(This is a little something for my younger sister. Of course I couldn’t really know the dialogue and the details, but from the stories my parents told ever after, this event could have happened something like this. I hope you enjoy this story from a long-ago summer.)
The breeze through the screen door chased a chill across the sweat on the back of my neck. The rooms at the motor court had no air conditioning. Not in 1970, even in Nashville.
About twenty people from Toledo had returned from a busy morning in sessions at our denomination’s annual convention. Dad had let us kids jump in the pool to cool off and tire us out. He needed a rest. And Mom and some of the women wanted to go shopping, while Dad got my baby brother and little sister down for naps.
They were next to the room my older sister and I shared with a grandmotherly woman willing to chaperone two preteen girls. The dark cave-like space the drawn shades created lulled us into sleep, while tree-shaded air off the pool rocked the screen door in and out to the limits of the hook high on the doorframe.
But Dad hadn’t secured the screen door where he, the toddler and the five year-old rested up for the evening’s activities.
As a busy pastor’s wife, Mom didn’t get much free time with other women. After driving past many unique stores on the busy streets of Nashville she was eager to window-shop, free from little hands to hold, tired bodies to carry. When they returned an hour later, leaving the traffic behind on the main street beyond our drive-up motel, the inviting shade around the pool and courtyard welcomed them for a mini-siesta before dinner.
Until Mom saw a police officer talking to Dad, baby in his arms. But where was my five-year-old sister?
A year or two before, my older sister and I had flown to St. Louis with Dad for this annual convention, staying in a downtown hotel suite in blistering July with no pool, but at least there was air conditioning. And while Dad had his afternoon nap, we girls and a friend staying in the same hotel grabbed swimsuits and “swam” in the biggest shower we had ever seen for hours.
A year or two after this convention in Nashville we’d attend one in Macon, Georgia, older and wiser. But this was my little sister’s first time.
Coming just weeks before she would step onto the school bus and ride a half mile down the road to kindergarten.
About a mile down the congested street from the motor court, a used-car salesman stood in the open doorway of a glass-enclosed sales hut, waiting for the next customer. In the middle of the afternoon, in the music capital of the world, there was always the chance of someone famous passing on the sidewalk.
More unlikely was seeing a barefoot child wandering aimlessly.
“Little girl, where are your mommy and daddy?”
“I don’t know.”
“Are you lost?” he asked as he knelt down to her level.
“My mommy went down the street,” my sister answered, looking around her on the sidewalk.
“Down this street? It’s a pretty busy one. Do you live around here?” he asked, though the whole street for miles was lined with businesses of all kinds, and the neighborhoods were a few blocks down the side streets.
Where had this child come from?
“I live in the country with the barns.”
The salesman didn’t hear a hint of a drawl in her voice. He doubted she was a local. “Are you staying in a hotel?”
“We have a pool. And my baby and my daddy are sleeping.”
“How big is your pool? Is it a little bitty wading pool?”
“It’s blue. My daddy threw me in. Where’s my mommy?”
“I don’t know, honey, but let me see if I can help you.”
Our church group gathered under the trees in front of the line of train-car-like rooms planted side by side, some praying, others whispering about how much trouble Preacher was in for letting his daughter walk right out the door, and now who knows where she is?
The policeman had voiced assurances that she would be found, but this was a strange city and it didn’t keep my mom from crying helplessly.
Several of the adults spread out walking away from the motel, while my mom and dad stayed where they could be found easily. With no phones inside our rooms, just a pay phone outside the office cubicle, we were decades away from instant information. We could only wait.
So when the police radio squawked to life, we held our breaths while the officer turned his back and picked up his receiver.
Six blocks down a squad car pulled up, lights still, siren silent, scared child shaking on the sidewalk.
“I can’t get much information out of her, officer, but I think her parents may be staying at a motel nearby. She says there’s a pool, and that she just walked out the door. Maybe one of those pull-up places?” The salesman had tried to get names and descriptions, but nothing my sister added helped identify where she had come from.
“Let me get on the radio and see if there are any lost child reports coming in to dispatch,” the officer said to the man, and to the little girl, “Don’t you cry now, we’ll find your momma and daddy.”
Long before Code Adam and Amber Alerts, my sister got lost in the heart of Nashville, Tennessee. Bad things did happen to little kids in the 70’s, but thankfully there was a sense of community at that time that went beyond the neighbor you knew to the person in need who walks down your sidewalk.
It’s something we’ve lost, people looking to the people around them to find answers instead of an anonymous screen in their hands.
Shortly after the officer at the motor court put his radio back into its mounting, the second cruiser pulled into the oval drive. The patrolman parked, turned to my sister and said, “Is this your momma?”
And she was found.