The Miracle of Loss, a two-part feature from 1999 on the disappearance of Carlene Tengelsen

Originally published July 11 and 13, 1999

On the first summer day of 1972, a girl waited and waited for a ride home. But her sister never showed to pick her up. Years would pass. Only then would her family discover . . . THE MIRACLES OF LOSS PART ONE: GOODBYE

It was you who found the Pontiac station wagon. Your folks forget that now. But they had a lot to remember. Your sister for one. So it's understandable it slipped their minds that it was you, little Joanette, two weeks before your 15th birthday, who spotted the car.

Dumbest luck, you. The police were looking for it. But you, you couldn't miss it.

You'd waited for it all afternoon.

And then there it was, parked across from the Krispy Kreme, your ride, big and ghost-white at 1:45 in the morning. The cop in the same parking lot hadn't noticed the '63 wagon, its driver nowhere in sight.

Its driver had been your 16-year-old sister, a wafer-thin girl named Carlene Tengelsen.

By police standards, she was not a missing person. Your folks knew better. Carlene knew better, too. Better than to run off with the car's windows down, its doors unlocked, the night already turning into the second summer day of 1972.

Your daddy knew better. He drove all night from Florida to get to that parking lot at Westgate Shopping Center. Hurricane Agnes had just hit the coast. Your daddy had to pull off the highway every so often. But home he came. He had to get home.

The Macon police hadn't sensed what he had, that Carlene had been abducted. The police said she hadn't been gone long enough to be considered missing. Your daddy had to beg them to fingerprint the car.

Along about then, when the family wagon got its graphite dusting of fingerprint powder, your spirit smudged. The prints yielded no clues.

There came your chance to shrink-wrap yourself in immaturity. You were Joanette, named after your mama, Joan. You were 14 going on what, 11 maybe? Your roommate, your sister, your insulation, was gone. You and Carlene would no longer be the middle children. Your siblings were reduced to two. The family suddenly went: big sister, you, little brother.

Now here it is a week after your 42nd birthday, and you're still talking about the summer day you started waiting.

You hadn't known back then that the wait would consume you, send you away to college to find its maker, and feast on your what-ifs: What if I hadn't been waiting for her in the first place? What if she hadn't agreed to pick me up?

The wait would leave you sleeping with your back glued to a bedroom wall.

Your wait would last into motherhood, when your own child would disappear in a grocery store.

But while you waited, looking, your family discovered something it hadn't even looked for: the miracles of loss.

* * * *

The waiting started at the school library.

Carlene was supposed to tool up in that station wagon and cart you home from day camp.

It had rained that morning, and the camp for under-privileged kids where you volunteered, Camp Joy-something, had taken a campus tour at Mercer University.

When it was over, though, no Carlene.

So you, the kid sister, waited.

Westgate was exactly two miles away across Interstate 75.

Half an hour later, still no ride. Five o'clock passed. You called home.

Couldn't you wait a little longer?

Sure, you could. But you'd been waiting. It was 92 outside. And Carlene was so slow.

You called back.

Arnelle, your big sister, who was 17, had a date to get ready for, but said, "I'll come get you."

She hadn't known that her date that night wouldn't be happening.

That Wednesday night, Arnelle would be needed at home on, of all places, Easy Street in west Macon.

Your daddy was in Florida on business. Your mama didn't know what to do.

Not only had Carlene not shown up to get you, Carlene hadn't shown up period.

You and Arnelle's boyfriend, Marvin, cruised the south side in his hot rod, searching. For what, you had no idea. Sure, Carlene, but what? What if y'all did find her? Or the station wagon?

And what if when you really did find it, she wasn't there?

What if she was hurt -- or worse?

What if ... she was gone?

Carlene had turned 16 the month before. She'd had her driver's license for a week. She was in that I'll-drive-everywhere phase. She'd jumped at the chance to pick you up. Carlene was raring to go, ready to head for Westgate to kill an hour and then zip by Mercer to get you.

She asked Tom, your little brother, if he wanted to tag along. He didn't. She asked Arnelle, but she had curlers in her hair. So Carlene, who had never in her life driven anywhere by herself, went alone.

Easy Street disappeared behind her.

* * * *

The cheer-up cards from Camp Joy-whatever-it-was came addressed to you:

"We miss you at camp."

"Sorry your sister is missing."

But your sister wasn't missing. Carlene was bona-fide lost.

There were posters. There were photocopied fliers. She wouldn't have liked them.

