Monday, June 14, 2010

Adventures in babysitting

As a teenager, I used to babysit the neighbors' kids.

I probably had too much responsibility when it came to babysitting these kids, but my Mother was right next door, and, for all I know, peering in the windows like some super-stalker, making sure I was doing everything right.

'Cause that's how we teach our young, where I come from.
(Shut up. At least we don't marry our cousins.)

These kids are all grown now, though I remain firmly and permanently 29 years old.

The house next door was well-lived in, and inhabited by an old lady.
She lived alone. The house hadn't been updated since Christ was a fetus, and it was awesome.
When you walked through that front door, you stepped back in time. And the smell! Not a musty, old, unused smell, but a smell of memories, and furniture polish.
And chicken soup.
My God, I loved that house.

When she passed away, her grandson inherited the house. He was The Nicest Guy Ever. He had a lovely wife. One day, they brought me into the house to show me the bathroom they had re-done. Danny was doing the work himself (first time DIY'er), and was quite proud. (Proud enough to drag a 10 year old kid in to show her...)
And my 10 year old self, who to this day, many, many years later has no design sense, nearly passed out.

They ripped out the beautiful, ancient claw foot tub.
The old fashioned (and likely non-functional) pull chain toilet.
The sink, with the coolest, oldest, most unique faucet I'd ever seen. Not even on, like, Andy Griffith.
They tiled over the hardwood floors.
I'm having chest pains now at the memory.

Seriously. I had what I now know to be a syncopic episode. Over a bathroom.
I may have cried.
They probably thought I was on drugs.

When I had a blood pressure again, I threw myself in front of the romantic, ancient 6-burner gas stove in the kitchen, next to the huge farmhouse sink, and begged, implored, threatened to chain myself there for the duration, Please, Dear God, for the love of all that is good and holy, you cannot re-do this kitchen! It was not meant to be modern! It needs to remain as is!

And what do you know? They did some research, and decided to incorporate some of the original features into their modernization.
I gave suggestions at every possible moment.
They were helpful gems, like, You can't tear out that built-in! Mrs. W used to keep her teacup collection there!
And, There are two bathrooms in this house. They don't BOTH need to flush!
And, So what if it doesn't turn the lights on- nobody in the world has round push button wall switches to turn the lights on. They MUST stay!

In hindsight, between the wiring and the plumbing, it's a wonder they didn't kill me and bury my rotting corpse in the basement. The hand-dug basement. Oh, the treasures down there, which they considered junk.

What I wouldn't do for those sink faucets. Or that sink. The canning supplies in the cellar. The light fixtures.

Danny and his lovely young wife flipped the house. They moved on to something thoroughly modern with room for a family. We were awful sorry to see them go.
And I worried that the new owners would not be so willing to overlook my crawling around their basement.
I was right.

The new owners were also very nice, and they had two small kids. In short order, they found out I was a willing slave babysitter.
I think my Mother may have pimped me out to our neighbors.

Now, I'd been in this house plenty. I knew all the rooms. I'd even seen inside the walls, and been all over the basement.
But I'd never been there alone.

By this time I was 13 or so.
Saturday Night Live was in its heyday; Gilda Radner, John Belushi, Garret Morris, Bill Murray, Chevy Chase.
These were my people.
Also, I was a bad sleeper, meaning, I stayed up all night, routinely.
I was (am) addicted to horror movies. And our town had cable, way back in like, the 70's. We were 4 miles from Boston, after all.
A babysitting dream.

The New People asked me to babysit. I hadn't been in the house since Danny'd sold it. My mouth was dry, my palms sweaty, as Mr. Neighbor answered the door and invited me in.
My brain immediately began to notice changes in the living room, though they were small and inconsequential: new wallpaper, but it 'fit', new wainscoting, that's ok, new lamps, but plain enough to blend.
I started to relax a little. Maybe they were OK with the 'old stuff'.
I started to ask questions, delicately, to ascertain the couples' reaction to the older features of the house.
In other words, I fully interrogated him about what plans they had to remodel.

Mr. Neighbor showed me around, pointed out the bathrooms (I didn't let on that I probably knew the house better than they did), and the general layout of the house.
I wasn't listening.
My brain was screaming things like:
The light switches are still round!Oh, Danny, you are The Man, you left the old light switches!Oh, he left the wood floors in the living room and the hallway! And the kitchen!
We'd made it to the kitchen.
My eyes swept across the wide open space, taking in, but not registering the farmhouse sink that was the same style, but newly refurbished, and settled on the stove.
The stove was still there.
I nearly cried with relief.

Mr. Neighbor sensed my approval of the house's old features (possibly from my reaction to the stove), and began to show me more, excitedly. He was totally into the old place.
He loved the built-in cabinet in the dining room.
He loved the hearth and woodstove in the living room (nobody had a woodstove around there at that time- where would you even get wood??), and wanted to put 'tin plates behind the stove instead of the tile Danny had meticulously installed, because it was truer to the time period of the house...'

I let out the breath I had no idea I'd been holding since entering the house.
He was a perfect fit for the old place, which Danny must have determined during the sale.
There were some changes planned, but Mr. Neighbor had a sense of the original house, and planned to keep to it.

And then Mrs. Neighbor walked down the stairs and entered the kitchen.
And I knew it was all over.

