I had planned to blog about something totally different today, but a link on Twitter drew my attention to the fact that today is the 10-year anniversary of one of the saddest news stories I’ve ever followed here in Newfoundland.
I so vividly remember the news that 13-year-old Samantha Walsh had gone missing while making the short walk from her grandmother’s home to her own home in the tiny Newfoundland community of Fleur-de-Lys. For 17 days we heard the updates and waited and prayed for this little girl who was so close to home she set out walking that February night in her pajama pants instead of dressing for the cold. Was she a runaway? It didn’t seem to fit with what everyone knew about her. Had she been kidnapped? Reports of Samantha sightings in various places raised hopes that were dashed when news broke that a sixteen-year-old neighbour had confessed to her murder (and apparent sexual assault).
It was a devastating story as we heard it unfold, and for me, as someone who’s so often reduced to tears by evocative music, the one thing I’ll always associate with Samantha Walsh is that home recording that was so frequently played on the radio at the time, of her singing the song “Saltwater Joys.” It’s a song that celebrates the simpler life in a small Newfoundland outport, and comments on how she loved that song often accompanied the tale of how Samantha’s parents had moved back to Newfoundland rather than raise their family on the mainland, because a small town in Newfoundland was a better place to grow up.
It should be, shouldn’t it? That’s what we want to believe, that there are safe places, communities where little girls and women are safe from acts of violence by men they know and trust. Places where a little girl can leave to walk home wearing only her pajama pants and know that she’s safe from assault and murder.
There aren’t any such places, and for all except those who knew her personally, Samantha’s story has become just one among dozens of horror stories we’ve listened to and lived through vicariously. I could pick other stories as my own personal touchstones of horror — the disappearance of Dana Bradley, a teenager just my own age at the time, who was picked up while hitchhiking near St. John’s and never seen alive again, or the slaughter of women engineering students at Ecole Polytechnique in Montreal while I was a young woman.
So why is it Samantha Walsh’s story that has such resonance for me? Because it happened 10 years ago, in February 2000, when I was 7 months pregnant with the beautiful little girl who is currently snoozing in the big bed next to her dad, just a few feet away from me. I was pregnant for the second time, I knew I was having a girl, and I couldn’t help thinking what a terrible, devastating, unsafe world it was to bring a little girl into. To bring any child into, of course, but especially a girl, because, like it or not, girls and women are more vulnerable to such acts of violence, and with all the progress we’ve made in my lifetime, that doesn’t change.
Today, I still can’t listen to “Saltwater Joys,” sung by anyone at all, without crying. And there’s another Newfoundland song that has taken on the same emotional resonance for me too, ever since Emma and I decided years ago it was “our song.” I’d pick her up in my arms and sing and dance together (now we just waltz because she’s too big for me to pick up) whenever the Ennis Sisters sang “If Anything Happened to You.” Even now when we dance to that song, Emma will ask, “Why are you crying, Mom?”
I’m crying for Samantha, and all the Samanthas whose mothers had to face the worst horror a parent can imagine. I’m crying because I’ve brought children into a world where I can’t protect them from every nightmare that might happen. I’m crying because …
If anything happened to you
If my worst fears should ever come true
I’d have no reason to carry on through
If anything happened to you.
So promise me you will take care
It’s a wicked old world out there
I’d be devastated, be broken and blue
If anything happened to you.