So the McCanns are back in the news. They are the British couple whose daughter, 3-year-old Madeleine, went missing from their hotel room as the McCanns dined out at a restaurant nearby during a 2007 vacation in Portugal. The story is horrible and tragic and, as such, ignited a lot of empassioned debate about parental responsibility and negligence.
The McCanns were briefly themselves suspects in their daughter’s disappearance but were cleared of any suspicion. They were even awarded a hefty settlement in a libel suit against four different UK newspapers. Still that doesn’t stop people from judging them from afar more than six years later. How could they leave such a young child (and her younger twin siblings) alone? What kind of parent does that?
Mine did. A lot.
Being an only child of a single parent I got left home alone on a regular basis. I’m not sure of the exact age I started getting my Kevin McCallister on, but I know I was young–maybe 7?
For the most part we spent my childhood on Catalina Island, which in the late 80s had a population of about 2,000 people. Everybody knew everybody. It was one of those throwback towns where no one locked their doors and there was just one big K through 12.
As a first grader I often came home to an empty house. I’d entertain myself with “Tiny Toons” and “I Love Lucy” reruns until my mother got off work and then we’d eat dinner and do my homework together. And on some weekends, after tucking me into bed, my mother would put her Saturday night best on and go to the island’s only club, “the Chi Chi.” I knew she was leaving because she’d come in to kiss me another time and whisper-sing, “Close your eyes, your eyes, I’ll see you in the morning.”
Only once was there a snag in our little routine.
I woke up in the middle of the night, already knowing my mom had gone out, because I heard screaming outside. We lived in a two-story duplex on a steep hill. I got up to look out our living room window and sure enough there was a man standing in the middle of the street yelling my mom’s name. For some reason this did not freak me out at all.
“What do you want?” I yelled back, checking to make sure the door was locked.
“I need an ambulance,” he said. “Could you call one for me?”
“What’s the number?” I asked already reaching for our rotary phone.
“9-1-1,” he answered in all seriousness.
My mom was at the “Chi Chi” club kiki-ing with her homegirls while I was handling a “situation.” Because the town of Avalon was so small the 911 operator knew who I was. Also because I told her, “Yeah, this is Frances’ daughter. She’s at the club. And someone is in the street acting crazy.”
The ambulance and my mother came at the same time. They both had to knock because I had locked the door. My mother looked relieved–to say the least–and everyone was proud of how well I’d handled the whole thing. But I remember thinking to myself, “Yeah, this thing could’ve gone way left.” There was absolutely nothing besides luck and more luck that kept me safe that night. My mom should have been there. She wasn’t.
But I know that incident didn’t scare either one of us straight. She still went to the Chi Chi on occasion and I still slept funny for a while. Then when we moved to Los Angeles, 12-year-old me navigated through South Central alone many an afternoon. Recently my goddaughter, who’s 11, learned how to take the subway (just four stops mind you) to her mom’s job after school and I couldn’t believe it when I heard. “Nooo! Nooo! She can’t. She’s too young.”
But is she?