Friday, April 20, 2007

The Pedophile I Never Met in 1951

When I was a girl, about seven or eight, there was a flutter among the grownups. Lots of animated conversation I wasn't allowed to listen to. I came upon my mother on the phone, telling someone, "I admire her, I guess. Talk about for better or for worse."

After completing 20 or 30 years in prison, the town's convicted pedophile was coming home.

His wife lived quietly alone in a house with a large yard and garden, where she worked regularly. My daddy was a gardener. I loved pretty flowers and sometimes stopped on the walk just to look at all her beautiful plants. Her home was two houses from the middle school.

She gardened, and worked in her church and shopped, and otherwise stayed to herself. Always a smile and pleasant word. Always a cool dignity. She had earned the town's respect. She was left alone. By now, she and her newly freed husband were elderly, well into their 70's.

So my parents, who had always had some safety rules for me, sat down to reinforce those rules, even as they had taught me how to avoid the rattlesnakes.

It was a given that school children could walk all over town unaccompanied. But, my father said sternly, looking me straight in the eye, he KNEW I sometimes broke the rule about not taking shortcuts through the alley. I dropped my eyes guiltily. Did he know about yesterday? That, he said sternly again, had to stop. There are men who like to hurt little girls, and to do so they have to catch them alone. So I was always to stay on the street. No more cutting through the alley. I nodded, but I remember thinking, "Not even when---" But they went on. They talked about taking candy from a stranger, which sounded far-fetched, or approaching a car to give directions. I was to do neither. I nodded. If a strange man got out of his car, I was to run like the wind for the nearest office/home/store. That sounded exciting, but it had never happened, so it probably wouldn't. When we were out, say, at the county fair, and they told me to stay close, I was not to rebel and go running clear across the fair grounds to "run free." That sounded a little boring, but I agreed. And they said they would point out a sweet-looking, frail old man whom I was never to approach or to speak to. That sounded rude and I was puzzled. My father explained the old man was one of the men who liked to hurt little girls, and a long time ago he had done so. And now he had paid his debt to society, but I wasn't to go near him. And, they finished, if I went to one friend's house to play, we were not to go anywhere else without asking an adult for permission. That was a little harder, because there were about a dozen boys and girls my age in the block where my grandmother lived. We tended to move from yard to yard with only a quick yell to the nearest Mom, "We're going over to Sue's to climb trees." "We're going to play ball in Robin's yard." But I sighed and agreed. My wings were getting clipped a little. But just a little.

I would see the couple from time to time, walking slowly in the grocery store or down the street. He was always in a suit with a starched shirt, she in her slightly formal dresses with her hair in a bun, just as she had always dressed . She always smiled and nodded pleasantly to people she knew, who smilied and nodded back. I never saw them pause to talk to anyone. I never saw anyone be discourteous. They were simply isolated, pariahs. He went to church with her on Sundays. I assume they went for walks, but never when the school children were coming or going. I think I felt a little sorry for them. Nonsense, my parents said briskly. He had acted, and these were consequences. His wife had chosen to stay with him, her choice. And she knew the consequences when she chose.

And life went on. I was growing up, so I was learning about more dangers in the world. It was probably another 10 years before "pedophile" registered with me and I knew what one was. My parents told me there were men who liked to hurt little girls and how to avoid such men.

That's all I needed to know.

1 comment:

Matt G said...

Years later, I wasn't allowed to ride my bicycle on the street with my friends-- I had to ride through the yards, you said.

It was hard, physically, and emotionally, to do, when my friends were riding free and easy on the public street.

But there were those whom my parents said had threatened my father's family.