What kind of a world is it? Maybe you can learn something about it from the story of Ellen
The Day Our Child Was Lost
By Simon Kent
Condensed from This Week magazine*
"Ellen is lost. Ellen is lost." The words kept ringing in my ears as my cab fought its way to uptown New York. I had returned to my office from lunch, to be told by a tearful secretary that my wife had called four times. Our little girl, age three, was lost. I didn't wait to hear any more.
During the cab ride, I did little thinking; it was like those times during the war when I was in a plane over enemy territory. I held my thoughts in abeyance; the only thing that mattered was to get to where I was going, and it was better not to think. I only knew that Ellen was lost.
When I got home, my wife told me what had happened. It was only much later that I was able to admire her comparative calm. She explained how she had been out shopping while the child wandered around the store. For two or three minutes, certainly no longer, her back had been turned. During that time our child had walked to the store entrance, stepped out into the street, and vanished.
When my wife realized that Ellen was gone, she dashed out of the store and ran up and down the street. The storekeeper and his two assistants joined her; so did some bystanders; so did the policemen on the beat. That was an hour and a half ago, and still there was no word.
Anyone who has been through the experience, or some variation of it, will understand the agony my wife and I endured. My own first reaction was purely selfish; my child was lost and my wife was to blame. Before I realized it, I drove her to the tears that her own good sense had so far averted. I asked endless, repetitive questions. Had she informed the police? Had she done this and had she done that? Over and over again, I wanted to know how it could have happened.
This was cruel and somewhat hysterical on my part, and my own thoughts ran somewhat in this fashion. My child was kidnapped, and my mind kept recalling the gruesome details of kidnappings I had read about. My child lay on the street somewhere, her body crushed by the wheels of a truck. My child was being tortured and mistreated. And as the least evil, our little girl was wandering somewhere, alone, terrified, beyond help.
Presently I returned to partial sanity and begged my wife to forgive what I had said. I decided that any action was better than doing nothing, and proceeded with a fairly senseless piece of action. My wife and I went outside; we hailed two taxis and began to cruise up and down the streets. We found no trace of Ellen. An hour later we met at the apartment. There we spent 20 or 30 minutes more agonizing minutes, until the telephone rang.
I remember very well my wife's face as I picked up the receiver and spoke a series of more or less senseless responses. Then I replaced the receiver, turned, and said, "They have her at the police station."
Ten minutes later, my wife was holding a very dirty but not terribly unhappy girl in her arms, and I was trying to thank a bored, unresponsive desk sergeant.
"It happens every hour," he said, "and they always turn up."
Then and there, I began to do some thinking. I told myself that I had lost my head, that I had become panic-stricken. But the fact remained that my outlook toward the world was the outlook of a civilized man toward an unexplored jungle. If that were so, what hope was there for any of us? That became, suddenly, a very important question and one that I had to answer.
Starting with the desk sergeant and the name and address of the person who had brought Ellen to the station, I managed to retrace the path of my daughter during the few hours she had been lost.
It began very simply. Ellen walked out of the grocery store on a hot, sunny day, walked a few yards along the street, and then answered the invitation of a cool and inviting open cellar. Two plumbers, at work on a basement job, were having their lunch when she arrived. Since she appeared to be hungry, they shared their lunch with her. When they went back to work, she watched them for a while, then lost interest and wandered off. It never occurred to them that she was lost. She seemed to be completely at ease.
When Ellen came out of the cellar, she decided to cross the avenue. By now, the immediate hue and cry had passed away, and an obliging old lady took her hand to lead her across. I got the story from a teen-aged delivery boy.
It was Ellen's first venture into the world, and she found it a place where a little child was valued and understood, at least by most people. She wandered on down a side street and began to play with a group of children. None of them were more than a few years older than Ellen, yet they were sensible enough to realize that the little girl was lost.
When the children asked her where she lived, she said, for some obscure reason, 79th St. A garbage truck was passing at the time making its collections, and with a full sense of responsibility the children informed the Sanitation department men that the little girl was lost. The men took her with them.
I spoke with the truck driver, and among other things, he said to me, "If there's one thing in the world I don't get sore at, it's a kid." This was a small revelation. I had never said as much as that to myself, and certainly I had never considered that a very general feeling.
For an hour, Ellen sat in the cab of the huge sanitation truck and made the rounds with the men. In that hour she consumed an ice-cream cone and a bottle of orange drink.
Finally, faced with the problem of a full truck, the sanitation men passed her on to a gas-company inspector. Ellen read three meters with him before he deposited her at the local police station.
Such were the adventures of Ellen Kent, who was lost in not the worst of all possible worlds. Through many evenings thereafter my wife and I debated the particular circumstances which served to change Ellen's outlook into ours; for the substance of our fear was not that Ellen had been lost, but the quality of the world in which she was lost.
I think we learned something important from Ellen, and perhaps we have learned enough to keep her outlook from becoming as hard and mistrusting as our own.
In all truth, Ellen was never lost. Quite rightly, she depended upon a world where people offered love freely to a small child, and in this dependency she was at least more correct than we had been.
Rather, her mother, and particularly her father, were lost, and that act of becoming lost had happened a long while ago.
It may be that Ellen will help them to find their way back. It is also our hope that certain other people may begin to return to a world of kindness and understanding through the simple adventures of Ellen. Such a thing would be in the way of a small miracle, yet miracles are common enough, as a certain Man knew who said, "Suffer little children to come unto Me, and forbid them not."
*420 Lexington Ave., New York City 17. Nov. 19, 1950.