(Note to Readers: I’m taking this week off to spend time with my family. The following column was published in Oct. 2012, when I lived in Las Vegas. Thanks for reading! — Sharon)
One wrong turn landed us in a part of Las Vegas seldom seen by tourists who prefer to spend their time and money in the neon glow of the Strip.
We were driving to Mount Charleston, an 11,000-foot peak an hour from Vegas. It’s a ski resort in winter and a respite from the desert inferno in summer. But in autumn, it’s a chance to see some fall color. Not like the autumns I knew as a child in the Carolinas, but better than no color at all.
I was homesick for fall. My husband knew it. When I said, “Let’s go,” he said, “Yes, let’s.” You have to like the kind of man who says that.
When a missed exit on the freeway put us, as life often will, on a slightly different path, we found ourselves waiting at a traffic light trying to avoid eye contact with people on the street who were trying hard to sell us things we didn’t want to buy.
That’s when I spotted her — a skinny little girl, 3 or 4 years old. Her hair was braided in swirly rows, pinned to her scalp with pink barrettes. She wore a ruffly dress with leggings and sandals, and a smile to outshine all the neon on the Strip. Even at a distance, I could see the light that danced in her eyes.
She seemed well-cared for and happy, skipping along, holding the hand of a woman who struck me, as my grandmother would say, like someone who knew how to raise a child right.
Minutes later, back on the freeway, I kept thinking about that little girl. Something about her reminded me of another child from a lifetime ago.
That long ago child grew up in the country, not the city, crossing cow pastures, not crowded streets. Her family had just enough, usually, to keep cornbread on the table, a tin roof over her head and hand-me-down shoes on her feet.
At times she wished for things other children took for granted — lunch money or Christmas presents or parents who didn’t fight. But mostly, she felt lucky.
She had teachers who made her feel smart. Sunday school teachers who made her feel loved. Grandparents who made her think she could hang the moon and all its stars. And a small, caring community of people who believed in her, cheered for her, opened their hearts and their homes to her, helped her grow up and get a scholarship to go to college, and always prayed for her best.
Children don’t need much. But they need to know they matter.
That evening, I sat on a balcony at Mount Charleston, with aspen leaves glittering like gold coins in the distance and a neon sunset spilling over the desert, and remembered the little girl I saw on the street.
I suspect I’ll never forget her. I hope she has all that she needs — someone to make her feel smart and loved and capable of anything, even the impossible.
Especially the impossible.
I hope her parents are happy, together or apart, and make choices based on her best.
I hope she has a good, reliable dog. A big sister to look out for her. A kid brother to bug her. And grandparents who swear she hangs the moon and stars.
I hope the women in her life stick by her, the men say “yes, let’s,” and her car always starts.
I hope she goes to college, lands a job she loves and keeps it for as long as she wants.
I hope she marries well, raises her children right and gets to spoil her grandchildren.
I hope she knows she matters.
And in the autumn of her life, if she ever forgets, I hope she will see a child on the street who’ll remind her of how lucky, how very blessed, she has been.