My family moved from California to a small town in NH when I was 14. While it was hell for me, it was good news for the young families of town. Our family brought three daughters thus populating the babysitting pool for many years to come. Word of mouth spread from our Aunt and Uncle to their friends and then to their friends’ friends. As polite, studious young girls who lived close to the town center, we were duly coveted.
As a nearly friendless transplant, I was very happy to have the job. The money (could it have really been $1 per hour?) was good and I liked little kids but what I really loved was the secret exposure to other families’ lives. Of course, there were the snacks and I had no reservations about ploughing through ice cream or drinking up the soda (a luxury never among our family’s groceries). But the real intrigue was examining the household artifacts. What books do they have? What records? Kiddies safely in bed, I would prepare my snack, fire up the stereo and read random parts of books.
Some families were more interesting to me than others, but none were more admired than a family I’ll call the Willinghams. He was strikingly handsome and had some vague academic job. She was a lovely waif dressed in Lilly Pulitzer (though I didn’t know what that was). Their lone child was a blond cherub. Lovely as they looked, what really caught my attention and imagination was my belief that they were intellectuals (and thus perfect.) I also suspected they must be rich. They lived in one of those authentic colonial houses near the village green. The living room was wall-to-wall books – books of philosophy, art books, classic fiction, contemporary fiction and more. I discovered John Updike and Our Bodies, Ourselves. The little boy’s books were a marvel too: Babar in the original French. I was already a Bob Dylan fan and the Willinghams had the complete discography. How I looked forward to my career as their babysitter.
In spite of my enthusiasm, my first night in the Willinghams’ employ did not go off without a hitch. When his parents left for their party, the little boy cried and cried. Cried in fact until he threw up. I was aghast. I had never cleaned up such a thing and gagged at the prospect. But, wonder of wonders: they had a large German Shepherd who knew just what to do. I had no idea that one girl’s nightmare is another dog’s dinner. After that, my charge settled down and we proceeded with the reading of Babar in the original French with a soft backdrop of Blonde on Blonde. I never told his parents (or mine) about the event.
My awe of the Willinghams continued to grow. I assume they were satisfied with my work as they continued to reserve me. I got to know the little boy. The dog and I were fast friends, although I was hesitant to allow him to lick my face. One day, the Willinghams reported that they were having a party, a “Garden Party,” and asked if I would willing to attend in order to entertain the several children who would be present. For the unthinkable reward of $40. Yes, I would be available.
Well, I learned that a Garden Party is not the same as a barbecue. I arrived in my cut off jeans and t-shirt to a scene out of The Great Gatsby. The men were in summer weight suits and the women in floral dresses. With hats. I am not sure what the occasion was or who was famous, but in these pre- camcorder days, there was a guy with a movie camera filming the proceedings. The food was catered. I did not know such a thing was possible! To be honest, I didn’t do a very good job containing the children, but I left the party with cash in my pocket and an expanded reverence for the Willinghams.
Or who I believed the Willinghams to be.
The next summer, I was asked to do a different kind of baby sitting for the family. I am not sure where the handsome mister was, but I was contacted by the grandmother. Could I come over for the afternoon? The Mrs would be home, but perhaps I could play with the little boy for a bit while the grandmother ran some errands. When I arrived, the Mrs was sitting in a comfy rocker in the kitchen doing some knitting. I had never babysat with a parent present, but perhaps this is what rich people do when they need some time to themselves.
I joined the little boy in the living room for some rounds of Candy Land. After a short bit, I smelled something burning. Like seriously burning. I ran into the kitchen. Smoldering in the garbage pail was the knitting. I gasped. The Mrs calmly told me that it wasn’t coming out right. I don’t remember if we had a further discussion. I do remember filling a glass with water and pouring it on the knitting. I decided the boy and me would play outside.
I don’t remember babysitting for the Willinghams again. I grew older and so did the little boy. I left for college. My younger sister took over the babysitting duties for the town.
But it was not the last I would hear of the Willinghams. One winter afternoon, the Mrs shut herself in the garage, attached a hose to the car exhaust and in this act, declared once and for all that it wasn’t coming out right. I was shaken when I heard this news, passed on as casual gossip. My memory of the burnt knitting left me rattled and distressed. I never told a soul what I knew. I am shaken now to remember it. In my teenage mind and maybe even in my adult one, the Willinghams will always be my yardstick for class, brains and charm. But even more so, they will long be a reminder that the sufferings of a person, even one so fortunate and lovely, can never be known. Rest In Peace, Mrs. Willingham.