They advertised the mole on her left cheek, which matched the brown fleck beneath her chin, on her neck. And braces -- the ones her lips-sealed grin hides in all the photos -- the fliers listed them right along with her weight, 115 pounds, her too-curly brown hair, her "good tan," her too-big hazel eyes and pretty much all too-long, lanky, 5-feet-9 of her. Down to her daddy's blue dress shirt, her blue jeans and the Mickey Mouse watch on her right wrist. She wore a bracelet on the other.

Her phone number, your phone number, was also made public.

You could never forget those seven digits -- the 3, the 4, the 7 -- the first three adding up to 14, the last four -- the 1, the 6, the 9, the 0 -- making 16. Your ages, 14 and 16, Joanette and Carlene.

Hope was, the phone number would be a lifeline -- one some cop, some agency, some somebody would dial to report Carlene's whereabouts.

Hope was, her trail wouldn't end at the station wagon. Someone had to have seen something. After all, during that first summer night, the Pontiac had been moved, driven. It had only turned up across from the Krispy Kreme later. It hadn't been there all evening.

That's when Arnelle's boyfriend went up to the cop.

"You looking for a white station wagon?"

"Yeah, I am. How do you know?"

"Well, it's sitting right over there."

It had likely just been ditched, right there at Westgate, just off Pio Nono Avenue, the last place Carlene had been seen. But, no, the car hadn't been there all night. You were sure of that.

The early hours of your search for her, the seven-plus oh-my-God hours, wherever it was Carlene had gone, been taken -- or both -- held the truth. But with the finding of the car, those hours turned to days, the hunt for Carlene stuck in park. Pretty much the typical missing-persons case, toe-tag-cold from the git-go.

Oh, some boys remembered having seen her. She'd watched them play pinball at the shopping center. Carlene had even dropped by the plaza down behind Westgate, at the Winn-Dixie. Her boyfriend worked there. She left a note on his car: Came by to see you. ... See you tonight. But he never saw her or his class ring again. She was wearing the ring, white gold, his initials engraved.

And yet she wore another man's name on her wrist. Her left one. The bracelet bore the name of a Vietnam POW. Carlene longed to take it off. But the rule was, the soldier had to come home first.

And then ... so did she. She just had to.

Like your mama told herself, sleep-starved as she was that first week, "You don't run away when you have braces."

* * * *

Carlene's foot squirmed in bed. She swooshed it back and forth, swish-swoosh, swoosh-swish. Scrubbing the sheets put her to sleep. The sandpaper sound annoyed you more than Carlene herself.

You'd been roomies since birth. Even so, you seriously considered moving into the utility room to sleep on the washer and dryer.

Your bedroom was a perpetual border war. Spotless versus strewn: your side, hers.

You were the introvert. She was your noise. She played violin. And clarinet. She danced. She was the only white kid in the race-relations Brotherhood Club at Southwest High. She could devour a Baskin-Robbins Thanksgiving turkey cake by herself.

Her sketches of horses, wind in their manes, looked alive. But not to her. "These," she'd scoff, wadding them up, "don't even look like horses."

After "Mary Poppins" came out, Carlene learned to spell supercalifragilisticexpialidocious. Backwards. And say it, too, with ease. Backwards.

She'd have you try it. But you'd bungle it.

"Joan-ETTE!" she'd huff.

Her world couldn't be perfect enough. Like her natural curls. She wouldn't have them corkscrewing all over her shoulders. She made Arnelle iron them. On an ironing board. And yet, her room. It was hard to tell where the bed ended and the carpet began. Clothes everywhere. Just not on your side. Carlene had other ways of toying with you. You'd set out your hairbrush on the dresser, and darned if she wouldn't bop it out of place. Your bed, you'd make it up hotel neat. And down she'd plop.

When your daddy brought home a color television for the sole purpose of viewing the moon landing, Carlene couldn't wait to get her hand on the dial. Flip-flip-flip-whoa! Carlene was like, "Let's watch that!" And so you watched educational footage of open-heart surgery in progress.

Green had been her favorite color, but by high school Carlene was into black. She liked glow posters, funky lights, anything hip. She liked for you to sit down on the floor with her, legs crossed, and hum.

"Let's feel our karma," she'd say.

When she started driving, she wasn't quite sure what to name the Pontiac. With her at the wheel, "Bessie" or "Betsy" just wasn't right. "Joplin" or "Hendrix," maybe. She couldn't make up her mind. "Have to get the feel of it," she'd say. "Have to learn the feel."

That old car double-parked itself in your head.

You'd slept in that car before. Used to, you kids would put on your pajamas, pile in and ride off with mama and daddy to the drive-in movies. Which usually meant instant night-night. The ride would put you to sleep if the movie didn't.

But sleep? Now?

