The biggest burden of parenthood, Mervyn Kaufman writes, is that it never ends.
When news of the recent kidnapping, murder, and dismembering of eight-year-old Leiby Kletzky hit Borough Park, this overwhelmingly Orthodox Jewish Brooklyn community was devastated. So was every parent who’d ever dawdled and fussed when having to decide when it might be “safe” for his or her kid to walk home from school alone.
Little Leiby had begged his parents to let him return from day camp by himself, like a big boy. They had done a dry run together, to make sure he wouldn’t lose his way. But he did get confused and asked a kindly-seeming stranger for help. That stranger has confessed being the young boy’s killer.
Ask any parent when was the deciding moment when you felt it was OK to let a kid walk alone to a friend’s home … ride a bike to school … get on a bus … or just play in the street with peers. You’ll get varying answers.
All of us want our kids to grow up independent; all of us want to make our kids feel we’re confident of their judgment and self-possession. But even when you accede to their wishes and encourage their independence, when do you stop worrying?
I remember when my daughter was a teenager, here in Manhattan, and one day announced that she was attending a Friday night party with friends. She’d probably be home late, she told her mother and me, but would grab a cab.
I don’t think either of us were concerned about the hour of her return—this city never sleeps, after all—but were concerned about the cab ride home. Was it safe for a 15-year-old girl to ride alone in a vehicle driven by a stranger?
Would she be sharing the cab with friends, we asked. She didn’t know. All she did know was that the party was near a thoroughfare where hailing a taxi would be easy. We weren’t much mollified.
My wife and I retired at our usual hour, but there was much tossing and turning, and occasional risings to peek through the blinds to view the street. I don’t think either of us slept peacefully until we heard a key turn in the lock on our front door. We didn’t look at the clock. The time was irrelevant; all that mattered was that Amy was finally home.
When she was maybe four and just trying out training skates, I recall walking along with her to nearby Riverside Park. The Soldiers and Sailors Monument at 88th Street is set in a concrete plaza that’s level and smooth. It seemed the perfect place for Amy to test and maybe sharpen her skating skills, which she was eager to do.
I sat on a bench with a book, while she skated round and round—a little wobbly at first, then with greater confidence and skill. Instead of continuing to skate back and forth near the benches where I sat, she finally felt bold enough to try skating on the walk that encircled the monument. I saw her move off and waited for her to swing around and come back. The seconds seemed like minutes. How long would such a movement take?
I remember getting up from the bench and walking around to the shady side of the monument. The moment I appeared, Amy suddenly skated toward me—and away from a baldish man with a shit-eating grin on his face.
Had he touched her? Had he been holding her? What had he said? My head was cluttered with questions, but common sense compelled me not to over-react. The man vanished as I took my daughter’s hand.
Amy skated back to the plaza area and resumed rolling around in circles. I watched her face; it didn’t seem troubled. But I sat there shaking.
On the way home, I asked her as casually as I could about the man who had been behind the monument. She kind of shrugged. I didn’t want to panic her but pressed her a bit. What had he said? What had he done?
“He sang some songs to me,” she replied, as she took my hand for the return trip home.
I asked no more questions and never—to this day—told my wife about the incident.
At bedtime that night, I delivered yet another modest lecture about the perils of talking to strangers. Amy seemed to understand; she asked no questions. I wanted her to be on guard but never fearful, so I didn’t press the issue.
We never went back to the monument. But until she went off to college, I remember feeling a knot in my gut every time Amy said she going out alone, no matter what the hour. This was before cellphones, which for today’s parents must be a frequent blessing.
Alas, in Borough Park, where Leiby Kletzky once lived, among the many strictures of some Orthodox sects—no TV’s or computers at home—is a ban on cellphones. Thus little Leiby was doomed.
I once had lunch with a man who, along with his wife, was about to adopt a baby. “I guess our lives won’t be the same for the next 18 years,” he said. I nodded my head; I didn’t disagree. I didn’t have the heart to tell him about the true burden of parenthood: It never ends.
—Photo Flickr/Lance Shields