by John Edward Gill
I waited two weeks before realizing my wife had abducted our three-and-a-half-year-old daughter.
It was January, 1973, and I’d tried seeing our daughter, Margie, a bright, humorous, orange-haired child with freckles, for two weekends since New Year’s Eve. We lived in suburban Long Island and my little one-room studio apartment was just a few miles from where Margie lived with her mother, who had temporary custody then. There was a one month semester break from the College where I taught English and I’d wanted to spend more than just two days a week with our only child.
But phone calls to my ex-mother-in-law, Wendy, who also lived nearby, and my ex-wife, Estelle, brought nothing but excuses.
“You can’t see her this weekend because we have plans,” Estelle said during the first week in January.
“That temporary court order says I can have liberal visitation.”
“Sorry, you didn’t give enough notice for this weekend.”
“This is Wednesday. Margie has been seeing me every Saturday and Sunday since we separated last fall.”
Estelle hung up.
Her mother wasn’t any help, either. “Estelle and Margie and I have plans, John,” she said, without explaining what was going on.
So I spent two restless days that weekend, feeding bread to swans in Long Island Sound, like I always did with Margie. Only now winter’s siege seemed bleaker, with low, overcast skies, stiff winds, early sunsets.
All the next week I made plans for visiting shopping malls with playgrounds inside, looked up children’s movies on television, went over my list of her friends from the daycare center she attended. I always had one of her friends over those weekends and together we’d go to a children’s theater, feed swans and ducks, weather permitting, make funny animals out of play dough, watch childrens’ programs on television.
But during the second week I began to wonder where Margie was. Estelle said Margie was “busy” when I called Monday afternoon. On Tuesday, she said our daughter was “taking a nap.” Wednesday brought a similar response from my ex-mother-law, along with “We have plans again this weekend, John. She’s not available.”
“What kind of plans?”
“Visiting relatives,” my ex-mother-in-law said.
But there were no relatives in the tri-state area. The closest ones were in Minnesota and North Dakota, which now frightened me.
That second Saturday without seeing Margie convinced me she wasn’t on Long island.
Estelle had told me on Thursday and Friday not to call again.
“How long is ‘again’?” I’d asked.
“Look, stop bothering me.” And she’d hung up, as did Wendy. That Saturday morning at six a.m., after sleeping only a few hours, I decided I HAD to learn where Margie was. Thinking about cold, snowy, Midwestern weather had kept me up most of the night. So I decided to stake out Estelle’s house. Since we were only separated, and the court hadn’t given Estelle exclusive rights to the marital residence, and since I was still on the lease, I figured I could search that house when and if Estelle left. Search for what, I didn’t know. But I had to do something. Where was my daughter?
Our house was in a wooded area; there were many evergreen trees I could hide behind; and from down the street I could see her green Volkswagen bug parked in the driveway. So I parked a block away, walked through forests of undeveloped land, saw a few lights on at seven in the morning, and decided to drive around for awhile as long as her car was there.
I went to West Barnegat Beach, where I’d often taken Margie and a friend that fall (we’d separated in October); watched seagulls on sandbars at low tide; wondered how much flying to Minneapolis or North Dakota cost.
Shortly after nine a.m., as I was driving near her house, I saw Estelle driving away, wearing a red fur hat and brown wool overcoat. Again, parking a block away, I went to the back of the house, where there was a basement apartment with sliding glass doors.
A male graduate student who lived there refused to let me in.
“I’m still on the lease,” I said, when he came to the door. Pulling it out of my coast pocket, I asked him, “Where is my daughter?”
“Wait until Estelle gets back,” he said.
We argued briefly until I reminded him there was no lease permitting him to live there and I’d call police if he didn’t get out. I was the landlord. He cursed and fumed, chain-smoking cigarettes, but then left, going off in his own blue Toyota.
I made sure he saw me drive away too, circled around a few blocks, parked again a block way, put on leather gloves, and climbed in through a basement window.
Up in the kitchen, I heard the phone ring, but didn’t answer. It was probably that roomer, checking to see if I was inside. I’d searched our house before, just after Estelle had served me with divorce papers and changed the locks.
But she was messy.
Books, newspapers, notebooks from her own graduate courses, unopened mail littered the livingroom. How could I find Margie in such confusion?
Calming myself, I decided to eat, searching breadboxes, refrigerator compartments, kitchen cabinets for bread, butter, jelly, cold cereal, fruit juice, anything to occupy my time.
I decided to stay until Estelle returned. I had that copy of our lease and no cop was going to force me out of my own house. (I’d also brought along cancelled checks for the rent.)
Then I discovered where Margie was.
Fargo, North Dakota. In the middle of January. There was a letter postmarked “Fargo” in the kitchen drawer where Estelle kept our silverware. Margie was with one of Estelle’s cousins, a woman married to a doctor and raising four boys. She wrote that Margie was quiet and withdrawn, but “seems to be having a good time anyway.”
Trembling, taking deep breaths, trying not to scream or cry, I read: “I think it’s good for her to be away now that you’re having all this turmoil. She didn’t sleep well at first and woke up crying several times, but in the past few days she’s started to sleep all night.”
I couldn’t read any more. Face wet, eyes watering, still taking deep breaths, I dialed Information on the phone after looking up area codes for North Dakota. Pacing back and forth on the kitchen floor, looking at scuff marks on dirty linoleum, I tried to rehearse what to say. I wanted them to talk about Margie, so if I became angry they might hang up, I thought.
A woman’s voice answered. It was Maren Lautin, Estelle’s cousin whom I’d met years ago.
“This is John Gill, on Long Island.”
She didn’t speak; I took another deep breath. How do you talk to someone who is holding your child hostage, I asked myself?
“I’m just calling to see if Margie needs anything.”
“Would you like to speak with her?”
There was silence. I thought about telephone lines and blizzards and weak connections and listened to crackling and hoped we wouldn’t be cut off.