You could hardly stand going into your bedroom for clothes. You made deals with God, that if Carlene came back, you wouldn't whine about her quirks.

You were 15. You finally had a room all to yourself. But you wouldn't have it. You slept with Arnelle. With a light on.

The swooshing had stopped.

* * * *

You didn't even know what a nervous breakdown was. Much less that one in full wail had just paced through your carport on the way to your mailbox. You just knew your mama was a wreck.

The daughter she named after her own mother had vanished. The absence of that girl, that daughter who accepted Jesus on Mother's Day, at age 8, and was baptized that Father's Day, had blown holes in her calendar.

The fuel of her frustration, her adrenaline, went next. So after the first week, Joan Tengelsen slept. She was 39 that summer. She lived in her clothes, in her bed, in a cocoon. For two solid months, friends bought the groceries. She couldn't go out. The phone might ring.

Eventually your mama planted herself at the kitchen table, looking down on Easy Street, the same street Mayor Ronnie Thompson lived on. She sat vigil, guarding the telephone. She gave up working at the Christian school where she taught second grade.

Your sister was gone, and best you could tell, your mama was going. You felt sorry for your daddy. Off he'd go, on the road, by himself, a week at a time, tending to a chain of 36 fabric stores across the Southeast. Work, his only escape.

Then the kooks started calling. The find-Carlene reward had hit $500. The wackos called more than the cops.

Yes, ma'am, they'd tell your mama, they knew exactly where Carlene was. One flake called while his wife was in labor, the hospital bills apparently mounting. He claimed he'd seen Carlene lounging by some pool. "OK?" he concluded, pleading. "Now I need to come get that money."

Then there was the dingbat over in east Macon who swore Carlene lived in her attic. "Comes down every night and raids my refrigerator."

Oh, but your mama, she had to answer that telephone. It was beige, rectangular. It hung on the wall next to the carport door. It would ring. But it'd be for one of you kids, and she'd go to pacing, like, "OK, off the phone." Sometimes she'd just, on the spot, burst into tears. Like you being on the phone was blocking some ransom call.

"They'll call back," your daddy assured her.

But nothing soothed.

Until the day she made her journey to the mailbox, outside. Finally. She willed herself out the door. You could see that she was pressing, all baby-stepping and wobbly, as if unable to break the telephone's umbilical tug.

She started making more and more trips to the mailbox.

Her Carlene was generating letters, sympathy cards, cash donations, friendly offers of psychic intervention. The Pio Nono Avenue Burger King even sent five coupons for free french fries.

* * * *

You hadn't seen the grief pouring out of your daddy. But it had. Word of his middle daughter's disappearance shook him queasy.

Arnold Tengelsen had just checked into his motel in De Land, Fla., when your mama called.

All you ever knew was that he'd arrived home, solid as ever. You never knew he'd motored back through a hurricane's wake, that as the miles had churned by he kept pulling off the highway. But not because of the weather. He had to vomit.

He was 46 when Carlene went away, 19 years after he married your mama.

They'd fallen in love at the University of Miami; him the only son of a Norwegian-born Connecticut fisherman; her the Army vet's daughter.

After college, after four babies, and after leaving a Florida Penney's for a job running fabric shops, your daddy moved his family of six to Macon in 1966, in a '63 station wagon.

Your family had gotten to know itself in that car, on those trips to the mountains, to see Pa in Connecticut, to Disney World, to those drive-in movies.

You'd been in Macon six years, entrenched enough for your neighbor, who happened to be the city's mayor, to send his son over to borrow your daddy's tools. Then your sisters started sharing that big-lug Pontiac.

But after they did, that Pontiac was at the core of driving your family away.

It was still around, a not-so-subtle reminder that Carlene was not.

Eleven months into your wait -- your family's wait -- your mama decided she could no longer live in the house Carlene hadn't come home to.

Your daddy found work in North Carolina.

Your family moved, but left something.

A telephone.

You knew the number by heart, the digits, the 14 followed by the 16.

You were nearly 16 by then, following your family, leaving.

Leaving behind a telephone -- hooked up and plugged in -- for your neighbors to answer.

They kept it in a closet for three years.


Survival, you were informed, was a Western Sizzlin' in North Carolina. Nothing like restaurant work to help a body forget. Or at least not remember so much. Or so your folks thought. Your sister, their daughter, had been missing a year then, long before anybody knew that 80 percent of marriages doused in the loss of a child go up in flames.

Carlene Tengelsen disappeared in the summer of '72. One minute she was at a shopping center in Macon, the next minute -- the next day, the next year -- she was gone.

And by then, so were you -- you and your family -- to Durham, N.C.

