(Almost) all I ever needed to know, I learned from babysitters — that is, having one, being one and hiring many.
My parents were homebodies, and my sister and I only had one babysitter when we were growing up: Mrs. Piermont from across the street.
Oh, how to capture her in words. The smeared bifocals with the merry magnified eyes behind the lenses. The ill-fitting false teeth that sometimes whistled. I can hear echoes of Mrs. Piermont’s chortles today. How she cracked up during our marathon Monopoly games when I made my dog token bark if it landed on Boardwalk and lift its leg on “Go to Jail!”
Our tradition when she came over never varied.
First, we made popcorn with all the butter and salt we wanted. Then, we played Monopoly on the board I use today with my grand kids, its tell-tale grease spots fading. Next, we watched “Gunsmoke,” with Mrs. Piermont narrating plot points: “He’s pretending to be a good guy but Marshall Dillon knows better!” (To this day, when one of us is stating the obvious, my sister and I tell each other, “Thank you, Mrs. Piermont.”)
We wondered what had become of Mr. Piermont, but my mother forbade us to ask. As we grew up, we continued to exchange small Christmas gifts with Mrs. Piermont after I had become a babysitter.
One Saturday before Christmas, when I was a teen, I stopped over to take her a gift of bath powder with a pink puff. She opened it as we sat by her tinsel tree with a revolving color wheel. When I made haste because I had a date to primp for, she was gracious about the brevity of the visit. Something made me turn around before I went back into my house. In the twilight, I could see Mrs. Piermont silhouetted in the revolving light, holding the powder.
I remembered that I had once heard my father tell my mother that he suspected Mrs. Piermont had “more upstairs” than it appeared.
By then, I was babysitting the five exuberant children of the family that lived next door to us. From them, I learned how to deal with competing needs. I also learned about emergency preparedness.
Our street had old houses and huge trees, an ideal setup for bats, of which I was terrified. They’d been known to swoop around attics at night, in the neighbor’s house, as well as ours.
At our neighbors’, the girls slept in the attic and the boys downstairs. I fretted about a bat making an appearance while I was babysitting. I could call my dad but was too proud to do so. So, I always put a large blanket and a flashlight at the top of the stairs, thinking that if a bat began to swoop and the girls to scream, I could gather us all on the top stair under a blanket with the flashlight and go down on our bottoms, one step at a time.
A bat never appeared, but being ready allayed my fear.
A decade later, I had a baby and was trying to launch myself as a freelance writer. I had just moved into a town where I knew no one, and I needed a part-time child care provider. My landlord told me about Mrs. Haakenson, who was in her 80s but sometimes minded children.
With Mrs. Haakenson and my dark-haired, big-eyed, 18-month-old it was love at first cuddle.
Because her surname was a mouthful, my daughter called her “The Lady.”
She lived in the small upstairs apartment of a Victorian house, which soon became a viewing station where The Lady’s friends came to “ooh” and “aah” over my little girl.
I remember a well-meaning friend asking why I didn’t take my child to a day care center where she could be socialized and whether I worried that Mrs. Haakenson might even expire while my daughter was there. Her sensible questions scared me a little, but I decided to follow my gut.
We moved in a couple of years, and while my daughter doesn’t remember The Lady, she does remember the cards and trinkets The Lady continued to send us as long as she lived.
From The Lady I learned two things: One was to trust my maternal instinct. The other was that when you mix the wisdom of the very old with the joy of the very young, you conjure magic.
Rebecca Christian is freelance writes based in Ames, Iowa.