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I should have known when one of my favorite mom-slash-writer-slash-actresses, Lori Collins, told me she had a story about the worst mistake in 12 years of being a parent, it would be bone-chilling. It took place at something called "The Biggest Little Fair in the Valley," a horror tale for the K-8 crowd.
Running the length of a football field, the "Biggest Little Fair," isn't just any school fundraiser. It's jammed with rides of screaming children, bean bag tosses for small faces to get nailed with, booths manned by strangers, sticky cotton candy to get tangled in toddlers' hair and hot dogs on sticks ready to poke out innocent eyes. There are too many minefields for a pregnant mother out for a good time with her 18-month-old.
Given so many possibilities for error, I wasn't sure where Lori was headed with her story when we started talking,
She described a choking maelstrom of thoughts from blame, to sheer panic of never seeing him again, to disorientation from the Fellini-esque atmosphere of the carnival.
"We were dead center in the middle of the field. It was late morning and, of course, being the San Fernando Valley in May, it was hot and blindingly sunny. Four of us were together. My 8-month pregnant self, my 18-month-old son, and my girlfriend and her toddler daughter. We were on a pause, regrouping, figuring out our next move. 'Should we go get cotton candy now?' I asked her, shielding my eyes from the glare with my arm. 'Maybe,' she answered, 'but I mean all that sugar, I hate that.' 'Me too, let me see what looks good to Finn (my son)' I said. When I turned back around and looked down to ask my son what he wanted to do, he was gone."
There it is, pretty much your worst nightmare of a parenting mistake, lifting your head up for a few seconds, if only to give your neck a break from looking at the ground all the time, and when you look back to where your son or daughter used to be, there's nothing but dead air.
"I was looking all around me, and I couldn't find him. My friend left me there and ran to the information booth. I kept straining to see him somewhere, every 30 seconds that passed felt like a lifetime. He disappeared so quickly, I was sure someone had grabbed him. I started to feel like I couldn't catch my breath." She described a choking maelstrom of thoughts from blame, to sheer panic of never seeing him again, to disorientation from the Fellini-esque atmosphere of the carnival.
"After probably less than five minutes wandering a small circumference I fell to my knees and started hyperventilating, imagining how I would tell my husband, who was also at the fair, "I don't have our son.'"
Amid her sobs, she heard a familiar voice yell out her name. It was her friend's husband. She stood up and caught his face a few hundred feet away.
"Lori, we have him, he's fine, we have him," he screamed. "I took a deep breath and wept tears of relief."
In fact, telling the story 10 years later Lori still gets a little choked up. So what happened? Her son Finn, a fast walker from the time he was a year old, had walked so quickly that he was discovered in the parking lot by himself and a concerned person brought him to the information booth.
'Witnessing my son's adventurous spirit at such a young age, I was forced to understand, and then accept, his need for independence. I have tried to accommodate this in my own way.'
"That was just the beginning." Lori told me. "He's always been a wanderer. In fact, I thought about getting a leash at one point, one of those terrible kid-on-a-rope things, but I couldn't do it. Of course, now they come with a backpack, so maybe today I would. I definitely always smile when I see a parent with one, I totally get it."
But like all artists worth their salt, Lori took her angst and put it to good use drawing on her personal experience for the award-winning move "Life Inside Out," which she recently co-wrote and appears in. Much like Finn, the lead in the movie is a boy with an independent spirit. His mother helps him forge a path that is decidedly different from his brothers and his father. When I ask about the specific connection between life and art here, Lori told me:
"Witnessing my son's adventurous spirit at such a young age, I was forced to understand, and then accept, his need for independence. I have tried to accommodate this in my own way. Giving him little bouts of freedom here and there makes him so happy. So rather than putting a leash on him like I wanted to sometimes, I tried to respect who he is, and, of course, never, ever take my eyes off him in public places."