Saturday, December 20, 2008

Too late for tears

One minute she's there and the next she's gone. It is indeed every parent's worst nightmare not to know where their child is, or what's happened to her.

While in the city a few days ago, we noticed many families in the malls; young families. Mum, Dad, little guy and little girl. Sometimes, a really young mum, dad and baby in a pushchair. At breakfast in a fast-food outlet, we sat across from a middle-youth (Ha! I'm not getting myself reprimanded for saying middle-aged) woman with two beautiful teenage daughters and a little boy of about four. In my wild imagination, I often make up stories/create lives for people I see. In the case of the above, I imagined that the lady had two daughters from a previous marriage. At some stage she married a man with no family and they wanted a child together. Hence the little boy who is so much younger than the two girls. When I voiced my thoughts to my husband, he said he noticed nothing “different” about the group I was referring to. I told him I’m glad I don’t rely on him to help me with my writing!

By the same token I often feel panic if I see people walking along with their little boy/girl tagging on behind. Don’t these people know how often little children are stolen in broad daylight? And no, I’m not a doomsayer and I don’t "do" negativity. It just makes me mad to see how nonchalant people can be with the most precious possessions they’ll ever own. I mean, would they leave their handbag/wallets/backpacks with credit cards, cash, and cell phones, not to mention all manner of personal items, on the floor of the mall and saunter ahead? I think not.

I was still thinking along these lines when I popped into the ladies restrooms. As I passed a row of closed doors, I saw one door ajar. Just before I pushed it open completely I realised it was occupied, albeit by someone whose legs didn’t reach the floor. Even here I wondered, “Why is this child in a toilet on her own?” No matter what, the safe thing would be to take her into the toilet with you.
I managed to find an open stall, and when I came out again, the little girl from the half-open toilet was at the washbasins chatting to the cleaning lady. (No harm in this; black people in this country love little children and would never harm them) The cleaner helped her with soap as she was too short to reach the dispenser. Then the little girl stood on tiptoe and tried to reach the tap over the basin next to the one I was using. I leaned over and turned on the water. She thanked me politely and I asked her where her mum was. She said her mum was at home. So I said, “Who are you here with?” And she answered: “Auntie Miranda”. Then she asked my name (this blonde-haired, blue-eyed little girl was as cute as a button and not at all shy, which could bode worse for her if she was dealing with a stranger with bad intentions) When I told her I was Jo, she said her name is Chantelle Smith. (Not her real name) Then I asked her where Auntie Miranda was, and she pointed to a closed door halfway down the row of cubicles.

There and then decided I could not go for two reasons: one was that I didn’t want to leave the little girl alone in the restrooms while her “aunt” stayed in the toilet for goodness knows how long. The second was, when “Auntie Miranda” (whom I imagined was the little girl’s mother’s not-too-responsible-younger sister,) emerged from the toilet, I wanted to point out to her that it was not safe to leave young children alone in Shopping Malls, let alone in a public toilets where any pervert could pick them up and whip them out of sight in no time at all.

Finally Auntie Miranda came out of the cubicle clutching at least six shopping bags (see, it’s more important to keep your recent purchases under your watchful eye than a five-year-old.) At once I saw this was no younger sister. The woman was at least in her forties and immediately it dawned on me that she is a childminder or Day Mother as they are known here in South Africa. These women look after the children of working parents; often caring for them “privately” which means they’re not affiliated to any official body that checks up on you where you’re minding these children. For instance, do you have enough space for the amount of children; do you supervise them at all times; are the facilities adequate and clean, etc. Now, while I don’t want to go into the dodgy Day Mother/ Care Centres in our country, once again, my mind jumped to the fact that here was a Day Mother who had only one child at this [holiday] time of the year. She obviously had to come to town and of course, the most natural thing was to bring the child along. However, surely she’d be extra vigilant with a charge in her care?

I looked her straight in the eye and said: “Good morning, I waited here with little Chantelle. I didn’t want to leave her alone while you were in the toilet; it's not safe.” (My family has often said that I stick my nose in – interfere - where I'm not wanted) The woman looked at me and said: “Oh.”
Just that.

When I met up with my husband waiting in the Mall, I told him the story as we walked quickly to the escalator/moving stairs. He asked if it was a young woman with this child and as I was about to answer him, the woman walked past him and around the bottom of the stairs. So I quietly said: ” There she goes” and then I realised she didn’t have the little girl with her. My husband turned around to look at the woman while we ascended on the stairs, and saw that she was walking back in the direction of the ablutions. She had left the little girl behind!

I don’t know the outcome of this story. All I know is that I felt sick for the rest of the day, worrying about this little girl (who was probably OK, as my husband pointed out) and hundreds of little children who are not held onto securely while out in public with the adults.
I am not generalising here, please don’t get me wrong. We saw many, many a mother holding a child securely by the hand, or a father carrying his toddler. I’m talking about the odd person who doesn’t care enough to watch their child or charge when they’re out shopping. And to me, ONE child lost/abducted is a tragedy.

I remember, shortly after I had my second son in 1979, a friend and I went on a three day shopping excursion from the farm in Zululand to Durban, at the coast. She had a baby girl whom she strapped to her chest. I did the same with my tiny baby. My older son, then four years old, was secured in a pretty blue child harness with teddies on the straps; I clipped the matching leash to the ring the back of the harness (on my child's back) and in this way, my friend and I kept our children safe and close to us. While walking down the sidewalk, an elderly lady coming in the opposite direction, stopped me and pointed a gnarled finger at my son in the harness. She said I should be ashamed tying my child up like a dog and then she stalked away. I was young, sensitive and felt terrible at her accusations. Nevertheless, I kept my son on the leash, and used it later with my second child. Today I know I did the correct thing by ensuring my children were always safe when we went out into the public. I have always taken the same care with my grandchildren...


  1. Oh heavens! I can't imagine anything worse than losing a child. Your "meddling" was justified, good for you!

  2. Yes, Dedene, that must be the worst thing ever. I have quite a few issues that I speak up for; that is why I've begun with this one and labelled it Soapbox Chronicles. Thanks for popping in. Off to read your post. Hugs Jo

  3. Hi Jo, I thoroughly agree with all you said in that post. I think everyone has the idea it happens to other people or on the TV never in your local neighbourhood.Little Madeleine Mc Cann is still missing nearly 18 months on, taken from her bed in a holiday apartment.
    Best Wishes

  4. Peggy, I often think of little Madeleine Mc Cann and what could have happened to her. In 1990 6 young girls went missing in South Africa and it their disappearance was hugely publicised. Yet, 18 years later no further light has been thrown on their mysterious disappearance. The poor parents of these children. And to think it's happening daily, hourly. Thanks for popping in. Hugs Jo


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