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STYLE & CULTURE | AL MARTINEZ

Refusing to forget the girl on the postcard

August 08, 2003|AL MARTINEZ

It was one of those moments of awareness that flashes into the consciousness during a time of blind routine, an abrupt recognition of tragedy among the ordinary: I was sorting junk mail into a wastebasket when I suddenly met Tabitha Danielle Tuders.

I glimpsed her photograph as the postcard on which it was printed floated from my hand toward the basket. I've seen hundreds of these cards over the years, missing children with eternity's smiles imprinted on their faces and the notation, "Have you seen me?" over the top. But this time it was somehow different.

I can't explain why I became suddenly aware of how casually one tosses aside the travails of others, not seeing their pain or hearing their cries. We have become desensitized to these disappearances into a world of lost children. Unless there is personal involvement, we accept the occurrence the way we accept bank robberies as natural elements of society's iniquities. Only when the remains of small bodies turn up in ditches or shallow graves do we pause to light a candle.

I studied Tabitha's face and promised myself that for this moment, at least, the lost children would not be forgotten.

Almost 800,000 of them disappear each year, and Tabitha was one of them. A bright, outgoing girl, at 13 just emerging into womanhood, she left for school one cool, gray morning last March, but never made it to the bus stop a block away.

The Tuders family had lived for 16 years in their home on Lillian Street in a suburban neighborhood of east Nashville. Bo, a local truck driver, and Debora, a school cafeteria worker, had raised their children with love and care. In addition to Tabitha, there was Kevin, 24, and Jamie, 21.

They were a close family. "Me and Tabitha were always together," her mother said to me over the phone, in a soft, sweet Tennessee drawl. "We'd go shopping together and to the car races every Saturday. Wherever you saw me, you saw her."

A life emerges from the fixed photograph on the card distributed by the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children that reveals a bright, outgoing girl who loved to act in school plays and who, only weeks before, had made the honor roll. Her life was calm, complete and unspectacular.

And then came the morning of March 29, 2003.

Debora had already gone to work. Bo left the house at 7, but not before waking Tabitha and giving her a hug. She was to leave at 8 to catch the school bus on Boscobel Street, up a slight incline. Jamie and her two children had stayed overnight and were asleep. No one reported hearing any sounds.

Neighbors near the Tuders home saw Tabitha walking toward the bus stop, but she never boarded the bus and never showed up at Bailey Middle School. The world of lost children had taken another little girl into its dark domain.

What happened to Tabitha Tuders? Her mother says she would never have willingly gotten into anyone's car. "We taught her never to talk to strangers. She always liked to help people, old people especially, but she's smart and couldn't be talked into anything. She wouldn't willingly get into anyone's car."

Nashville police and volunteers have searched a heavily wooded area for evidence, but nothing has turned up. The only potential clue was a slip of paper found among Tabitha's belongings. On it, in her handwriting, was the notation, "T.D.T. -n- M.T.L." Investigators tracked the second set of initials to a young boy whom they believe had nothing to do with the girl's disappearance.

Tabitha has never run away, and her mother is firmly convinced that this is not a case of her daughter voluntarily taking off. The family doesn't have a computer, so a stalker out of cyberspace is unlikely. Police checked the school computer to be sure, but found nothing. "We're a close family," Debora said, repeating herself. "Tabitha loved the idea of everyone being together, and she loved playing with her cousins. In some ways, she was an 8-year-old herself."

Hope and memories are what they have left of the girl on the card whose visage came into my hands a few days ago, forging a link with a family so far away. Why should I, or anyone, care about a missing child thousands of miles away? Because, in a cosmic sense, we live in a global village, and the village has lost a daughter. In ways we can only imagine, it affects us all.

Tabitha's photograph will remain on a bulletin board next to my desk, and I'll think of her often as the days pass and the years grow old.

*

Al Martinez's column appears Mondays and Fridays. He's at al.martinez@latimes.com.

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