Stranger Danger?

By Allyson Wuerth

I can see it from my bay window, the black water of the pond. Leafless trees. The hawks funneling a dreary sky. I can see them too, my daughter and her friend. They’re just ten years old  and ensconced within this late December grey, two colorful blurs almost floating within the fog. 

Truth be told, I’m proud of myself for letting them go. I’m fiercely over-protective of my children, especially my daughter. And, of course, I blame my mother for all this. She was over-protective too, but in a 1980s sort of way—always warning me about “perverts.” She seemed to define that term broadly—perverts were strangers and strangers were men. They lied about who they were, why they’d come, where they were going. They could even disguise themselves to look like people in your family. Everything they wore had pockets. Why? Because they needed some place to hide all the things they would kill you with. She subjected me to constant lectures about how to handle myself in public places. They can be summed up by the following: 

  1. Don’t talk to strangers. (I became so paranoid, I hardly spoke to anyone.)
  2. Even if they tell you your parents are in the hospital, they’re lying. Don’t talk to them. (Wait. They could trick me like this?)
  3. There is never candy or kittens in the back of a grown man’s van. So don’t be dumb enough to look. (No candy. No kittens. No look. Got it.)
  4. You don’t want to end up like that Adam Walsh, do you? (I didn’t.)

But, like I said, it was the 80s, so for all this talk of strangers, perverts, and murderers, the incongruity of my freedom was just as true. Could she really have been that worried I’d be kidnapped? I can remember traipsing through the neighborhood alone from the time I was 4 or 5 years old, following the brook’s long trail to the reservoir off Great Hill, flipping off an el Camino full of teenagers, heading into a dark woods to find where the Mountain-laurel bloomed. 

Once, at the Milford Post Mall, I ran away from my mother in a store called Child World because she wouldn’t buy me a toy. I ran and ran, and when I finally stopped I saw nothing but unfamiliarities. A group of teen boys heckled me, and I burst into tears thinking for sure they’d murder me, put my body in a duffle bag, and roll my severed head into the Housatonic River. When my mother finally found me, she hugged me tight and said through gritted teeth, “I thought you were kidnapped. Don’t you ever do that to me again. Ever.” Then she slapped me hard across my face. If I really think about it, I can still feel the sting, like she had a palm made of bees. 

And, of course, I could never escape myself. At night, I agonized over the possibilities, believing that men carried around secret faces that looked like the faces of people I knew and trusted. That faces could be swapped like stickers or secrets.  I envisioned myself in the back of a van, peeking out that small bubble window, seeing everything I loved grow smaller, and smaller, and smaller. My blue house. My little brother. The cluster of oak trees I always climbed. My street. My bus stop. And all I could say was, don’t take me away from all this

For all her good intentions, my mother’s fears terrorized the bulk my childhood. Maybe she thought arming me with stories of murdered children was enough to keep me from harm? But you know what? All those stories of strangled and bagged children, they seeped through my already-thin-skin.  Instead of making me tougher, they huddled deep inside me like such dark clouds. Like all children, I was coated with the fierce belief in my own invincibility. I was able to semi-manage my kidnapper anxiety by believing this. But as I grew, my coating of invincibility faded, while the overwhelming fear basted within me. A decade later, my psychologist called it “panic disorder.” 

So, yeah, when my 10yr old asks to walk to the pond down the street from our house, my instinct is to say, “NO!  Absolutely NO!” 

    “No. What if there is a murderer hiding in the woods?” 

      “No. Do you even know how many episodes of My Favorite Murder mommy  has      listened to today?” (Four. The answer’s four.)

But I don’t say any of this. In fact, I let my girl and her friend walk to the pond without the baggage of this 80’s kid. Truthfully, I’ve only in passing mentioned the danger of strangers to my daughter. It just doesn’t seem worth. . .the risk. Anxiety is already in her blood. Does she really need one more thing to worry about? 

So, for now, she walks without the stories of vanished paperboys, girls last seen in a field of butterflies; she walks without squinting to find the hidden seams of a person’s face. I don’t think it’s fair to heap that burden, that whole terrible world, upon the consciousness of a child who, statistically speaking, will most likely never need to worry over it. Despite the panic I feel when my daughter walks 20 feet from our home, my head reminds me that stranger abductions are pretty damn rare. So maybe that’s a talk I can skip? I think, as parents, we try so hard to shield our own children from the mistakes and injustices we were exposed to—at least I do. And then I second guess myself, and wonder if I’m doing more harm than good. I suppose I’ll find out when my daughter writes her own blog post one day. 😉

Still, I could never allow my children the freedom I had in the 1980s. They don’t take long walks with their friends on summer nights (I tell myself it’s because we don’t have streetlights); they don’t walk to school-even if you can see it from my house (no sidewalks). So my eyes hover over these two little girls who have no idea how closely they are being observed. From my bay window, I watch them circle the pond over and over again. I wonder what it is that 10yr old girls talk about in the fog? One bends to pick up a twig and flings it into the water. The other plucks berries from a holly bush and holds out her palms. “Look here!” I imagine her saying as the other one pushes hair out of her eyes to see the pile of shiny husks. “Look what I found!” 

They are cupped in her palms, this handful of scarlet berries, the bright of them ephemeral as ladybugs or mysteries.

 

 

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