Lost and Found
Grabbing my two little people by two little hands and walking quickly, we entered our coastal city’s fish market, our faces smacked with fresh Gulf smells and a salty dampness as the glass doors closed behind us.
Joe Patti’s Seafood Market claims to be Pensacola’s second most visited tourist destination, just behind the first place white sand beaches that make us famous. Boisterous, systematic, and efficient, the whole place buzzes with activity any time of day, 7 days a week, and teems with glassy-eyed fish on ice, tubs filled to the brim with fresh-caught bay shrimp, and a staff that eighty-plus-year-old Mr. Frank Patti, a local celebrity, runs like the crew of a ship. Like a king perched on his throne, the second-generation owner bellows out service ticket numbers from the radio handset clutched in his right hand.
“Be my shadows,” I repeated my usual instruction as the children and I worked through the crowd to obtain our ticket. I was several numbers down, and an old hand at this, so I knew if we hurried that I had time to grab a few items from the coolers and deli before I’d be called. The children followed me and grabbed a nibble of fresh French bread from the sample plate as I ticked items off my “to-buy” list.
“Right by my side, guys,” I repeated, now with a plastic market basket in hand, “Stay with Mama.”
Not ten seconds later, I was scrutinizing some lemons when I heard, not my number, but my name called by Mr. Patti’s uniquely identifiable voice over the loudspeaker.
“Laura Boyles, paging Mrs. Laura Boyles to the front,” he called.
No stranger to the place, I was shocked, but honored, that Mr. Patti himself might have recognized me upon entering and even knew my name. Was I “Joe Patti’s famous?”
I reached down for two hands, but realized that only my 5-year-old son was by my side.
His 3-year-old sister was gone.
My pride over being recognized quickly turned to embarrassment. My “Joe Patti’s famous” was quickly turning into “Joe Patti’s infamous.”
Instantly, shame, guilt, and a little bit of parental annoyance (I mean, I TOLD them to stay close, didn’t I?) washed over me like hose water on a fish cleaning table. Seriously, it had been mere seconds since I had seen her.
From his elevated position, Mr. Patti picked me out of the crowd quickly and followed with a gleam in his eye my persistent push through the other customers. My precious little girl, in her plaid preschool uniform, sat on Mr. Patti’s knee playing with the curlycue cord of his handset with one hand and, in her usual style, sucking two fingers on her other hand. The bob haircut, accented with a perfect little bow, was a perfectly distracting cover for innocence.
“Does this belong to you?” He asked, failing to repress a smirk.
“Yessir.” I couldn’t even look him in the eyes as I reached a hand for her. “Tell me this happens to everyone.”
He laughed, “Not exactly, but the cute ones do get ice cream.”
He lifted her from his lap and put her down; she walked straight to me, grabbed my outstretched hand and turned back to watch Mr. Patti with a look of satisfaction.
“She walked right up to me and told me you were her mama and asked if I would find you. Smart girl.”
She’d have been smarter if she’d stayed by my….
“Yessir. She is. Thank you.” I quieted the frustration over a quick errand becoming a three-day-tour. Stuffing my irritation, I realized how grateful I was. “You know, I’ve always told them to find someone with a name on their shirt if they were ever lost–that the person would be in an official position to help them.” I pointed to his family’s logo on his shirt. “I guess she was listening to me after all.”
“That she was. Go on now,” ending our encounter with a wink and a nod, he didn’t miss a number as he went back to the microphone and about his business of yipping out numbers and directions. “Go get you that ice cream, Miss Sarah.” She took her fingers out of her mouth and gave him a smile.
This memory came to me today and elicited a private chuckle during my friend and priest Reverend Katie Gillett’s homily on the parables of “lost things.” She retold the stories of the missing sheep, the widow’s coin, and the prodigal son. She reminded us, in her lyrical way, that God comes looking for us and that feeling lost isn’t a punishment or a dead end.
As I sat in reflection recalling the story of Sarah, who was found before I even knew she was lost, I was struck by a new lesson for me in the holy stories.
Here my husband and I are on the cusp of all things grown-up with our preteen children. The world that lies ahead of them is rife with distraction and danger. And to be sure, some children find that trouble before their parents even realize they have let go of a hand and stepped away. Parenting in the modern world requires constant shepherding, that is, to look for and even pursue our children even when there are other things that constantly call our attention away. I may think my children are “with me,” but at some point they’ll stray. It is foolish to believe I’ll have the capacity to notice, when already the demands of daily life require so much of our time and emotion. I know this is the time to lean in, more than ever before. Not in a way that controls, but in a way that notices, coaches, and guides.
But something else struck me.
From Sarah’s perspective of being lost in Joe Patti’s, I was the lost one. She knew exactly where she was. She knew what to do, whom to find. It was I, her mother, that was lost. Lost in my busy-ness, lost in distraction. Incredibly, she found the one person who could help her best: the man who wears a shirt emblazoned with his name, and who also happened to have a microphone to loudly call out to her mother.
Sometimes being lost is a quiet and slow slipping away, a series of choices. Other times getting lost happens so fast we don’t realize it’s happened until we get called by the “one who wears [his] name.”
And sometimes being found is as loud and clear as Frank Patti.