In 1957 my mother was chosen to attend an international women’s conference in England. It was a very exciting time for Mom. For her seven-year-old daughter, it was six weeks of agonizing loneliness. A few years ago I found the journal she’d kept during those six weeks. It was fascinating. My mild-mannered Mother was arrested for shoplifting. I was horrified. My heart fell to my stomach and tears welled up in my eyes. I forced myself to continue reading.
“I needed hairpins. Looking up and down the narrow streets in that part of London, I located a five and dime store. It was noon. The store was bustling. Time was limited. I quickly located the hairpins. Looking for a clerk so I could pay for my purchase I walked to another aisle. I continued searching for a clerk. Suddenly, I felt a very large hand firmly grab my left elbow. I’d been warned to be aware of my surroundings as pickpockets were rampant in England. I turned quickly to see who was bothering me. I was horrified to discover it was a police office holding my elbow.”
“Come with me,” he demanded.
Fearfully, I asked, “Where am I going? What’s going on?”
He didn’t answer. I asked again, “What’s going on?” I was panicking.
“You are under arrest for shoplifting,” the English bobby answered briskly.
“What?” I nearly screamed. “I’ve been trying to find a clerk so I can pay for these hairpins.”
He wasn’t listening to me. He pushed me ahead of himself and finally shoved me into a small room. It was about the size of a dressing room.
Again I tried to explain to him, “Sir, if you’d just page for Mrs. Swedeen, I’m sure she could vouch for me. I’ve never stolen anything.”
“Stay here. I’ll check your story,” he clipped his words with sarcasm. He slammed the door closed and immediately I heard a click in the lock and knew he’d secured the door.
Within seconds, I heard a giggle from the corner of the room. A woman (I wouldn’t call her a lady) smelling of alcohol and cigarettes laughed. With a slight note of humor she asked,
“Nabbed you, too, huh?”
“No, I didn’t do a thing,” Mom wrote. I couldn’t believe this had happened to my mother.
Usually a friendly lady, Mom wrote, “I know I was rather short with this woman, but I really needed to meet my friends. “How long have you been waiting? She asked.
“Oh, probably an hour,” the drunken woman replied.
“An hour? I don’t have time for this.” Mom said and she began banging on the door.
The woman, who admitted to Mom she’d lifted several items, laughed louder.
“Listen. I’ve been here long enough.” She nodded at the small window about six feet above them. “I’m getting out of here.”
My mother was always so caring. She was fearful the judicial system would deal even harder with her if they caught the woman trying to escape. “Please don’t. What if the police come back while you’re trying to get out?”
The daring woman wouldn’t listen to Mom. “Stay here if you want, but I’m getting out of here.” She stood on the chair, quickly and quietly she opened the window. Slipping out of her high heel shoes, she asked Mom if she’d toss her shoes out the window. Mom didn’t like the idea, but she agreed. It didn’t take long for the young woman to shinny out the window.
Mom reported she’d waited another ten minutes. The police officer had not returned and Mom set her mind to escaping through the window. She wrote, “I’ll leave the hairpins here. I’ll come back later and explain what happened.”
She listened at the door for the bobby to return. Mom chronicled her escape. “Climbing onto the chair, I hiked up my skirt, put my hands on the window sill and began pulling myself up and out the window. I was about half way out the window when I heard the key in the lock and the door was thrown open. The straight-laced British bobby hurried over to the window and became pulling on my legs. Just like I’m pulling yours.”
It was a relief to know my mother really wasn’t arrested. The story was not in the journal, but it was a favorite story she liked to tell. Mom was quite a storyteller.
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