Columns » Domestic Bliss

Domestic Bliss


Winter has finally raised its frosty head in Colorado, wilting and blackening the last remaining leaves in the garden. Unpicked tomatoes, split and ripe from the heat of the sun, now hang low, leached of their color, frozen in time.

Inside, the light is warm and orange, a fuzzy blanket against gray, wet skies.

The news fits the day, chilling hearts. Another person, a bus driver, a father, has been shot by an invisible sniper criss-crossing the eastern countryside with stealth and precision. The police chief announces the gunman's latest message: Your children are not safe anywhere at any time.

At a conference last week in Los Angeles, focusing on issues of children, families and violence, a group of journalists listened in silence as the director of the meeting, a vivacious woman with prematurely silver hair and wiry energy, described the anxiety hovering over her neighborhood in northern Virginia, off the Beltway surrounding Washington, D.C.

Just getting on the plane and crossing the country, she said, was harrowing this time. A frequent traveler and a journalist who has covered airline safety in the past, she normally thinks nothing of flying away from her family for a few days. But this time, her 9-year-old son held her close and begged her not to go.

Please don't go, he said. Please don't go.

She flew anyway, drowning in his anxiety and her own. For weeks, her neighborhood had been on alert, parents and children rushing from car to school, from car to front door, avoiding being in public open spaces where they might be vulnerable to a high-power rifle's scope.

We know that the odds of our safety actually being compromised is small, she wisely added, noting that she lives in a nice neighborhood, drives a safe car and sends her kids to relatively safe schools. Not so, she pointed out, the woman in Baltimore who, along with her five children, was executed in her home the day before, after refusing to bow down to drug dealers in her neighborhood. That news, a story that could have occurred in any of thousands of impoverished housing projects or neighborhoods across America, held front-page attention for one short day, then was replaced by more news of the sniper.

An entire brave family, wiped out in a single massacre in an American neighborhood, then quickly resigned to faint memory -- another one of those things that happen in ghettos, barrios, slums, places where we don't live.

When violent crime hits middle-class America, it's news because it's unthinkable, unfamiliar, incomprehensible. I remember the front-page coverage of the brutal murder of a 13-year-old babysitter, her body found on the muddy banks of a river in Nashville, the summer before I turned 13. The newspaper described her crumpled adolescent body, still clothed in flowered denim shorts.

In that innocent time, the mid-1960s, this was my first conscious acknowledgement of murder and evil in the real world. I remember lying awake in my quiet suburban neighborhood, my eyes fixed on the bedroom window, absolutely frozen in fear that someone would climb through and drag me away to kill me.

I wonder if the sniper's rampage will help draw attention to the hundreds of thousands of families who live in the real, not just imagined, face of danger every day. Will the knowledge of real fear awaken middle-class America to the trauma of a child who has seen her older brother shot down, her mother brutalized, her grandmother pistol-whipped in a robbery? Will we ever talk about the preposterous number of deadly weapons in the hands of potential shooters in every city and town of our vast nation? Will middle-class mothers, fathers, civic leaders and politicians stop and give a thought to the child in the inner-city housing project whose eyes are fixed on the bedroom window in the middle of the night because he hears gunshots outside, every night of his life?

Back home from the conference, I am glad to leave the grimy streets of L.A. for the orderly, wide avenues of midtown Colorado Springs. Golden leaves rustle beneath my feet as I rush around trying to save a few potted plants from the night's coming freeze. I round the corner of the garage to throw a handful of twigs into the compost heap and I am frozen by the sight of a single, perfect lily, a white Easter lily that has taken root, flourished and blossomed from inside the pile of rotting leaves and grass. I clip it off at its graceful neck and bring it inside where it will be safe from the cold.

It is the absolute last flower of 2002, a reminder of resilience and fragility. Its scent is thick and sweet. My children are safe at home, but some other mothers' are not. Not now, not at any time.


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