08 March, 2011

Life with Charles

neighbors make,” then we were doing our part to be good neighbors. We had made good use of a four-foot, locked, stockade fence around the pool. There was a 40” picket fence with a locking swing gate around the play yard. Finally, there was a split-rail fence dividing our property from our neighbors’. As a mother, I was never willing to completely entrust my children to those fences. After all, even the Great Wall of China had been breached.
Charles never intended to go exploring, cause a commotion or inspire the careful placement of new road signage near our house. He was simply a 3½-year old boy who wanted to go vroooom. It was late morning on a hot May day. Charles’s older sisters
were at school. I was in the kitchen and Charles was in the fenced in play yard off of the kitchen. At the crunch of tires on the pea stone in the driveway, I peeked out the window and saw Dale. He came through the backyard in order to visit with Charles. I deposited a load of laundry on the dining table next to the slider. Dale came inside to grab a sandwich. We caught up on the news of the morning; while he ate, I folded. Charles was busy with his Tonka trucks cutting swaths through sand in the sandbox. After a kiss goodbye, Dale headed back to work. He paused by Charles, his hand rumpling Charles’s hair in a form of loving benediction.
With one quick, backward glance, I moved through the house distributing piles of laundry. I left leaning piles of clean, folded clothes stacked by bureaus and at the foot of the girls’ beds. I was always orbiting around Charles. I went to check on him. My son was not there. I called without response. I went into the yard to more thoroughly search the area. I was flummoxed to find the gate locked, but no sign of Charles. Irritation gave way to concern “Charles?” I called. Cold fingers of dread gripped my innards. My voice rose in volume and pitch, "CHARLES STRPHEN FRANK, answer me this minute. This is not a game!”
My brain sought to calculate statistical probabilities for the dangers he might face in what amounted to no more than four minutes out of sight. I was frozen with terror that he had drowned, been abducted or been hit by a car…all quite reasonable in a span of a minute. I felt crazy, desperate, helpless. Shaking the locked gate one last time, I reassured myself that he couldn’t be in the pool area. Against all reason, I had to see for myself. If he had somehow climbed over the fence, then unlocked the pool fence, he could be lying face down…I couldn’tcomplete the image in my mind. I held my breath as I made my way through both gates until I stood in front of the still, empty pool. I ducked into the small pool house to look for my stowaway among the filter, pumps and chemicals. I noticed the door was slightly ajar, but thought no more about that when I came up empty.
Reasoning that Charles must have slipped by me into the house, I turned back to the house. In an era before cell phones, I placed a distress call to Dale’s office, begging his assistant to have him call me the second he arrived. Like a lifeline, I clipped the cordless phone to my belt.
Seconds later, the phone rang. I summed up the situation in as calm a voice as I could muster. Before I could finish, Dale cut me off and said he would be right home. I searched the interior of our home – under beds, behind draperies, in the drier, under the workbench and in the dishwasher – all previous hiding places for Charles. I was conscious of seconds turning into minutes and I did not know where my child was. The rumble of pea stone announced Dale’s arrival. I raced out the front door.
“Have you found him yet?” he asked.
“No. I’ve been through the house, I don’t think he is inside. It’s been close to fifteen minutes, should I call the police?”
“You go down the street and ask the neighbors, and I will check the property. You checked the pool, right?”
“Not there. What exactly was he doing when you left? Was he still in the sandbox?”
“I took out the Barbie jeep for him to use but told him he had to stay in the fenced in area of the yard.”
It took three neighbors, two police officers, a man from the highway department and us to track Charles through the twenty acres woods and trails abutting our property. He was nearly invisible within 150 feet of the house, sitting in the jeep wedged in a copse of birch trees. Once he got stuck, he was determined to get unstuck. His technique involved going forward, cutting the wheel, backing up and repeating until the battery died. “Like Daddy does on the lawnmower,” he said. He didn’t walk home because I had always told him if you get lost in the woods, pick a tree and stay still. I neglected to instruct him to answer when called.
I feel an odd sense of history when I drive by our old house and see the prominent yellow road signs strategically placed one hundred feet before the house and one hundred feet after the house. The man from the highway department thought it was the least he could do given Charles’s nature. They read, CAUTION: CHILDREN AT PLAY.

