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Modern Parenthood

Etan Patz and other missing children have mom’s radar pinging

Etan Patz, who is still being searched for 33 years after he was kidnapped, and other cases of missing children have one mom struggling with her stranger danger radar.

By Contributing blogger / April 24, 2012

Jeff Hanson displayed a photo on his website about his missing step-granddaughter at his home in Portland, Maine on March 27, 2012. Cases of missing children have one mom struggling with her stranger danger radar.



Missing children are a heartwrenching staple of tabloids and cable news; The constant attention to what is, statistically, a rarity can really give a workout to a mother’s stranger-danger radar. This past week, authorities were searching for a two-year-old who vanished at a Rockport, Mass. beach, and a six-year-old girl in Tucson who went missing from her bedroom; and in New York City they were tearing up a basement for clues to a six-year-old boy, Etan Patz, who disappeared 33 years ago. It all brings back a memory for mom Amy MacKinnon.

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Amy MacKinnon, a former congressional aide, is a freelance writer and novelist. She began her writing career at the age of 11 when she wrote the Father-of-the-Year Committee in New York City, nominating her dad. He won. She lives outside of Boston with her husband, their three teenagers, two cats, and English bulldog, Babe.

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The drinks wobbled in their cardboard tray, sloshing my hand, sluicing down my forearm. My eldest walked beside me, intent on balancing an equally fragile basket overflowing with fried clams and hot dogs.

While her focus was on lunch, mine was on my two younger children biking just ahead along the crowded esplanade: my daughter a flash of pink metal and ribbons, her older brother on his new bike, something more befitting a boy of 10. They were scouting a picnic spot with a view of Boston Harbor and the buzz of the airport beyond. It was a perfect summer day, dazzling blue skies, and the park was full.

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I ached to call them back. They were so young and if they passed the next rise, I wouldn’t be able to see them. I glanced over my shoulder to my husband. Between the distance and the press of bodies he was nearly lost, struggling to catch up as he pushed both his bike and our older daughter’s before being swallowed by the crowd. He wouldn’t hear me, couldn’t shush my warning to the younger children. Wait. He had lectured me on the car ride to the park while I stared out the window.

“Loosen the apron strings,” he said. “Let them explore, they’ll be perfectly safe. You’ve got to let go, don’t stifle them or they’ll never grow-up.”

It was only a moment before I returned my gaze to the children. They were stopped now, my son standing beside his bike, taking one step, and then another backward. My little girl straddled hers. She appeared perplexed, but I barely saw her. My vision became telescopic.

A man in gray sweat-shorts pulled low under his expansive naked belly loomed over my boy, his hand gripped my son’s shoulder.

I lost my hearing, my taste and touch, my nostrils were no longer filled with salt air and tanning lotion. All of me saw only the stranger touch my child. I closed the distance between us, never seeing but somehow sensing my daughter rushing along behind me. Another part of me was aware of the drinks teetering in my hands and a jet screaming overhead.

 “Can I help you?”  My voice was not my own. It was low, a growl, louder than I’d been taught a lady should speak.

The man continued to look at my son, a forgotten soft-serve cone – chocolate – dripping along his left wrist. No one had ever taught him to speak quietly. “What? You can’t do that no more, talk to someone else’s kid?”

He started so reasonably, but then spittle began collecting at the corners of his mouth, his pitch growing frantic, that kettle-drum stomach heaving, soft and white. I remembered him from the clam shack; he had been in line ahead of us.


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