'We'd better pack the car tonight if we're going to be on the road by 6:30 a.m.," I said to my husband, Jack.
"Don't worry," he said. "I'll get it done. It's the kids I'm worried about."
From experience, we knew that getting our six kids, ages 2 to 9, up and ready to travel would not be easy.
We were heading to Cape Cod for the 1975 "cousins on the Cape" family reunion. I wanted to leave early to have lots of time to visit my siblings and for the cousins to play with each other. The car was packed the night before with luggage, games and snacks. Our alarm went off at 5:45 to give Jack and me some quiet time for coffee.
"Everybody up!" I hollered into the boys and girls bedrooms at 6:15. "Have your breakfast and take your sleeping bags to the car."
The sleepy-eyed kids moved slowly to the kitchen. Revitalized by the sugar in Cap'n Crunch, they were huddled in a mass in their sleeping bags on the flattened back of our station wagon, and we left Bethpage by 6:50, just 20 minutes behind schedule.
Our 1969 Plymouth station wagon was delightfully quiet until we reached Connecticut. Then our 8-year-old son, Mike, spoke up.
"Mary's not in the car," he said.
Mike was referring to Mary, our fifth child, who was only 4.
I was stunned. "How could we forget Mary?" I said. "She was up. She had breakfast."
Jack was in disbelief.
"Look around," he bellowed, waking everyone. "She has to be there. Look under the sleeping bags. Check everywhere."
"She's not here, Dad," someone said.
"I don't see her either," I said.
As he pulled over, Jack noted how far we were from home. He hoped we were wrong. We weren't.
"I'll call Sabina and ask her to get Mary until you get back to Bethpage," I said, referring to a neighbor, Sabina Anselmo. "Leave me at a playground with the kids. Traveling all the way back and forth to Bethpage will make them -- and me -- crazy."
I called Sabina from a pay phone and sheepishly explained that we had left 4-year-old Mary behind. I asked her to go get Mary and keep her until Jack returned to Bethpage.
"Of course," Sabina said.
She rushed to our house and found Mary standing on the front lawn, tears streaming down her face.
"My whole family went to Cape Cod and left me home," Mary said.
Sabina explained that Dad was on the way. She invited Mary to their house for a big breakfast.
"How could we forget Mary?" I kept wondering as I watched the other kids play. After perhaps three hours, Mary was a very welcome sight as she emerged from the car to cheers and hugs from her siblings and me.
That trip took place before laws required seat belts, or baby and toddler safety seats. Today, it is easy to see if a child seat is empty or a seat belt is unused. But our old story makes me shudder a little today when I hear about child abductions or parents charged with neglect. We lived on a circle where neighbors looked out for each other's kids. We worried about broken bones, not abductions.
Incidentally, Mary's now a grown woman, thankfully untraumatized from being left home alone.
Reader Mary McCaffery lives in Bethpage.