Today my best gals Nicole and Kelsi had planned to take the kiddos swimming at Lake Almaden, in south San Jose. At the last minute I decided to join them, getting Monkey and myself outfitted for the lake and packing our lunches and incidentals. At the laster minute, when I was on my way down, Nicole texted me to let me know the lake was closed on Mondays (seems to be our Monday fate--at least we didn't drive all the way down there this time!), and having "water quality issues" besides.
Since it was already afternoon, we forewent a possible beach alternate plan and went for the lunch at the fountain at SJSU standby option. It was a beautiful late summer day, the campus had come alive will all the freshly returned students, and a few hours into our time there we were happy to see the toddlers had made fast friends with a girl who was there with her mom and siblings, all playing near the fountain.
I was surprised a little bit later to see that the girl played a little roughly, picking Sureya up and actually shaking her a little (being only a small girl herself, she couldn't shake her very hard so it wasn't scary, just surprising) and tipping both Mo and my son over in their strollers, in turn. When I saw her do that with Monkey, I ran over to where they were playing, scooped him up (he was scared but unharmed), and explained to her that what she'd done wasn't nice. At that point I wondered why her mom, who was just a few feet away and seemingly very attentive to her other children, hadn't intervened with her rough-housing daughter. It finally occurred to me: that wasn't her mom. But if that wasn't her mom, who was?
I asked her: "Where is your Mommy?"
"She took my baby sister and went to her appointment."
"Where is her appointment?"
"Right there," she said, vaguely pointing in the direction of nearby buildings.
At that point I remembered that I had indeed seen this girl sitting with a different woman earlier, whom I'd noticed when I looked to find the source of a very strange-sounding infant cry (it's weird--the information your brain can sweep aside until you find it relevant).
I asked the little girl (named Maya, like Nicole's other daughter) to the other Mamas and I on our blanket where we tried to puzzle out what to do. And my concern turned to actual alarm when the girl revealed she was only 5 years old! She'd seemed quite a bit older than that, perhaps because she'd grown up quickly, having been left to fend for herself who know how often. I was genuinely confused, partially because I couldn't understand what kind of appointment her mom would have had on campus to which she could bring her infant child but not her 5-year-old.
Maya sat with us on the blankets while we learned more about her. She had 3 siblings but made no mention of a father; she'd taken a train and two busses to get downtown; she could remember clearly the instructions her mom gave her before leaving: 1) she could read something while her mom was away, 2) she wasn't to go anywhere, 3) she was to find other children to play with. The more I talked with her I saw she wasn't the cruel child I'd imagined from afar, shaking babies and tipping strollers. It seemed she really was just used to playing roughly with kids and lacked a bit of social refinement, even for a 5-year-old. She was actually a real sweetheart, basking, glowing in the attention of adults.
When I asked her if she was frightened to be left by herself, she said "Mmm...no...When a Mommy leaves her kids she always comes back." It came out almost like a mantra--something she'd needed to remind herself of before, or a mother's well-worn line, issued often on the way out the door. For a moment I could find no words to respond. I couldn't even say "that's true," because sadly enough, it isn't always. And I had this fear growing in my heart that this little girl's mother had simply gotten fed up with the whole mothering thing and left her there in a baby-on-the-doorstep kind of move--other Mamas were around; surely somebody would see she made it safely to....to....where, exactly?
All three of us gals had to get going within a half hour, and we made the collective decision to wait 15 more minutes for the mom to show up before taking some other form of action. Even if the mom *did* show up before we left, it seemed strange to just leave this alone to happen again.
Here's the thing: even as the campus of San Jose State is safer than other places to leave a 5-year-old on her own (lots of people around to witness any wrongdoing) it also serves as a main thoroughfare between the blocks peppered with old Victorian halfway houses and the restaurants and businesses downtown. In the time we were sitting there, three different transient men wandered near, two of them stopping to talk to the kids. If this were some kind of habit of her mom's it seemed like a ticking time bomb of sorts.
Spotting a Public Safety vehicle approaching after some time had passed, I decided it was time to act.
Today's New Activity: Snitching to the Campus Po-Po
In the years I attended SJSU, I never had cause to involve myself with the university police, for mine or anyone else's matters. It was a strange decision to have to make. While I would have been overwhelmingly relieved to see little Maya's mother reappear to take her away, I worried, as I said, about future incidents and thought maybe there was a lesson that needed to happen--one that I certainly wasn't qualified to teach. But I didn't want to scare Maya in the event that the police would haul her off to the campus station while they tried to locate her mom.
The public safety people (who in turned called campus police) did their best to make the little girl comfortable, handing her stickers and being real sweet, but all the opening up she'd done shut down at that point. A girl who just minutes before excitedly named her new stuffed doggy with us (which she'd pulled out of the backpack she had) wouldn't say a word. I asked her if she wanted me to stay right there next to her while the officers talked to her, and she came close, whispering "I'm shy." That seemed very strange to me, because she wasn't at all shy. It sounded more like a practiced party line to be unearthed whenever authorities were present, but perhaps I was just extra suspicious of her mother and overly cautious at that point.
Thankfully, when the university police arrived they wanted to talk to the Public Safety officers first (who at that point had all the information I'd been able to learn, including the fact that the girl had be left alone for more than an hour by that point), relieving Maya of the need to be questioned. After a while, one officer came over to me to talk, and just as I was telling him I'd had no contact with the girl's mother, the young mother herself reappeared, infant in her arms. She was younger than I'd assumed--maybe 28, max. Maya had mentioned a 10-year-old sibling and a 3-year old one, besides the infant; for certain this was an overwhelmed mother with her hands very much full.
The officer went right over to her to talk. I was surprised to see she showed no sign of alarm or any change in expression at all to find officers there where she'd left her daughter (5 of them at this point) and to have one of the approaching her. I don't know what he said, but I'm quite sure it must have been a strong caution and perhaps a threat of action against her if it were to happen again. I said my goodbyes to Maya, who with her wave said, "nice to meet you; I'll see you next time!" My heart sank at that thought. Next time. This seemed just as normal a day as any for her.
I've thought a lot about Maya's mother and what circumstances brought her to do what she did today. The officer said she'd reported having an appointment in the building across the walkway from the fountain area, where the blinds were open and she could see her daughter. It made me feel a bit better, except for the fact that if somebody had snatched her up and taken off, there's no way she could have stopped him or her...she'd just be able to say she witnessed it.
Still, I felt for the woman. Four kids is a lot for a mother of any age, and it's possible she'd reached the end of her resources for childcare, or just her mental resources that would have explored other options. I mean if she'd only asked any of us moms to watch over her daughter for a while we would have happily done it. Mothers have a way of looking out for each other's kids that way.
But I was also heartbroken for Maya and her siblings. If her mother's life choices had left her incapable of providing better care for her, it wasn't her fault. I was sad she'd had to grow up so soon and was so early on forced to make quick decisions on whom to trust, whose blankets to squat on and share the naming of stuff animals with. Even as I hope she is never in a similar position as today, I also hope that if she is, her sweet nature is balanced by a strong set of instincts that guide her and keep her safe...