Friday, October 22, 2010


It happened one day while the twins and I browsed the garden center at Rona.  They had just turned three.  I typically don't need to worry about the kids wandering off, they follow me like a gaggle of goslings follow their mother.  This one particular day, however, when I looked up from the planters on sale on the shelf, my daughter was gone.

I picked up my son and put him in a nearby shopping cart while scanning the immediate area.  I called out her name repeatedly, each time more frantic.  My inner voice speaks up. 

"Stay calm. Get help."

Ironically, on the way in, we had walked past a display on how to locate your child if they go missing.  The presenter offered to fingerprint and photograph each child for the bargain price of only $30 apiece.  I had balked at shelling out $60 I didn't have for something that would probably never happen to me.  Yet, here it was...happening.

I double-timed it back to the lady at the missing child display.  "I've lost my daughter," I explain to the presenter calmly but concerned.  She waves at an employee behind the store's customer service desk.  "Can I help you?" the employee asks, perhaps expecting to direct me to the aisle for paint chips.  Her expression confirms that she recognizes the urgency in my eyes before she hears the panic in my words.  "I can't find my daughter!"

The employee springs to action.  She announces over a two way radio to a select group of employees to be on the look-out for my little girl, giving out a description of hair colour, clothing as I give it to her.  Her demeanor is calm, reassuring.  She takes me back to the garden center, explaining on the way that the store policy is not to make a store wide announcement for a missing child, therefore alerting everyone that a vulnerable child is wandering around unattended.  Instead, they conduct a thorough search of each department, communicating via walkie-talkie.  A few long minutes later, I am relieved to see an employee approaching the garden center, my daughter in tow.

Soon after the Rona episode, we made almost every shopping trip a game of 'What To Do If You Can't Find Mommy'.  I handed out chocolate rewards to whomever could stay near the spot they lost sight of me (because they were the ones who darted behind racks to "hide") and find someone who worked in the store.  The kids entertained many a store clerk with exclamations of "Look, Mommy!  This person works here!"

This year, the kids have started junior kindergarten.  Last week, they each brought home a letter addressed to all parents. "...a student at a nearby school was approached by an unidentified man driving a van. Police are investigating..."  The threatening stranger seemed so much more real.  There was one in our neighbourhood.  Did Ty and Erin know what a stranger was?

Saturday morning seemed an opportune time to find out.  While Dad took care of some household chores, I took the kids out to visit our local Canadian institution of "coffee" (a.k.a. milk) and donuts.  On the way, I am entertained by the responses to "What is a stranger."

"A hairy monster with big teeth and glowing eyes", "A stinky man who lives under the ground."  In the parking lot, I spot the sole pedestrian amongst the parked cars.  A young woman standing beside a motorcycle.

"Do you know who that lady is?"  I ask.


I step out of the drivers seat to help the kids out of the back of the van, continuing the lesson, "We don't know that lady.  She isn't wearing anything to tell us who she is.  That lady is a stranger."

Both kids look at the young lady, astonished.  The young lady is looking at us, containing laughter but trying to play along.  Both kids turn to me, their eyes wide.  For the first time since they learned how to talk, they're speechless.

On our way into the coffee shop, the game continues about what to do if a stranger asks for directions to the mall.  My ever helpful son replies, "I'd tell her to go straight and then turn left..."

"No!"  corrects his sister, "You run away and yell 'Help!' as loud as you can!"

"Good job!  Adults ask adults for directions," I add, "But where do you think you should run to?"

This gives them something to mull over while we order. Once we sit down, I check to see who was paying attention.

"Did you see that lady behind the counter who gave us our donuts?"


"Is she a stranger?"

I can read the words on their horrified little faces. 'Not the coffee lady!'  I better jump in before I do lasting damage. "Did you see that shiny badge on her shirt?  That badge tells you her name.  She wants you to know who she is.  If you need help, you can go to the coffee lady."

Their relief is audible.

"So if a stranger is talking to me," my son exclaims proudly, "I can run to the coffee lady and she can help me!"

"That's right!  Well done!"

It's a proud moment for Mommy.  I had a lesson to teach and they learned it.  I've taught them how to be safe.  The young woman we saw beside the motorcycle walks past our table with her order in hand.  Both kids spot her and leap up on their chairs.

"Bye, stranger!" they sing out, waving and smiling.

Thankfully, the world is full of  good people.  Thank you, kind stranger.

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