She sees her daughter in pieces, in features dispersed throughout the family members who are still here.
Richard has the tiny mole above the right corner of his mouth. Sometimes Valencia touches it, lightly, the way she used to touch the mole on his mother’s face, before she disappeared.
U’Andre’ has his mother’s wiggling feet, the ones Valencia used to dress up in white leather booties. She still has the booties. They are on her kitchen table in Temple Hills. They are unscuffed. Her daughter never scuffed them because Valencia never put her down, because when her daughter was born, Valencia looked at her and thought: “I can’t believe I made this. I made this, this special baby.”
She named her daughter Unique.
Varndell has his sister’s slender calves and lanky height; so does Ashley, Unique’s other sibling.
Together, they are a whole family, minus one. A whole family with a hole.
One year ago, on Oct. 10, 24-year-old Unique Harris disappeared from her home in Southeast Washington. In the middle of the night. While her children slept in the next room.
“I have never in my life not known where my child is. For 24 years, I spoke with her every day, and now . . .”
Valencia breaks off. She leaves sentences unfinished. Sometimes she wonders whether she has fallen apart and just not realized it yet.
“My daughter was where she was supposed to be, doing what she was supposed to be doing, and . . .
“It only took me five hours to bring her into this world, and now I have spent a year . . .”
On her worst days, Valencia has pulled her car over to the side of the road and taken out a pair of the latex gloves she carries for her job as a home health-care aide. She has torn open black trash bags that people have dumped from their cars. She has torn the open trash bags wondering whether they might contain her daughter.
When people die, there is a horrible finality. When people are missing, it’s the hope that’s unbearable.
The absent anchor
Valencia Harris had her oldest child young. She was not yet 20, and the last time she saw Unique’s father was a few weeks after her daughter was born. For years, until she met Ashley and Varndell’s father, it was just Valencia and Unique, revolving around each other. At 44, Valencia looks young. Smooth skin, trim figure, fashionable shoes. Lately, she feels old.
She raised her three children in Richmond. They graduated from John Marshall High School, Unique wearing a white cap and a sheepish smile. She’d cared less about class work than about friends; her family used to tease her for being so soft, for caring so much that everyone got along.
Unique was the quintessential big sister. The one who remembered things, who made big celebrations out of little events. If someone forgot that it was Mother’s Day, Unique had already picked up an extra card. If the family ate KFC, she wanted it served on real plates. She wanted things to look right.
When Valencia moved to the Washington area in 2006, “Unique held the family down,” says Varndell Jordan, her brother. Unique’s door was always open; her family always came first.
In the summer of 2010, just a few months before she disappeared, Unique decided to follow her mom north. She and her sons’ father had been broken up for awhile, and now that her boys were approaching school age — U’Andre’ was 3, and Richard was 5 — she thought it would be a good time to reboot her life. She’d chosen a vocational school, and Valencia promised to help with child care while Unique took classes to become a massage therapist. Unique was waiting to hear about financial aid.
During those few months, the mother and daughter saw each other nearly every day.
On Friday, Oct. 8, 2010, Unique brought the boys by her mother’s after school. Valencia’s father was visiting, and Unique asked her grandfather — also a Richard; she named her older son after him — if he would give his great-grandsons their fall haircuts. U’Andre’ and Richard were looking a little shaggy. Grandpa Richard trimmed; Valencia and Unique chatted; the boys played.
By the time they were ready to leave, it was dark outside. Unique didn’t have a car, and Valencia was on bed rest with a broken foot, so Richard drove his family home and waited until everyone got inside. Unique had moved into this complex only five weeks before. Valencia hadn’t liked the neighborhood but was trying to let her daughter make her own decisions. Besides, Valencia reasoned, it was a five-minute drive from her house. What could happen that she couldn’t get there in five minutes?
Richard said he would talk to them tomorrow, and he did.