Leaving Macon had made sense. Joan and Arnold Tengelsen bought into the idea that running a steak house 390 miles away could somehow salvage them.

But what about you, their youngest girl Joanette?

Sure, you had lots to look forward to in Durham. Yeah, like turning 16, the age Carlene was when she went for her first car ride alone and never came back.

Before you went away, your parents had a phone line wired into a neighbor's house -- the Carlene Hotline, left in service just in case she ever called.

But the miracles would not be phone calls.

* * * *

The police sent your mama a letter.

She didn't hear much from Macon anymore -- not nearly as much as she thought about it, or about that telephone her old neighbors had in their hall closet.

The phone was one of those no-dial-out models. The Hutchinsons, your back-door neighbors, kept it on a little table. They left the closet door open, too, figuring it was the least they could do.

Whenever the phone rang, one of the Hutchinsons -- usually Carlene's pal, Lynn, or Lynn's brother, Mike -- sprang up, hoping to solve a mystery with every hello.

Would it be Carlene, or just another wrong number?

Then one day, 21 months after Carlene vanished, a Macon detective was sorting the police department's files of missing and runaway girls. He turned up one on a Carlene Tengelsen.

Time had come to contact her folks. Her folks, he learned, had moved to North Carolina. The detective needed to know something.

But he didn't call. On March 27, 1974, he sent a letter. But the Tengelsens had moved again; their Western Sizzlin' dreams fizzled. Arnold Tengelsen had gone back into fabrics, taking a job in Kentucky, your family with him.

The detective's letter was forwarded to Louisville. It read:

"Dear Mrs. Tengelsen, ...

"We noticed that on your daughter we have not received any information from you stating she has returned home.

"We would appreciate any new development on your daughter. ... If she has returned home, we would like to cancel out the [file] on your daughter ..."

* * * *

The letter ended with the reassurance that, of course, if Carlene had not been found, her case would remain "active."

But when your parents finished the letter, they couldn't help thinking that if her case were "active," the police would already know she hadn't come home.

They were getting used to it, though, the disappointment of disappearance.

From the start, your parents were the ones who led the charge to find Carlene. Her car turned up, easy enough, in the emptiness of a mall parking lot the very night she went missing. But tracking down their skinny 11th-grader with braces proved futile.

Search parties of teenagers combed neighborhoods and woods and went home crying, their friend Carlene, so alive in their hearts, invisible everywhere else.

Your parents gave away their white station wagon. They gave everything to keep three children from spiraling into the shadow of the fourth.

They finally resorted to writing letters to this very newspaper, one of them before your first Christmas without Carlene.

"We set the table for six because we are a family of six, not a family of five," your mama wrote. "So many people are praying for our child. Please pray harder. ... Please help us."

As the first anniversary of Carlene's disappearance approached, your folks decided to make a new life in Durham, in the restaurant business.

On leaving, your mama wrote one last letter to the editor. It had been 11 months since she had seen "the smiling face of my daughter." And your mama wanted out.

"The time has come that we must leave Macon. ... Someone said, 'Aren't you glad to leave so many memories and Macon?' I said, 'No, I'm leaving Macon; that's just a name of a town,'" she wrote. "It is you the people of Macon I shall miss. ... You are people who have given a town a heart."

And hers was barely active, long after Macon, long after the Western Sizzlin', well into Louisville.

But you were going to do something about that.

* * * *

You got your driver's license. Louisville had gobs of shopping centers. One day you went for a spin and took your brother Tom. You were 20 minutes late getting home. Your mama went to pieces. She just knew her two youngest had been taken, snatched. You saw her tears.

Then one day you stopped seeing them so much. Your mama, who started teaching Sunday School at age 16, realized she was tottering on the fence of faith. She was in the shower when the Lord told her, "Joan, you've cried enough."

Joan Tengelsen dried her tears in that shower.

"It was like being washed over," she said. "It was about letting go."

But you, Carlene's old roommate, wouldn't hear of letting go. You went to find her. You went away to Western Kentucky University to major in criminology.

You buried yourself in notebooks full of bad guys. In class, you'd inject Carlene's case into discussions until they had to cut you off -- "No more questions, Miss Tengelsen."

But questions were all you had, questions to arm yourself in the hunt for Carlene. Yeah, you still slept with a light on, but you weren't too shy to speak up.

Meanwhile, in 1977, your folks moved back to Macon, back to answer their own phone. Their oldest, Arnelle, got married, settled down. Your folks didn't move back to their old place on Easy Street, but they were near enough, within four miles.

Then one day your junior year, you sat through some lecture on unsolved crimes, how they could sometimes drag on forever.

