I was 4 for most of the year, as my birthday is in December (the 1st, for anyone looking to get me a card or steal my identity). I can still remember the day that things blew up, though my point of view was poorly informed so I can't say I know much about who said what or what anyone knew at that time. What I remember most vividly is being with them in their room, their arguing escalated into shouting. I was between them--physically. And then it escalated into both of them trying to hit the other. My sense of it is that there weren't "real" punches being thrown, but they were definitely swatting at one another. My parents even at that time were not small people. I, however, was. I was 4, remember? And a scrawny 4, at that. You don't forget arms flailing on either side of you, going over your head.
Eventually, this ceased. My dad directed me to get my things, that he was taking my infant brother and me somewhere. I didn't want to go. My mother objected and said not to get anything, that he was leaving and the rest of us were staying there. I liked that a lot better. But things persisted and escalated, and this dire momentum took over. I have this image in my mind of watching my dad put my brother in the car seat and begin to drive away in my mom's car, but I'm pretty sure that was just what I had in my mind as I tried to imagine how this was going to play out and not something that I witnessed, if only because I ended up going, too. And as best I remember, he didn't take my mom's car. He had his own truck.
I remember none of the drive. I have no recollection of what was explained to me, if anything. I don't even remember what I thought or how I felt in that moment. I don't even know where we went. He had a mistress, and I think we may have gone to her house, but my sense of it is that we didn't stay, if we went there. Eventually, we landed at the home of one of his brothers. I had several cousins there, all much older than me. I think the youngest was in his teens, with most of them already adults.
One night--and I have absolutely no idea how far into this ordeal that night was--an expedition was organized. Some of my cousins were being sent to get into the house and retrieve specific things. I don't know what those things were, or what else they were tasked with doing. I know it was debated whether I should go with them. I remember pleading that I wanted my toys. Ultimately, it was agreed that I would be part of the caper.
I've long had a fascination with heist movies, and I have no doubt the origin of that fascination was this night. Under normal circumstances, this would have been my home and my cousins would have been visiting as guests. Instead, I was the guest on their operation in my own home, where I was not presently living.
We used flashlights, rather than turning on the lights in the house. I remember that vividly. When you're a kid, using flashlights is really neat. Even if it's under conditions like these, it's still neat. One of my cousins was assigned to me. We went into my bedroom. My toy box was inside my closet. She helped me fill a garbage bag with my He-Man toys, and I think she may have grabbed some of my clothes.
I remember there being a moment when everyone stopped because they thought my mom may have come home. I seized on the opportunity. My cousin had all my He-Man toys in that garbage bag, which meant there wasn't much in my toy box. I went into my closet and got inside the toy box. All I had to do was stay still and stay quiet, and let them run out without me. By time they discovered I wasn't with them, it would be too late. My mom would be there, and I would be safe again.
Unfortunately, she hadn't come home. When I heard that, I gave up and came out. I remember worrying that someone had noticed that I'd been hiding, and resolving that if they'd asked, I was just going to claim that they'd simply missed me because we had the lights off and I was being quiet. (Both true!)
I don't know how long we stayed at my uncle's home. I asked my mom recently, and she thought maybe a week. She and my grandmother had searched for us all over. Eventually, one day they found us. I'll never forget that day. It was a warm summer day. I had a cheese sandwich. Not grilled. Just bread and cheese. I still kept all my He-Man toys in the garbage bag we'd used to collect them in the break-in. I don't remember even playing with them. I did, however, lug them outside in that bag. I don't think I was even going to actually play with them. I just wanted to have them with me.
A small black car I didn't recognize pulled up into the gravel driveway. My cousins were all either off in the tractor garage working, or were inside the house--where my baby brother was. The garage front was open, so they all had a clear line of sight to the driveway.
Someone got out of the car and approached me. It was my grandmother, who had dyed her hair a new color since I'd last seen her. I was confused by that. She ran up and grabbed me, picked me up, and ran back to the car, which it turned out belonged to my mom's friend, who was driving. My mom was in the back seat. My grandmother handed me off to her and got into the front seat. I remember my mother clutching me and sobbing.
I also remember that my cousins took notice of all this and came running.
Now, in case it wasn't clear from there being a tractor garage, we're talking about country boys here. Big ol' country boys. I will never forget that one of them reached the car, but just too late as my grandmother had already closed and locked the door. He was an absolute hoss and started banging on the window beside my mother. I was terrified, but even in that moment, there was something oddly comforting that he'd gone to such lengths (running like he did could not possibly have been comfortable). I didn't want to be there or stay there, but I knew that in his mind, that cousin was simply doing his best to look out for me as he knew how to do it.
We went to my grandmother's uncle's house. There, my mom gave me a Prince Adam action figure that she'd bought for when she got to see me again. It was the only toy I had, and the only toy in the world that mattered. I pictured my garbage bag with the rest, sitting in my uncle's driveway. I wondered if I'd ever see them again. I resolved that I was okay with it if I didn't. I thought also about my baby brother, and wondered if I'd ever see him again. I resolved that I was not okay with that if I didn't. It was made clear, though, that I absolutely would see him--and my toys--again. I trusted that.
I listened as the adults plotted and planned around me, playing with Prince Adam. I remember being fascinated by the material of his faux crushed velvet vest, and why was his sword pink? I also remember piping in to report what I'd seen and heard, including my firsthand account of the break-in. I can't remember if I recounted my attempt at hiding. If I did share, I have no recollection what was said to me about it. I don't think anyone had expected me to know enough to have anything to report, but I most certainly did, and I felt helpful and important for reporting it.
The narrative is that if a child is with a parent, then they aren't kidnapped. My life was not imperiled and I am not suggesting otherwise. There is a significant difference between my experience and that of, say, Elizabeth Smart. And, I'm acutely aware that at least I got the happy ending I wanted. My heart breaks for all the children out there who don't, often because one parent has greater resources than the other.
Still, somewhere in the spectrum of kidnapping experiences is a place for mine and those like it. I hated being where I was, and I hated the future I could project based on that. I longed to get back home with my mother, and to the other kids in my neighborhood who were my friends. I was consumed with doubt and uncertainty. I had a lot of questions and no answers. My world was completely wrong. I had to fabricate a cooperative outer shell in order to navigate it, because I knew that complaining and trying to make things miserable would only lead to me being punished, not rewarded.
I imagine those of you who know me well can see how this experience influenced some of the key things of my behavior, like being able to make nice in the heat of ugliness, and the duality of holding on to belongings as a tether while also being perfectly capable of letting things--and people--go without remorse. And my compartmentalization skills began here, obviously.
I've been a collector most of my life, though I've often purged my collections as I've taken on a new enthusiasm. I used to own a whole lot of action figures from several lines. There aren't many I regret not still owning, but that Prince Adam is at the top of the list. At one point about 20 years ago, I considered looking on eBay for a replacement, but decided that that would be insufficient. It was that very specific Prince Adam that I was given the day I was rescued that matters to me. As I recall, he ended up being taken to my mom's consignment shop. I hope he was as reassuring to whoever has owned him after me as he was to me.