By Joann Mackenzie
---- — Down on Western Avenue, near the ice cream parlor at the foot of Middle Street, where, on the 4th of July, the little children of Gloucester ride high on their parents’ shoulders to watch the fireworks exploding out in the harbor, a tree grows in memory of a little girl who — though no longer with us — will always be a child of Gloucester.
Her name was Caleigh Harrison, and she would be 3 now. But on the afternoon she inexplicably vanished — exactly one year ago to the day — she was just 21/2, a tiny toddler with a great big grin who, her father says, loved the color purple, her big sister Lizzie, and running naked in the summer sun.
It wasn’t quite summer, but it was plenty sunny last April 19. The day had dawned bright and breezy here on Cape Ann. A storm had tossed the sea and left it wild and wind whipped, but spring was in the air and it was warm enough at last to kick off your winter shoes and go for a brisk run on the beach.
That’s what Caleigh Harrison did last April 19. Her mother, Allison Hammond, had taken her and her big sister Lizzie, then 41/2, to Rockport’s Long Beach for the afternoon. Racing barefoot along the sands, they’d been tossing a ball to Lucas, the family dog, and when the ball landed up on the seawall above the beach and Allison went off to fetch it, she left the girls down on the beach “situated,” as she’d later tell a TV reporter, “playing by the rocks.”
Allison told the same reporter she did not regret taking her daughters to the beach that day because “the time we had there was fantastic ... up until when I turned my back.” Hammond says that, in her recollection “it’s all a blur,” but she thinks she only turned her back for “maybe a moment.”
What happened in that moment remains to this day a mystery. No one — not any of the teams of divers and armies of volunteers who searched seas, sands and shores for her for months — came up with a clue.
As for Allison herself, all she can say is, “When I turned back, Lizzie was standing there alone, holding up her hands, saying ‘Caleigh’s gone.’”
Dennis Lehane, the Dorchester native who authored the heartbreaking masterpiece “Gone Baby, Gone,” wrote of children who are lost inexplicably, “There are threads in our lives. You pull one and everything gets affected. “
And so it was when Caleigh Harrison vanished in that moment, in that “blur,” in plain sight of her mother and sister, from Long Beach.
Local authorities responded compassionately.
Allison’s demeanor in the immediate aftermath of Caleigh’s disappearance had, by all accounts, been “hysterical.” There was no suspicion of foul play, no evidence to suggest it was anything but a tragic accident that happened as accidents often do — in the blink of an eye. In the blink of an eye, the sea — which has taken so many from these shore — had, authorities concluded, somehow taken the tiny tot. She’d simply been swept away. She was gone baby, gone.
In the weeks that followed, Allison, no longer hysterical, sat through press conferences calmly next to her distraught young husband Anthony. By contrast to him, her demeanor seemed cool, composed, detached.
Although the couple were, in fact, separated, they were, Hammond told the Times, united in their love for “their kids,” and they presented a united front. There was no hint of marital discord, save perhaps a certain uneasy body language, which seemed understandable considering the circumstances which TV’s Nancy Grace —among other reporters— drove home to national audiences.
Those circumstances were that Allison Hammond had not just left her little girls alone on the beach, but alone within yards of a notoriously dangerous tidal stream. Allison Hammond had summered on Rockport’s Long beach since she herself was a little girl. She knew all too well the perils of that tidal stream, particularly when the sea was storm tossed and the tide was running high, as it was that afternoon. The stream was, she told the Times, “ripping” that afternoon. “It is something,” she said, “ I’ll have to live with the rest of my life.”
Although the Harrisons initially refrained from criticizing Hammond, in time, one by one, they slowly broke ranks with the family’s solidarity of silence regarding her “casual” parenting style. In interviews with the media, including the Times, they became increasingly candid, too, about Hammond’s increasingly cool, detached demeanor.
They were not alone. Hammond’s apparent nonchalance was, for many, a hot topic. In the court of public opinion, she was losing sympathy, and she knew it.
In May of 2012, a month after Caleigh’s disappearance, Anthony Harrison filed a complaint through Rockport police, with the Department of Children and Families, who opened a neglect case against Allison Hammond out of concern for the safety of Lizzie.
Hammond told the Times she welcomed the investigation. “I have nothing to hide,” she said. “I’m a good mother who something bad happened to.” —The investigation, which is still open, has so far proved inconclusive.
In July, Anthony Harrison acknowledged that Caleigh had not — as he and Hammond had previously raised as a possibility— been abducted, but had been swept out to sea.
In November 2012, the tattered remnants of a tiny pair of pink pants washed up on Good Harbor Beach. Caleigh had been wearing just such pants when she was on the beach that day.
Hammond acknowledged that they “might be” Caleigh’s. But according to sources close to the family, DNA tests have so far failed to identify them conclusively.
Tonight, Caleigh’s tree, planted last year by the Harrison family, will be joined by a bench in the little girl’s memory. The dedication ceremony is planned for 6 to 6:30 p.m., while Hammond and her family will be hosting a lighting of lanterns at 7 p.m., meeting at 6 Wolf Hill Road and walking down the river.
For both families, it will no doubt be a brutally painful day.
Neither Hammond nor Anthony Harrison were available for comment on this story. In an interview with the Times last May, Hammond had said it was “too painful to talk about Caleigh,” that she needs to live for Lizzie now — that she can’t live if she lets herself feel what she feels about Caleigh.
“It’s too huge,” she said. “It hurts too much. If I let myself, the floodgates would open and I’d be swept away.”
Joann Mackenzie can be reached at 978-283-7000, x3457, or at email@example.com.
Remembering Caleigh The family of Caleigh Harrison will dedicate a bench in memory of the toddler today, in a ceremony set to run from 6 to 6:30 p.m., on Western Boulevard opposite the ice cream shop. A lantern lighting and vigil in Caleigh's memory, hosted by the family of her mother, Allison Hammond, will then be held at 7 p.m., beginning at 6 Wolf Hill Road and continuing with a march down the Annisquam River.