Thursday, January 26, 2012

The Kids Are All Right...Right?

   Given the fact that finding a good babysitter is one of parenthood's most challenging tasks, my poor mother really had her work cut out for her. I am the oldest of her four biological children. My sister, Emi, and my brothers, Adam and Peter, are two, six, and eight years younger than me, respectively. I also have two older half-siblings from my father's first marriage who are ten and twelve years older than me: my brother Leszek (LEH shek), and my sister, Edina (eh DEENA).  When I was very small, Mom's sister Lynda, who is twenty years her junior, lived with us in Cincinnati,  and she, Edina, and Leszek were my first babysitters. Based on some of the stories I've heard, babysitting Emi and me was no easy job. For instance, Lynda awoke one morning to find me finger-painting my crib with my own poop. I discovered that Edina's Clearasil was also a wonderful artistic medium to work with, and one afternoon, I squeezed an entire tube of it onto a chair in our living room. Emi and I used to deliberately eat pennies when no one was looking, and it's a wonder they all passed through without getting lodged in our digestive tracts. Lynda reports that I embarrassed her one day while we were sitting in her car at a stoplight. It was a warm afternoon, and Lynda's windows were rolled down. I was just learning to talk, and began pointing excitedly at a truck passing by, exclaiming, "Look, Hattie Lynda, a FRUCK, a FRUCK!" Hearing the expurgated version without the "r", the people in the car next to us shot Lynda disapproving glances, shaking their heads in disgust at my wanton use of expletives.
     In 1970, we moved to Osawatomie, Kansas. By then, Adam was two, and Mom was pregnant with Peter. Mom was the director of psychiatric nursing at the state mental hospital across the street, where both she and Dad worked, and she recruited some of her nursing students to babysit us. Ruth was our first student nurse babysitter, and she was shy and nice. We really liked her. After Ruth graduated, there was a succession of other nursing students, and overall, I think Adam, Peter, Emi, and I were pretty well behaved with them. Oddly, the best part of babysitting nights were the kid-sized TV dinners Mom bought for us, a tradition which I later repeated with my own sons. In terms of securing a babysitter, New Year's Eve was considered a special case. For some reason, my Polish grandmother, Babcia (BOB cha), whose English was very limited, was charged with taking care of us on that particular holiday. On New Year's Eve in 1972, Emi and I barricaded ourselves in the kitchen, where we generously dotted the ceiling with wet toilet paper wads, a delightful trick which Leszek had previously demonstrated for us. We thought this would be a perfect way to ring in the new year, but Babcia felt otherwise. She immediately swept away all traces of the festive evidence with her cornstraw broom.
     In the mid 70s, there was a mass migration of families we knew in Osawatomie to Columbus, Georgia, presumably because a new state psychiatric hospital had opened down there. Our neighbors, the Yates, moved to Columbus shortly after we did. Emi and I were playmates with the Yates girls, Peekie and Buffy, both of whom I think were adopted. They had older brothers named Chuck and Rob, and Chuck was a good friend of Leszek's. Chuck was married to a Japanese girl named Keiko, and they lived in Florida. Rob, who was a few years younger than Chuck and still living at home, agreed to babysit us for several days when my parents went out of town for a medical conference. This was sometime around 1977, when I was in 7th or 8th grade. We were pretty excited about having a guy babysitter, especially one that was going to stay overnight in our house. He seemed like a normal guy. The first night my parents were gone, Rob sat Emi, Adam, Peter, and me down on the carpeted stairway in the hall, and calmly informed all four of us that we were, without a doubt, destined for hell. Unbeknownst to my parents, Rob had become some sort of wacko Christian fundamentalist and was suffering from serious religious delusions. Despite being unnerved by him, we waited until Mom and Dad came home to tell them about what he'd said. Rob's parents promptly kicked him out of their house. About a year later, another Osawatomie transplant named Vicky, was slated to babysit us one weekend. She was a nurse, and seemed like a nice lady. She never bothered to show up, and we ended up spending that weekend alone, listened out for by our neighbors at my parents' behest. It was the first time I'd ever been left in charge of my sister and brothers. Our biggest concern was that Vicky would show up and make us go to church on Sunday morning, so we devised an ingenious plan to prevent that from happening. Inspired by an episode on the Brady Bunch, where the Brady kids made a mess of the house so Alice wouldn't leave her job as their maid, we covered the living room with string, ketchup, mustard, and cornflakes, figuring that Vicky would make us clean that up instead of taking us to church. We later learned that Vicky had suffered an alcoholic nervous breakdown and had returned to Kansas, where she died shortly thereafter.
     Because I have a November birthday, I didn't get my driver's license until the 11th grade, necessitating a babysitter who could drive when Mom and Dad went out of town. Our final babysitter was a lady named Kathy, whom we secretly referred to as Pillowbutt. She was quite tall, with an attractive face, but her polyester-clad rump looked as if she'd stuffed several pillows in there, forming a wide, dimply shelf. We lived in a house on a lake, with a pool and a motor boat we used for water-skiing. Mom and Dad left explicit instructions with Pillowbutt that we were not to use the boat while they were gone, an edict which we unfortunately chose to disregard. We knew where Mom and Dad kept the key. Secure in the knowledge that Pillowbutt wouldn't arrive at our house until early evening, we decided to take the boat out for a spin. Speeding along at full throttle, we hit a stump, and lost our propeller blade, completely disabling the craft. As evening fell, we found ourselves paddling around helplessly with one oar in the middle of the lake. One of our neighbors noticed us, and came out in his boat to pull us back to our dock. That night, Mom and Dad called, and we assured them that all was well. In the meantime, we conspired to replace the propeller, but none of us had the $113.00 the boat repair technician told us it would cost. Unless we could convince Mom and Dad that the propeller had somehow just fallen off, we were screwed. Much to our chagrin, our neighbor couldn't wait to inform Mom and Dad about his daring rescue. The proverbial cat was out of the bag, and we were in big trouble. I don't remember exactly how many weeks the boat restriction lasted, but it was long enough to command our attention.
     Years later, I was a single mother of twin boys. When our beloved live-in babysitter, Ferishteh (FER ish teh), took another job, I scrambled to find her replacement. She came in the form of a morbidly obese, 22 year old girl named Alicia, who had been highly recommended by one of the neonatologists I worked with. Based on this, I figured she'd take decent care of Nick and Rory. I knew she'd had a tough life, and initially, I took pity on her. The first thing I had to do was tell her to bathe because she reeked of B.O. Not long after that, she clogged up the toilet with a huge turd so bulky I had to dislodge it with a drain snake and an hour of vigorous plunging. I never thought I'd stop retching. While she lived with us, my sons mysteriously developed a strong distaste for honeydew. They informed me that Alicia spent most of her time, smoking cigarettes on the back porch and talking on her cell phone, feeding them melon everyday at lunchtime to the point they couldn't stand the sight of it anymore. After arranging for a charitable dentist to extract her badly abscessed rear molar, I let Alicia go. Nick and Rory still hate honeydew, a residual trauma from our misadventure in babysitting with Alicia, but other than that, they emerged from the experience, unharmed and relatively unscathed. Ferishteh came back to live with us, and life was good again. Good babysitters are worth their weight in gold, and some, like Ferishteh, simply can't be replaced. If only I had known about Alicia the way I know about a good honeydew melon...

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