In the summer of 2011, my husband and I were newcomers to Buffalo. Southerners, we’d lived separately and together in numerous cities chasing newspaper careers until those jobs evaporated. We landed in Buffalo in 2010 to start over in midlife with two young sons, little money and no extended family for miles.
When we embarked on the job search from our last home in northeastern Wisconsin, I sent out this plaintive prayer: Lead us to a friendly community to raise our children, one in which we can settle for good.
Who knew that would be Buffalo, land of a thousand natives? A city known elsewhere for its harsh winters and Rust Belt past. What we found was a vibrant arts scene, an excellent elementary school, and a modest house in a tree-lined neighborhood where people actually talk to and help one another.
But it was the summer night when our children disappeared that Buffalo truly felt like home.
We had headed to Bidwell Park for one of the free summer concerts with our sons Jacob and Sawyer, then 7 and barely 9. A neighbor also drove down with her boys who were the same ages.
Our boys wanted to go to “the playground” with their friends from our block. Thinking they meant the green space near the food vendors where a group of children were romping – about 30 feet away – we consented. After half an hour passed and they hadn’t checked in, my husband and I circled the small park’s perimeter. Two, three times. No boys. We shifted from annoyance to panic.
I looked at the long fingers of unfamiliar blocks surrounding us. I couldn’t believe our kids would have ventured that far in a place they didn’t know. The other boys’ mother and I headed down eight long city blocks toward Delaware Park. As we neared the lake, my friend pointed to a jungle gym and swings she’d noticed on the drive in.
“I think this is the playground they meant,” she said as my heart fell into my sandals.
All I could see were children who were not ours amid a swarm of strangers in a pulsating city that I really didn’t know. Headlines from my reporter past flashed in my head – child drownings, abductions and all manner of parental nightmares.
I ran back to the park and found a police officer who kindly listened to me and took our situation seriously. Meanwhile, the parents we had run into earlier already had fanned out to look. A teenage boy approached me, saying his church youth group was searching, too.
By now I was shaking. One neighborhood mom gathered me in a hug moments before her husband delivered our children. The officer had driven down the same street we’d walked earlier and spotted four little boys in the deepening twilight. Her husband was following in his SUV. Sawyer approached the patrol car and told the officer matter-of-factly: “I think our parents might be worried about us.”
Tears swam in my eyes in obvious relief and gratitude for the automatic help provided by a park full of friends, acquaintances, strangers and police officers who probably had more pressing concerns than wandering children. Angels must have been listening to my frantic prayers.
When faraway friends and family ask how we like living here, I talk about the mercurial weather, the thriving arts scene and, yes, the free summer concerts. But what I brag about are the people.
Buffalo is a city of neighbors, ones who stand together against raging winter storms and economic downturns, ones who set down roots and rarely leave, ones who think nothing of bolstering a falling-apart mother, a newcomer to their city, one warm summer night.