Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Girl at the A&P

Another Chicago memory, this one very fuzzy. I was perhaps six or seven. It was the mid-1970s, and my parents and I lived in the Lincoln Park area of the city. All three of us had gone out grocery shopping, so I assume it was a weekend morning or afternoon. Back then, the family had a car, too (thematic connection with the prior post unintended). I don't remember being inside the grocery store, although I remember distinctly that it was an A&P, and I remember the orange and red colors of the letters in the logo. My father was driving. The reason that this day of mundane domestic activity stands out, always has, is because of a little girl who was possibly my age, maybe a little older. I don't remember her name, though I'm sure I must have heard it. My mom must have asked. I don't remember anything about this girl's specific circumstances; I don't recall for certain how it came to be that our lives intersected for even the shortest time. The sequence of events is lost to me, and understanding was never fully mine to begin with. But I did know this: the girl was likely a victim of child abuse. We all knew it, talked about it later. How did we know? Another missing piece of the puzzle. Was she disheveled? I don't remember anything like bruises or cuts. She was definitely fearful, very withdrawn. I think she was alone, standing out in front of the store, which is why my parents got involved, thinking she was lost. Was she lost or left behind? Did my parents ask her where she lived? Did she say she didn't want to go back home? Am I only imagining that we drove her home, despite suspecting that she could be going back to an unhappy family life, if not a dangerous one? This is how I remember it, though maybe we just waited, car idling, looking around the parking lot or in the store for the adults in her life. Maybe everything transpired right at the market. I was drawn to this girl, fiercely. She was mysterious, sad, and I quickly imagined that she could come to live with us and be my sister. If her guardians were abusive, she didn't have to go back. But she did have to. We didn't know anything about her, about her life. Even if we all suspected . . . it couldn't have been more than a suspicion, ungrounded in fact. I know my parents: if they had proof, they would have reported it. I remember thinking it was nevertheless up to us to take the girl's side, to uncover the truth and protect her. I remember being angry with my parents for not bringing her home to stay with us, impossible though that was. It was a six-year-old's sense of what was right, fair, helpful. I don't know what happened to the girl. I don't know what my parents remember about this incident, if they remember it at all. I have very often thought of this girl, though, and wondered . . . thought of her as a shadow sister, a ghost, hoping that whatever her problems—clearly heavier on her slight shoulders than should have been allowed—she managed to overcome them, escape them. Even if she had to do it alone, and in any case without us.

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