Uh-huh, forever.

In class that day, with reality sinking in, you recall "this hot whoosh on the inside." You "felt kind of dead."

The burn floored you like a '63 Pontiac wagon.

* * * *

But Carlene had prepared you for that day. She'd been your roomie. Your folks paired you on purpose, hoping some of her spirit would rub off.

"We had to make sure Joanette was with somebody," you overheard your mama say one day. Till then, you'd always thought your folks were just being mean, sticking you in that room with Carlene.

After college, after you gave up on becoming a cop, you realized how grown up you were.

Since you wouldn't be finding your sister, you would go and find yourself. Your folks said that was fine. So off you went, at 21, a traveling magazine saleswoman.

Across the Midwest, you sold the fool out of Field & Stream and Woman's Day. You had customers actually leave their children with you while they went out shopping.

Then one day you made your way into an Oklahoma City apartment. You'd been invited into apartments before, and it was up to you, Dixie Reader Service Sales Associate, to make a sale happen. It was also up to you, innocent young woman, to know anythingcould happen.

The fellow in the Oklahoma City apartment led you into a den. Four college-age guys sat eating chips and watching TV. You introduced yourself, just up and, "Hey, I'm Joanette Tengelsen."

One of them gave you a funny look. Then he left the room. He came back with something in his hand, staring at it, at you. He got your attention.

"Tengelsen," he said. "I knew I knew that name."

In his hand was a magazine full of pictures, lots of faces, lots of girls.

He found the right page. He held it up so you could see. "Would that happen to be your sister?"

* * * *

That was the closest you ever came to finding Carlene, that magazine full of missing girls. But it helped you subscribe to the rest of your life.

It somehow made moving back to Macon bearable. It didn't make it any easier, though, years later, when the construction crews uprooted the Westgate parking lot to make way for a Home Depot.

Nor did it make being a mother any less of an anxiety merry-go-round. But motherhood made you appreciate what your mother suffered. You had a son.

He was 4 the day he disappeared at Kroger. You didn't know where to start looking. You just knew he wasn't in the shampoo aisle anymore. You cried his name, "Daniel!"

Another shopper said he'd probably walked away. "I don't know if he's walked away or he's ... gone," you said, trembling.

You went right on hollering Daniel's name. Other shoppers, they didn't understand what you did: People vanish!

Then you found him over on the candy aisle. All you could do was squeeze him and sob, "Don't ever do that again."

* * * *

You find her in dreams.

You race over and ask Carlene why she never came home.

You get no answer.

So you lead her home.

On the way, you stop at a pay phone.

You just have to give your mama the news.

But when you finish, Carlene is gone.

You wake up spent.

When the dreams let up, the miracles dawn.

* * * *

The miracles start with the obits. Your folks are retired now. Mornings mean the sofa, coffee, the newspaper.

Your mama scans the dead peoples' names and prays for each one.

Then she reads the paper, especially stories of Middle Georgia's missing. She mails their mothers notes: I know what you're going through. And each morning she prays for their lost, by name. She remembers the names, "Shy-Shy ... Erica ..."

But before that, before ever getting out of bed, she prays for something else: the miracles.

As of this morning, they number 9,877.

"Good morning, Lord, what a beautiful day."

Each day has been a miracle. A miracle because it came even though Carlene was not in it.

On your mama's coffee table is a Bible. In back of it, two pages past the "Index to Color Maps," are notes she wants read when she dies. But she said it would be all right if you saw one now:

"... June 21, 1972, my heart was so broken in two that I knew it would never mend again completely till I held my Carlene in my arms. This is the day she disappeared. This is a day part of me died too."

* * * *

One of the detectives on the case is dead. The other is retired, but the name Tengelsen doesn't ring a bell.

The case of Carlene Tengelsen is 27 years cold.

In your head, Carlene will always be 16. Deep down, you think she's alive. Somewhere. You know it's nuts.

But then you know what 27 years are like, that they can be one long winter. You also know they pack their share of sunlight.

Your mama likes to remind the grandkids to embrace all of creation, to tell them, "Look at the beauty of a tree that's lost its leaves. Look and see the shape of the tree."

But you don't have to remind yourself how time and loss have given you a clear view of Carlene.

And that view need not be in your dreams.

You can drive by your old house on Easy Street. You can slow to a crawl or even stop at the sloped driveway on the right, there at the boxy split-level.

At the beginning of the driveway is a handprint. Beneath it, scrawled in concrete, is a name -- "Carlene."

You can still read it.

While the tires and the years have worn down your own childhood imprint, Carlene's is centered on the drive, out of harm's way.

Hers is a perfect fossil.