He was a kid. A towhead. Pale skin, with more freckles than a spilled pepper shaker. I could tell he was lost by the way he was anxiously sucking on his fingers.
I could relate, I was a lifelong thumbsucker. Thumb sucking was a childhood habit that screwed up the growth of my two front incisors. As a boy, whenever I wept, I would suck my thumb until my front teeth were sore.
Sometimes, even at this age, when the Atlanta Braves’ pitching staff has a bad night, my front teeth ache.
I saw the boy wander from aisle to aisle wearing the noticeable expression of fear on his face.
Then I started noticing how enormous this store must seem to a little pair of eyes. Remember how everything seemed bigger when you were little? Remember your huge school gymnasium was? Or your enormous childhood bedroom? And remember how, years later, when you revisited those places as a middle-aged taxpayer, you kept bumping your head on the ceilings?
This big-box hardware store must have seemed like Siberia to the kid.
I approached the boy.
“Hi,” I said.
No response. He took two steps backward.
The last thing I wanted was to scare him more. Kids today are more jumpy than children of my generation. When I was a boy, we played with pocketknives, walked to kindergarten alone, and ate gluten. Today kids are more cautious.
“Are you lost?” I said gently.
He sucked his fingers.
“Where are your parents?”
He just looked at me.
“Are you here with your mom? Your dad? Can you tell me their names?”
The kid took another step backward. He looked like he wanted to bolt.
I could see I was going to have to change my approach.
I took a knee. I told him my name and did my best Joe Friday voice. “It’s okay. I’m here to help, son.”
He said nothing.
“If you can tell me who you’re looking for, I’ll go find them.”
“Look. You don’t have to come with me, you don’t have to do anything but wait here. Just tell me what your parents look like and give me a name.”
This was going nowhere. So I started to leave. I figured I would fetch an employee or at least a capable manager.
I turned to walk away but heard a little voice behind me say, “My mom has yellow hair.”
“You mean she’s a blonde?”
“Well. Her hair is yellow.”
God love him. My mother went through a bottle-blond phase, too. Good times.
“What else can you tell me about your mom?”
“Um. She likes Justin Timberlake.”
“How about something a little more visual?”
“She, um, has on shorts, and um, purple kinda socks.”
Yellow hair, purple socks. Timberlake fan. Got it.
I told the kid to wait by the wingnuts and rubber grommets and under no circumstances was he to leave this place. Not even if former members of the boy band NSYNC came around.
So I conducted some highly professional parent-finding and started scanning the aisles. I began in the home-and-garden section and worked my way to the plumbing aisle. I combed through the appliances, closet-organizers, and the septillions of LED light fixtures.
I located one dishwater blonde, but she wasn’t wearing purple socks, just flip flops and jeans with pre-ripped holes in them.
I ran into another lady, light blond hair, wearing a shirt with a picture of a pug on it. But she looked old enough to have a single-digit Social Security number.
I looked for nearly 15 minutes until I made it to the end of the store near the lumber department. There, I saw a young woman with cropped bleached hair and lavender socks.
“Ma’am,” I called out.
She turned to face me. I could see that her cheeks were wet and her mascara was running like Alice Cooper after a long night.
“Ma’am, pardon me, but are you looking for your—”
I never got the full sentence out.
In seconds we were making a brief jaunt across the ginormous store, half-jogging through oceans of sink faucets, burnished bronze door handles, particle-board bookshelves, faux wood-grain ceramic tile displays, throwback ‘60s lampshades, high-tech vacuum displays, and energy efficient refrigerators that connect to the internet and remind you to recycle.
When we reached the woman’s son, a lot of happy crying ensued. A lot of hugging, too. There were a lot of “Don’t you ever do that to me agains” and lots of “Mom, I’m sorrys.”
And I don’t care how old I get, when I see the purity of a mother’s love like this, it still makes my nose run and my front teeth sore.
Laura W - September 8, 2021 8:50 am
Reminded me of when we lost my nephew in a department store. We founded him when a clerk pointed out where he was hiding inside a rack of clothes watching us search for him. My sister in law was a wreck and his grandpa wanted to hurt him, well, not really, but sort of.
Sandra Preble - September 8, 2021 11:18 am
Tears here remembering when my 2 year old son disappeared in the mall when I let go of his hand for 5 seconds. He just took off and wasn’t old enough to know what lost was. Total panic.
Lander - September 8, 2021 11:29 am
I remember the sickening panic and the sudden enormity of the store and how lost I was. It was decades ago and I can still feel the butterflies in my stomach. Found my way to the customer service desk. It seemed like forever after the woman announced my name on the store PA before my mom found her way there. I was so glad to get that scolding.
