their children; before they knew to worry about nutrition or safety. Like my daughter, who’s perplexed by Ms. Hannigan in the movie, Annie (“But she’s an adult, she has to love kids,” Alaina says), everyone assumed that to have children was to love them, and to love them was to do for them. They took it for granted that nothing bad would happen to us when we were “out there,” and mostly they were right.
Today, no matter where we live, our kids seem targeted for terrible things, like they really are accidents waiting to happen. And we, the adults, the used-to-be-young? Shocked at getting older, we skate at the frozen edges of our children’s innocence and often end by falling into the soupy middle.
Like me, reading the mail on my front porch one day and trying not to register how fast and close together all of our kids were riding their scooters and bikes. I make mine wear helmets, but how can I get them, in concert with the other kids, to appreciate a speed-to-proximity ratio that would at least lessen the chance of bloody knees or elbows or worse?
The thud, when it came, was quiet, and I only registered it because of my daughter’s yell: “Mom, Tanner got hit by a car!”
Trailing cell phone, bills, and magazines, I ran down to where our street opens up on the rest of the neighbor- hood and saw a man getting out of a blue pickup, surrounded by our swarming children. Tanner was picking himself up off the street.
Over the next few minutes the man and I, both shaking now that the tragedy had officially morphed into a near miss, reconstructed the scene for each other: he’d been backing out of the driveway that leads to the house behind our neighbor’s, had stopped to look for cars and kids, and then heard the terrible sound once he looked away. Swiveling around, he saw the horrified faces of a bunch of kids and me running wildly at them all. For a brief moment, he forced himself to face the worst—that a child was under his truck.
But luckily he’d been stopped when Tanner, who hadn’t been looking where he was going, barreled into him. Luckily the thud wasn’t something he rolled over.When people ask whether we plan to have more children, I joke that the only person I’d add to our family of four would be someone named Watch This!, whose sole job would be to obey this command from my children each of the 5,000 times it’s uttered in a day. Or a person called Find This!, who would spend all day looking for the one tiny plastic toy needed for some game.
But in the middle of the night, when my real fears and desires loop endlessly through my mind, what I really crave is a guardian angel. Not the garden-variety, God-sent angels of my childhood (whom I credited for keeping me safe even as the Fire and Brimstone Church I grew up in taught me that it was up for grabs whether I would, actually, be saved), but a cut-and-dried 21st century secular angel. A mercenary who’ll keep my kids safe, no matter what God or anyone else has in mind.
Someone who could be there, say, on that late August evening, just past dusk, when five-year-old neighbors Ryan and Alex were thrilled to have the run of the cul-de-sac. It was their favorite thing, doing something nearly “under the law,” as they called playing in the street in the almost-dark.
Their parents, talking around the fire pit to the other moms and dads, were like the soft-focus pictures of Jesus at church: they promised safety, but from a distance.
Their backs to the wind and their ears filled with their own screaming laughter, neither boy knew a car was bearing down on them. But we knew. Tuned as mothers are to these things, we rose halfway off our seats at the just-discernible hum of the car and then sank back down, relieved to see it was just Nick, the responsible, Safeway-employed teenager from next door, who was rounding the corner.
By the time we realized that Nick’s eyes were glued to our fire at the side of the road and that he was nervously stepping on the gas instead of the brake, it was too late for anyone but God, or some kind of angel, to do anything.
What He or She did is this: had us yell, in terrified symphony, “No, No, No!” Had Ryan and Alex suddenly realize that they didn’t want to be under the law or under the ground. Had the boys want, more than anything else, to be ensnared by the flailing arms of their mothers, to be engulfed by the fire-lit ovals of their mouths. Had the boys cross the street hell-bent for leather in an irreproducible sort of geometry, one of them just in front of the car, and the other just behind.
Author’s Note: “Ryan’s on the cliff of the stairs!” my daughter, Alaina, used to yell when she was four and her brother was one. Too many times I’d round the corner just in time to see him rolling, end over end, to the landing. But kids are resilient—he left teeth marks but no teeth in the wall—and most of their scars won’t show until later.
Lorri Mcdole lives in a suburb of Seattle with her husband, Greg, and their children, Alaina and Ryan. She worked as a technical and marketing writer before having children and has published in Pacific Northwest and Common Ground. This is her first publication since becoming a mother.
Brain, Child (Fall 2006)