She arrives promptly every day, usually a few minutes early. My daughter runs to the door to greet her, my son’s clompy patter and squeal express his delight. They love her.
Sometimes she brings little trinkets she found, aware they will like them: an old Sesame Street sing-along record, a dead moth carefully transported on a bed of tissue in a tiny cardboard box, a library book on a currently enthralling topic.
She patiently shares her food with them: yogurt of a more interesting flavor than found at home, peanut butter and jelly sandwiches cut in the shape of letters, “crunchy nuts” (for the eldest child only, not the baby, of course). She brings extra, knowing her lunch would otherwise disappear to little mouths entirely.
Sometimes I come home to find the toys organized just so. Miniature dolls all sitting in a circle on the rug as if I’d interrupted their book club or dinner party. Matchbox cars lined up on the windowsill, getting a tune-up from their toddler mechanic. Play food displayed on the coffee table, an old computer keyboard serving as the cash register, crumpled paper bags stacked at the ready for tiny shoppers. Stumbling into these scenes, I’m thrust into their play world. I imagine along with them. She is their playmaster.
She jots daily notes in a spiral notebook, sometimes detailed, sometimes anecdotal, sometimes developmental, sometimes a question. Naptime started at 1:30. They hardly ate anything for lunch. She did such a grownup thing today and pushed all the big kids on the merry-go-round! Is it okay if I give her a vitamin in the morning? He counted to three! She cheers them on with a grandmother’s enthusiasm and exaggeration of accomplishments.
She sends postcards when she’s away: desolate landscapes of the Badlands, trees in Maine, ice caps of Alaska. They cherish them, clinging to the pictures and the letters forming into words not yet understood. She never forgets them, even while traveling, and they know it.
She rinses out their dirty clothes. Poop stains from potty training, dirt stains from outdoor climbing, strawberry stains from a messy breakfast smorgasbord. She folds our laundry. It started out as just the kids’ clothing but our washing isn’t segregated, so she does it all now. My underwear folded neatly into squares, running socks tucked one into the other. I wonder if she does this with her laundry at home or just thinks that’s what we want, what we expect.
She’s never nannied before. A retired nurse, she moved out West to be closer to her grown kids, our age, unattached and “never going to have kids of their own.” She wanted money to supplement her tap dancing lessons. She volunteers with an organization to help the homeless get back on their feet. She dyed a streak of blue in her hair, just because. And has a noticeable tattoo. She was the only person we interviewed who showed any interest in our then-infant daughter. “May I hold her?” We did a background check and hired her, with some trepidation. A stranger in our home, entrusted with everything that matters. Four years and another child later, she’s a stranger no more but still a mystery. We get snippets of her life at comings and goings but there’s always goodbye hugs with the kids, communication about logistics and the feeling that we should let her go (she’s an employee, after all) that gets in the way of more in depth conversation.
The neighbors say, “You’re so lucky to have her.” She plays with them, that’s all. That’s everything. She pays attention. She enters into childhood: the wonder of a leaf, the inspection of a snail, the pretend play of a grocery store or doctor’s office or schoolhouse in the country where a four-year-old can be the teacher and an adult sits attentively, waiting for instruction. She doesn’t rush them when they go for a walk; she meanders, she explores, she stops to inspect and discuss the most minuscule item of interest. She is their patient teacher.
She declines invitations to the kids’ birthday parties. She says it should be a family thing. But she is family to our children; her days spent wiping their bottoms, comforting their volatile spirits, feeding their growing bodies and their young souls. She loves them.
Sometimes they display rash emotion when she leaves: desperate wailing, tears streaming, gnashing of teeth. I’m simultaneously bolstered by their affection for her while my ego takes a hit. I thought that kind of devotion was reserved for the parents, but I guess she’s as close as one can get without the trapping of bloodlines.
She saw the unopened pregnancy test on the counter, I’m sure. I forgot to hide it away before she came back to work that week. And if we do get pregnant, I wonder if she’ll stay. I wonder if it’s too exhausting, this caring and this playing, this overflowing emotion from and for yet another tiny human being. This stepping into a family and becoming an indispensable part of it, tethered forever to a child. I feel like I should ask her, if one more would be all right.
Written by Mary Pan. Mary is a family medicine physician with training in global health and narrative medicine. When not writing or staving off wanderlust, she can be found jogging in the rain or binge watching the latest TV drama, depending on how motivated she is on that particular day. She lives in the Seattle with her husband and two (soon to be three!) young children.
Photo by Laurie Carrozino.
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