She was perfectly coiffed, impeccably tailored, accessorized in the latest trends.
She was thoroughly modern, a career woman, and she moved through the house with palpable disdain and disgust for it.
In my mind's eye, I saw gleaming chrome and stainless steel and cold tile.

I looked back at him, and saw warm wood and old fashioned glass doorknobs and iron door latches.
I couldn't understand how they were married.
And she hadn't even spoken a word yet.
I was heartbroken.

That first night I babysat, their very cute little boy and girl(5 and 3) didn't know me at all. We spent about an hour playing together before the parents left, to make sure they would 'stay' with me.
They were good kids, and all went well.

I promised them hot cocoa before bed, and a later bedtime, because, well, I'm all about the bribe when it comes to (other people's) kids.
I had them eating out of my hand, and that's how you do it when they aren't yours and you can give them back to somebody else after a few short hours.

Sometime later, I remembered there was a horror movie starting at 8. Oops, it was just after 8!
Time to get this show on the road.

Ok, kids, time for bed!

"You said we were gonna have hot cocoa."

&^#$%(*. Ok, quick, let's have hot cocoa.

I turned on the hot tap, split a packet of cocoa into 2 mugs, and filled them halfway with hot water.
"NO! That's not how! You have to cook it on the stove."

Oh, the stove.
The stove that would not live much longer in the house.
I ran my hand lovingly over it.
OK. I'll get to use it once, anyway. I sort of couldn't resist (though I was sort of getting miffed at missing the movie).

I found a pan, poured the two mugfuls into it, set it on the stove.

"NO! You have to cook the water first, then add the stuff!"

I mumbled some platitude, while trying to figure out how to make heat come on the stove.
We had an electric stove. I'd never seen a gas stove in action. Didn't you just turn the knob?
Why was nothing happening? Was there gas? Was I filling the house with gas? Were we going to blow up? Doesn't gas blow up? Should I BE here with these kids? Were we going to be killed all because of my insistence that this stove live here in this house?

At that moment, I saw something move in the doorway between the kitchen and living room.
The problem was, I was at the stove, and both kids were beside me.

Who wants to take a guess at what happened next?

Veteran babysitter that I was, I knew you don't spook the kids. I calmly dumped all hot cocoa, cups, and pan into the sink. I announced that I'd burnt the cocoa, and had to soak the pan, and that it was waaay late, and their parents were going to be home any minute and they needed to get in bed and fakesleep so as to not get me in trouble for keeping them up, lest they never ask me to babysit again, and then that Kathy from down the street would babysit and she was a grouch who didn't play and never, ever let the kids stay up. (Total lie. Kathy was another kid I babysat, and was 6.)
I said all this with a sense of urgency.
They fully bought it.
I took the kids upstairs to tuck them in. God, they were so darned cute.
They wanted a bedtime story.
This was my favorite part, and I wasn't going to miss it. But then I remembered the movement, and wondered if the doors were, in fact, locked as I thought they were.

I picked out the shortest book in the room, and read through it as quickly as I could, all the while imagining the front door opening slowly and some evil lurking in the blackness just beyond.

Ok, into your beds!
"Wait, you didn't tell us a bedtime story!"

Mouth dry, hands all but shaking now, I was getting curt with the kids in my haste to get downstairs where the sharp knives were kept.
The little girl went right in. I tucked her in with a hug and left her door open a crack.
He was not so easy.
"I need a bedtime story."

Ok, fine. You want a story? I've got a story. It's famous. Everybody knows this story.
I heard a creak. That was SO DEFINITELY a creak.
Was that a footstep on the stairs?
This kid was getting the shortest bedtime story ever written.

You ready? All settled in? After this it's bed, kid- no arguments, ok?

A prince was born. He lived. He died. The end.

"Heeeeeeeeey! No fair! That's not a story!"


I left his door open a crack, too.

I went downstairs to the kitchen and got all four of the knives in the knife block, because as any horror movie aficionado will tell you, you don't leave one behind for FreakyJason.

I moved through the house like Jill from Charlie's Angels ('cause she was the smart one), looking for...I don't know what. A ghost?
Of course nothing was there.

I turned the tv on low, and set up guard with my gathered weapons. I did NOT watch the horror movie.
I ticked off the minutes until Mr. and Mrs. Neighbor would return home.
I endured four hours of creaking, groaning, crackling, shuffling, fluttering noises.
I was scared to death.

It was the longest night of my then-young life.

When the Neighbors returned, I was a mess. There was no hiding the state I was in, and I immediately 'fessed up to freaking out over all the noises the house made, lest they think I was On Dope.
Mr. Neighbor had to walk me home. And I lived next door.

I sat for them two more times in all the years they lived there, but never alone.
The last time I was in the house, there was talk of a kitchen makeover.
I've never set foot in it since.
I don't know what ever became of that old stove, which, by the way, had to be lit with a match.

I never would have made it as a pioneer.

p.s. That little boy? He told everyone on the street I burned his hot chocolate on the stove, and another neighbor I sat for banned me from cooking at her house. But she always made me brownies, so I didn't entirely mind.


  1. Wow, what brought on this blast from the past?

  2. It's lovely to read a kindred spirit wax on about the wonders of old homes. So much of "home improvement" is anything but.

  3. I LOVE it!!!
    I would have felt the same way as you - we would have been such good friends as kids. And i would have babysat with you to keep you company. Shivering, panicky, whimpering company, but still.