Hardware – Shhh… - September 8, 2021 11:33 am
[…] Hardware […]
Jan - September 8, 2021 11:56 am
Tears, lots of tears for all the lost sons (and daughters) in this world today.
Suellen - September 8, 2021 12:26 pm
This sure brings back memories. My now 45 year old adult handicapped daughter was an expert at disappearing. Once in a store I picked up a hat and turned around to try it on her and she was gone. We found her 20 minutes later wandering in the stock room. She went to a local festival with her Grandpa and he stopped to get a snow cone but she evidently kept on walking. I was at work and didn’t know that the police were looking for my daughter after dark for 3 hours and eventually found her wandering the riverfront in a sea of festival goers. These are the most memorable times but she was never upset and was just blissfully wandering. Like our beagle she’d see something interesting and follow her nose. Even now at 45 I always make her walk where I can see her.
Paul McCutchen - September 8, 2021 12:39 pm
My brother used to do that. Mom would call him the magician because you could turn around and he would be gone.
Shelton A. - September 8, 2021 12:42 pm
God does send angels to help. For that little boy, you were his. Blessings and peace…
Melanie - September 8, 2021 12:58 pm
And it never ends…I have to look everywhere for my wandering husband 😁
Carole Shepherd - September 8, 2021 1:48 pm
In the 40s I got separated from my Mama in a department store in Miami. I still hate big cities and crowds!
Eileen - September 8, 2021 1:51 pm
I had a wandering toddler that would disappear as fast as a lightning strike. A single mom, responsibility for his well-being was solely mine. I really didn’t care what the other adults thought of me. After finding him sitting on the floor of the ladies dressing room, or in-between the clothes racks, thereafter, whenever we went out to open spaces, he wore a child harness around his chest. He could only wander so far from my loving care. I’m pretty sure it would be considered child abuse now.
Christina - September 8, 2021 2:42 pm
Thank God for good people like you who notice, stop and help little lost ones.
Stacey Wallace - September 8, 2021 3:26 pm
Sean, love you.
Evangeline Vandenberg - September 8, 2021 3:30 pm
You always make my day and revive memories long gone, Thank you!
Dean - September 8, 2021 3:50 pm
Thank You for helping me remember that there are still good people in the world
Linda Moon - September 8, 2021 4:51 pm
When I was a kid, lots of us walked to kindergarten on what seemed like an enormous road. Our Mamas taught us how to get there alone or sometimes together when we met up with other kids. I think Mother’s Love is the most pure of all loves, and she passes it to us. You, Sean, pass it on to others, too…including me, especially when I’m reading Sean of the South.
Rebecca Souders - September 8, 2021 6:14 pm
Bless you, Sean…. rescuer, hero, stand-up guy, good-with-words Southern son.
MAM - September 8, 2021 7:02 pm
I’m guessing most mothers have had disappearing kids. As others have said above, our younger daughter loved to hide inside the racks of clothes, but the giggle often gave her away. The older one was such an escape artist that she wore a harness with a leash around my wrist. And yes, that might today be considered child abuse. But they both grew up to be well-educated and successful adults. My favorite story of a lost child was our neighbor’s daughter who got lost in the supermarket. Her mother, who was searching, was shocked when she heard over the public address system: “Would the mother of Heidi Ho please come gather her daughter?” The little girl didn’t know her last name (it was almost unpronounceable), but her family called her Heidi Ho.Thanks, Sean, but putting mother and son back together!
Terri Tweedell - September 8, 2021 9:46 pm
Know how scared I was when our 5 yr old wandered off at Washington State Fair. 5 minutes felt like hours. He looked at us and said “I wasn’t lost I knew where I was”. All I could do is laugh
Tammy - September 9, 2021 4:00 am
Sean, i like your drawings.
LeAnne - September 9, 2021 11:37 am
Yes! Speaking for the moms out there, thank you, Sean, for making that reunion happen.
Jaxon - September 12, 2021 3:12 am
When I was very much younger, my family went to the Ontario Science Centre in Toronto on Easter weekend. The place was packed, at least it felt that way to us country bumpkins.😉 One of my little brothers, who was four at the time, must have been looking away for a moment and got turned around, because he went running away from my dad, crying and yelling “Dad! Dad!” at the top of his lungs. Meanwhile, my dad is chasing after him, trying to catch the little fella and not bump into too many folks in the meantime. Now, as adults, we laugh about it, but I can still hear that panic-stricken voice and see the terrified look on his face as he ran off. Somehow it still gives me the shivers. So thankful it turned out the way it did.
Bill Harris - September 24, 2021 6:44 pm
Thank you Sean. Sweet story.