“If a stranger tries to get you to go with them,” I said, “I want you to yell, “No! You are not my mommy! And DO NOT go with the person no matter what. Okay?” He nodded.
And then he started to practice.
At Ann Taylor, he approached a mannequin, pointed and screamed, “NO! YOU ARE NOT MY MOMMY.”
The attendants laughed.
“She was trying to get me,” he said.
Then he approached a pinstripe suit at Banana Republic. “You are NOT my MOMMY!”
And then he yelled at the Gap’s discount rack. And several well-meaning shoppers who smiled at him a little too warmly.
I was carrying him out of the Gap when a middle-aged woman with braces stopped us. “Is this your child?” she asked me, her voice trembling.
“He is,” I said, wondering if maybe he’d accidentally stolen something.
“Is this your Mommy?” she asked Gus.
Gus said yes.
“Are you sure?” she asked him, near tears.
“I just heard him say “You’re not my Mommy,” she said, giving me a hard look . “That’s what I taught my kids to say if someone tried to snatch them.”
I smiled at her. Mother to mother. “Well, I was just teaching him the same thing,” I said. “And he’s been practicing. So I appreciate you stopping to make sure.”
And I did appreciate it … you know, as much as you can appreciate someone accusing you of kidnapping your son.
But she was not convinced. At all. And I thought she was going to cry. So I pulled out my wallet and showed her Gus’s school picture. And one of Patrick, for good measure.
“That’s Patrick!” Gus told her.
“Who’s Patrick?” she asked.
“He’s my brother.”
She looked wary. Something about me was just screaming kidnapper to this woman.
“Are you sure?” she asked Gus again. “Are you sure this is your Mommy?”
He nodded again.
“Are you sure sure?”
Of course, instead of looking confident; he looked scared. Because a stranger was grilling him. And what had I just taught him about strangers?
“I’m sure,” he said, looking at me unsurely.
The woman winced. Like she just had a very bad feeling about me, and she was letting us go against her better judgment.
So then what was I going to do? I couldn’t just walk away with him! Isn’t that what a kidnapper would do? We had to act natural. Just a mother and son out for a little Sunday fun at the mall. I stopped and let Gus play on those stupid ride-on cars that vibrate when you put a dollar in.
Moments later, a crowd was gathering outside of the Gap.
I wanted to kick myself! Idiot girl! Real mothers never let their kids ride on these things. It’s a total rip off. Only divorced fathers and—let’s just face it—serial killers who want to ingratiate themselves to innocent preschoolers … I was starting to sweat a little. Okay, a lot. And my heart was pounding in my chest.
Should I wave at them? No. That wouldn’t look right. I smiled warmly at my son, and patted his little head. Shit, shit, shit, I thought. That looked fake.. How would I act if I were really his mother? But I AM, I am his mother. This is insane. I am being insane. We just need to keep shopping.
I took his hand, walking extra slowly, just to show them that I wasn’t desperate to flee the mall or anything.
To no avail.
“Excuse me,” she said, scurrying up behind us. “Several other people heard this child screaming. They’ve called security. I wasn’t the one who called security. It was them. But just for my own peace of mind, would you mind if I called mall security also?”
The woman was freaking out. And I was starting to think this might end badly.
“Not at all,” I said calmly. “Go right ahead.”
As we waited for security, she talked to Gus.
“What’s your name?”
“Is that short for something?”
“Lawrence Augusten O’Brien,” he said.
Aha! I pulled Gus’s social security card out of my wallet and showed it to her. She emitted a little sigh and glanced at me wearily, as if to say, “Let’s just hope you didn’t steal that, too.”
She then started in on a very blustery story about how “Things—just things—have happened in her past” and she “wouldn’t get into details” but she just “needs to do this for her peace of mind.” She had a friend, once, she said, who had a child, who slept on a new mattress, and got blue mark on his face, and the babysitter called child services on her friend, and oh how she is just praying that this turns out to be a situation like that--
“You need to take a shorter turn,” Gus said.
“You need to take a shorter turn talking,” he said to her, holding up a hand and pinching his fingers together (the universal symbol for “Don’t Speak”.) “Mommy, can we go in that store next?”
“Sure, Gus. As soon as the security guards get here.”
Enter the security guards. One looked barely old enough to drive. The other wasn’t a day younger than 90. Neither seemed particularly suspicious of me. In fact, they seemed downright bored by the whole thing.
A Mexican woman interrupted us to ask if there was a Dollar Store in this mall, which my accuser informed her there was not.
Not wanting to seem like I was trying to sway the security guards to my side, I stayed silent, letting the woman make her case. Meanwhile, Gus kept pleading, “MOMMY, can we go look at the tractor store? Pleeeease?”
Eventually, it started to dawn that I was legit. The woman became apologetic and teary.
I told her not to feel bad. It’s no problem; I appreciate her looking out for us, etc, etc.
“Do you have a picture of your son?” the teenage security guard asked.
I pulled out the picture.
“He does look like you,” the woman said.
“Well, ma’am, it’s a smart thing you’ve taught your boy,” the old security guard told me. “Real smart.”
As if that hadn't been made abundantly clear.