It was a beautiful moment of redemption, and a wonderful opportunity for us kids to see our father rise above his raw emotions to do the right thing, and set the right example. Even in retelling it, it still moves me.
Grandpop O'Donnell was thrilled to have us visit, and we kids were able to tune out all of the anger and anguish that had been built up over the years. To us, he was just a fun grandfather, and my father was happy to see us all getting along so well. In fact, things were going so well, from our little kid perspectives, that the night before we were due to leave we pleaded with our parents to take my grandfather back with us. He seemed so lonely down there in Clearwater, his days so dark and dismal; we all thought he could use a change of scenery. My parents, a bit reluctantly, agreed.
It was quite a frantic scene, as we got ready to leave early the next morning. It was barely daylight, and my mother had her hands full getting her six kids and her niece all packed and washed and into the car. I believe now that my grandfather had probably been up all night drinking, so in addition to worrying about us kids my mother had to wonder what he might do next, but somehow we got past the chaos and were ready to leave. The last thing my mother had us do, just before leaving, was to shuttle us each into the bathroom, so we wouldn't have to stop on the way. One-by-one, we took our turn and then headed out to the van.
I was the last—and by the time I stepped out of the bathroom everybody had gone. I thought they were all waiting for me in the van, so I raced outside, but the van was gone, too! It was a real Home Alone-type moment, back when Macaulay Culkin was just a baby!
Amazingly, surprisingly, I didn't panic.
They'd driven a couple miles before anyone figured out I was back in the apartment. Remember, this was before cell phones, so they couldn't call to tell me they were on their way. Before heading out, my mother, as usual, did a quick head count, and in the rush of the morning had simply forgotten that we also had my cousin Evelyn in tow, so when she got to six she left it at that, and now all they could do was race back to my grandfather's and hope against hope I hadn't gotten into any trouble.
My poor mother was absolutely mortified that she could leave me behind like that. To this day, she gets embarrassed when we tell this story, but I didn't see it as anything to be embarrassed about. I still don't. There was a lot going on that morning, that's all. There were a lot of kids to track, and my cousin Evelyn, and my ornery grandfather, and all of our stuff. It's a wonder they got out of there at all, with most of their kids—I count this to my mother's great credit.