Only once have I been upbraided in public for my lack of parenting skills. It was a harsh indictment, but the loud, chattering censorship of an angry woman seemed justifiable in light of the potential tragedy that day. One of the most important lessons I learned that day was to not underestimate Charles.
When my older children were in elementary school, our family participated in a car pool to and from school. We did not generally use our 1985 Jeep for the trip to school because, due to seat belt configurations, Charles’s car seat had to be placed in front. It was a time when the dangers of the front seat were well-identified, but an era before airbags had become standard. On a very occasional basis, I drove my three children and another child to school in the Jeep. Generally, they rode in our Mercedes station wagon.
One morning, my husband had the wagon, so I was forced to meet our rider using the Jeep. Hannah ( 8 years old), Kay ( 7 years old) and Charles ( 3 years old) sat like ducks in a row in the back seat from our house to the rendez-vous spot. Charles’s head in the rear view mirror was the same height as the girls’ heads because of the elevation of his car seat. When we arrived at our meeting place, a local minimart/ gas station, I parked the car while I transferred and buckled Charles’s seat into the front passenger seat. I left the keys in the ignition so as not to misplace them. When our rider arrived, I wanted to make a quick transfer. I can still recall the satisfying click of the belt buckle engaging after I tugged it down, over Charles’s chest and between his legs. Just as I walked around the car to the driver’s side, our rider’s mother pulled in along side of our car. I pivoted from the front seat of my car to the back seat passenger door of her car so I transfer her son and his schoolbooks.
As I extended my arm to open her car door, my car slowly started to move away from me. Instantly, I perceived that the car was rolling backward toward to (HIGHLY FLAMMABLE) gas pumps. Charles was in the driver’s seat, nearly standing up, peering over the dashboard. His hands were spread side grasping the steering wheel. He was looking out the front window of a car that was rolling in reverse. I heard myself screaming, “HIT THE BRAKES” as I ran after the car. I found my fingers tightly curled around the door handle I was running alongside the slowly moving vehicle. I was afraid to open the door only to have Charles coming tumbling out…perhaps under the wheels of .the moving car. Yet, the imminent danger of an explosion if the car collided with and ignited a gas pump was a threat I could not dismiss.
Abruptly, the car stopped. The car was about twelve feet from the gas pumps. It had negotiated misses with numerous parked cars and several incoming vehicles. Peering out from the driver’s side window were two sets of large, brown eyes. My daughter, Hannah, had jettisoned herself into the front seat and used both hands to pulls up on the emergency brake to stop the car. As I opened the car door, Hannah clambered back to her seat. Charles turned off the car key. The car engine shuttered to a halt. Then he shifted over to his car seat. I was still speechless as I watched him; my mouth was gaping. Charles gazed serenely out the window while he carefully drew the straps of his seat belt over his head and threaded them between his legs. He smiled when he heard the familiar, “Click.” The safety buckle was engaged.

I climbed in to move the car from its awkward stalled position. Suddenly, a woman marched out of the store and rapped her knuckles sharply on my window. She was screaming mad. “What kind of mother are you? They could have been killed. Your are irresponsible and do not deserve to have children. Some people should NOT be parents.” She may have said more – she probably said more, but I didn’t hear a word. I was looking at my children, saying a prayer of thanks for their safety. I felt a gratitude that I can still summon today when the other car pool mother continued to entrust me to take her son to school.

In the ensuing ten years, Charles has brought us to the edge of terror once or twice, to the verge of disaster occasionally (note: a beebee gun, an aerosol can and open fire may prove highly explosive) and to the precipice of despair intermittently. However, not a day goes by that we forget his humor, his intellect, his curiosity, his persistence and his drive for excellence in whatever endeavor he is pursuing. He is finding his way in the world and taking notes as he goes. He is learning from his sisters how to treat women, from his father how to treat friends and how to run a business. From me, Charles has learned how to make french toast, how to waltz, to have faith, and I hope, how to be kind to others. When we celebrate his birthday in a few weeks, we will have much to celebrate. Mostly, we can rejoice in our belief in the man he is bound to become. To Charles, on his birthday, I will simply say, “Mazeltov.”

July 2007

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