Sometimes I find myself seemingly buried– buried in the frustration, the questions, the investigative construct, in the discussions, and in documents all relating to Cheryll’s case; feeling sadness and despair over the unanswered questions about her last day alive and in the investigation that ensued. And always, I long for any information that I can learn about Cheryll herself. I find myself posting in Facebook groups, begging anyone with memories of her to reach out to me and asking her childhood friends to share what they remember of her, like I’ve asked them before, hoping that when I ask again a new little story about Cheryll will emerge from the deep recesses of their memories. Hearing about this little girl I never knew always makes me feel like I am just a little bit closer to her and inspires me to keep on working for her.
Recently, my persistence paid off. I was given the name of a Rose Avenue resident who was a young mother living with her family on the street when Cheryll disappeared in 1971. She agreed to talk to me and passed her phone number along to a mutual contact and one night, after my house grew quiet, I settled in, dressed in my warm pajamas with a blanket draped across my lap, pen and notebook nearby, as I excitedly and nervously dialed the phone number.
The voice of an older woman answered the phone. (For this blog, I will call her Mrs. Smith).
“Hi, Mrs. Smith. This is Beth Rowland. I was given your name and number because I’ve been told you may be able to share some memories you have of Cheryll Spegal with me.”
“Oh, yes. It’s good to hear from you and I certainly do have some memories of Cheryll.” And with that, in the sweetest and most sincere voice, she spoke of Cheryll and transported me back to a time in 1971. I was thankful to be sitting all snuggled up, to have budgeted time to talk to her, and to have this special opportunity.
“I remember Cheryll very clearly. You know, she was a tiny little thing and was the sweetest girl. And it still hurts me deeply that someone could have hurt such a sweet little girl like they did.” I explained to her that I felt the same way and that very fact was keeping me motivated to tell her story and to get to the bottom of what happened.
“Some mornings before school, she would stop by our house and I’d say ‘Cheryll, it’s cold! Get in here!’ And I would bring her into the front room or the kitchen and offer her something to eat because I was usually preparing breakfast for my kids, you know. And sometimes she would eat a little something, and sometimes she’d say she wasn’t hungry. And after breakfast in the mornings, before I drove my kids up the street to wait for the school bus, I’d read them a little story. I remember that Cheryll would sit right there with the kids as I read, listening to the story too. And I’m not saying this happened often, but I remember it happening a time or two and I was always happy to include her. She was such a sweet little thing.”
“That is so nice that you did that– reading to your children like that,” I said with all sincerity, picturing an idyllic Normal Rockwell type painting of a cozy little family having breakfast and gathering for a story before school.
“It was just something I liked to do for my kids.”
“You said you drove your kids to the bus stop. Did your children ever walk up the street to wait for the school bus like the other kids did?” I asked.
“No. I was protective of them, even back then. They were small and I didn’t want them out on the street alone. I always loaded the kids in my car and would drive to the top of the street and let them out there or if it was cold or rainy, would have them sit in my car until the bus came. And once or twice, I saw Cheryll walking up the street alone when it was raining and she didn’t have on a coat and I’d pull up next to her and say, ‘Cheryll, climb in! Let’s get you out of the rain.’ And I’d say to my kids, ‘Kids, scoot over and make room for Cheryll.’ And they would, and they’d be sitting close together in the backseat for the short ride to the top of the street, but they always made room for her.”
“That was so good of you,” I again said through a smile, amazed at the kindness shown to Cheryll by the neighbor mom.
“I felt bad for her, you know. Out in the cold and dark alone some mornings and I felt like she needed a mom.”
Before I could say anything in response to this comment, Mrs. Smith continued. “I don’t think I ever recall seeing her mother or I guess it was her stepmother. She was never outside. I really don’t think I saw her dad much either. Every once in a while I’d see them drive by in a nice convertible car, her dad and stepmom, I mean, but they weren’t friendly to anyone on the street and it really felt like that little girl needed some mothering.”
“Yes, I think she did,” I said in response.
“And you know, she always had that little brother of hers with her. I felt so bad for her. She would carry him around and she wasn’t a very big girl and I could tell she was struggling at times. One time, I was outside of my house hanging laundry and she was having a time of it with that baby and she saw me out and came walking toward me with the fussy baby in tow.”
“Was he a little tiny baby?” I asked trying to imagine how old Darren would have been when this would have happened.
“No, he was big enough to walk, but I wouldn’t say he was a toddler either, so maybe older than one, but not quite two,” she explained, but in a way that sounded a little like a question too.
“Oh, okay. That makes sense.”
Mrs. Smith continued. “And Cheryll asked me if I could help her. She said that she couldn’t get him to stop fussing and she couldn’t take him back home like that or she’d get in trouble, so I said, ‘Well come on over here and let’s see if we can get him to settle down.’ And Cheryll sat with me on a porch swing we had and I showed her how to lay him down on his belly–because back then that’s how we got kids to sleep, on their bellies–and we covered him with the little blanket she had and I showed her how to pat his back and she did, and I sat and rocked the swing a little, with her and the baby in it and me beside them, and eventually he fell asleep. And I needed to get on with it–I had to finish hanging the laundry and get inside to make dinner–but I couldn’t bring myself to stand up, and Cheryll said to me, ‘Will you sit with me for a bit while he sleeps?’ And I said, ‘yes honey, I can do that.'”
I was breathless. I realized then that Mrs. Smith may have been the kindest adult that Cheryll encountered during her time on Rose Avenue. And a small voice inside of me felt compelled to say “thank you.”
“Thank you for doing that for Cheryll,” I said to Mrs. Smith, but I felt like I was speaking for Cheryll herself. “You impacted her life whether you realize it or not.” I quietly spoke those words with a slight lump in my throat.
There was a soft stillness for a moment, then Mrs. Smith finally replied, “I was happy to help her. I wish I could have done more.”
We all wish we could have done more. I wish I could have done more and I wasn’t even born yet when Cheryll was killed. If I could get in a time machine and intervene on Cheryll’s behalf back in 1971, I would do it. There are a lot of “bad guys” tangled in Cheryll’s story, but in talking to Mrs. Smith I realized that Cheryll had a heroine in her story too in the form of a kind neighbor lady who made breakfast, read stories, rocked babies, and provided shelter from the literal and metaphoric storm. Cheryll and I both, once again, have something in common– we are better for having crossed paths with this special woman.
And as our conversation continued, a steady surge of energy pulsed through my veins… and my heart was full.