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I (Almost) Left my Heart in San Francisco

As a mom of five children born over ten years, I know the feeling of being surrounded at all times with a busy brood of toddlers.  When you’ve got the house battened down, the gates up, the doors double-latched and the baby-proof outlet covers in place, you can be lulled into a sense of temporary security.  You may or may not be able to take your eyes off them for a moment to use the toilet.  Maybe some will have to come with you.

Maybe you’d better leave the door wide open, just in case.

Knowing my distractible forgetful self, I spent every move of our day doing headcounts.  The numbers may have changed over the years, but the routine stayed faithful.  If we went from playing outside to coming in for bath time, we counted heads.  If we are going to the park, line up for headcounts.  As a matter of fact, line up your shoes, hats, and water bottles for a count.  We moved in a herd, and if one kid needed something, we all just lined up and got tended together.  Call me obsessive if you must, but we never lost a kid.

Until him.

When I tell you that if he had been my first, he would also have been my last, I tell you the truth.  If I had not already had four children, enough to know exactly what I was doing, my dear fifth-born would have broken me.  The poor child had inherited my ADD from birth.  While other children nursed calmly, he could not stay focused more than five minutes or so before wondering if he were missing something.  Of course, surrounded by siblings, he was missing things, but a newborn should not be thinking about that quite yet.

I’m explaining up front so that my guilt level doesn’t rise as I confess my story.

This was my only child to break an arm, lose teeth in a living room rumpus, get a concussion, and, heaven help me, get lost on major family adventures, all before the age of 5. He is the most curious, enthusiastic, happy, people loving, gregarious boy you will ever meet.  And when the world is your oyster, you are never lost.  Perhaps your parents are lost, but you most certainly are not.

I spent a lot of my time during our trip to San Francisco head counting.  I did not go so far as to dress everyone in matching neon yellow shirts, although looking back I guess it wouldn’t have hurt anything but our dignity.  The kids rode the trolley cars and toured the city, playing in parks and enjoying the views.  Pier 21 was bustling and a big lure was the sea lions congregating in the water along the edge.  We are animal lovers and many photos were taken.

It wasn’t until all the way around to the other side that my headcount came up short.  You can guess who was AWOL.  Truly when people are massed and moving, your family suddenly looks like everyone else’s family.  We regrouped and spread out to find him.  Those ten minutes were an eternity.  I stayed put like every mom says to a lost child, so that you can be found.  There was always the chance he would find me.  There was also the real possibility my legs couldn’t move as they turned into jelly with terror.

I’m not sure I was breathing.

Dad found him back on the other side of the pier. Our little boy was enjoying an ice cream with a policeman and had not a care in the world.  Apparently he stayed behind to watch the sea lions and then wandered along enjoying himself.  He was the only calm person involved in the story and I have to say we rather hovered over him for days afterwards.

Yes, there are mothers who tether their children and I was happy when the kids could be belted into a stroller.  If only the older four had not lulled me into thinking we had no need of such things.  Even holding mom’s hand was considered sissy stuff, so the head counting was my way of invisible tethering, of ticking off the fingers, of collecting all of my precious children in one hand.

I have since discovered ways of making sure the kids, now older, will watch for me, peering over the crowd to find the mom who has something they desperately want….ice cream.  For the older ones, cash works.  They can just count my head, an easy number of one, as their precious thing to track.

Published inLiving Larger


  1. Anonymous

    I really liked this Jolie!

  2. Rebekah

    love this Jolie, especially knowing your number 5! Can picture him sauntering down the pier, hands in his pockets, not a care in the world, big huge smile for anyone who glanced his way! I have one quite similar, as you know. The world is their oyster! In my case, I stick a life jacket on her and then she can happily enjoy her oyster safely….kayaking around in the lake. But that fear of losing a child…it’s horrible. Still have the odd nightmare and think of local missing children all the time!

  3. Anonymous

    always love the stories, Jolie. You are an exceptional Mom and friend. I too had a lost child (kelley) who was my independent, self assured one. of course she wasnt lost she just decided to go somewhere else than the place she told me she would be at 5 yrs of age. turned out ok. love ya

  4. Pat Tunnell

    Another winner, I’m hooked on your writing.

  5. Pam Schlottman

    I loved that story. And I know the fear one feels when they “lose” there child or grandchild, if only for a few minutes. Time when the kids are little or not so little seems lilke it will last forever but when they began to be teenagers i begin to count the holidays left we would all have as a family. However I have had the privilege to do it all again ( on a much smaller scale) with my grandchildren. May God bless you and all your family. Love Pam

  6. Kiki

    Having taught all 5 of your kids, each so unique in personality, I can totally understand this article about child number 5. So outgoing, so full of life, so hard to keep focused on me. What a wonderfully entertaining article. I love how you write so true to heart. So many people can relate. Hugs to you and your brood of 5-always near and dear to my heart.

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