August 7, Sunday
I used to live next door to Mr. and Mrs. G and my first job was walking their dog in the morning before school. I think I was 11 when I began. I would open their back door while they were still asleep – they kept it unlocked – and walk Clancy, their Irish Setter, around the neighborhood.
When I was 12 years old, she had a baby boy. His room was painted yellow and had that delicious smell of baby powder and clean laundry and a warm healthy baby. There were yellow gingham curtains and a framed needlepoint design above the crib that had the baby’s name and birthdate stitched in neat right angles. Near the crib was a twin bed where I slept when I spent the night.
When I was preparing for my first baby with my doula and we were creating a relaxation tape and I had to think of a place that was peaceful and warm and safe, I thought of that room. When the nightlight was on, the room was bathed in a warm glow and the humidifier would exhale softly and lull me to sleep. Clancy would sleep alongside me and I thought life couldn’t get any better. I will probably think of that room on my deathbed, the way Charles Foster Kane thought of Rosebud.
I was Mrs. G’s regular babysitter and I was available every single time she called. She always had a snack drawer filled with Archway cookies and pretzels and potato chips, and a freezer full of Popsicles and ice cream. She and her husband used to go out to dinner every Friday night and when they came home, her husband would take a wad of bills out of his pocket and peel off tens and twenties and hand them to me. It was more money than any twelve-year-old should rightfully get paid for babysitting. His money smelled of cigarette smoke and Royal Copenhagen cologne. It was heavenly. I used to press it against my nose and inhale deeply, and for years afterwards whenever I got paper money, I would hold it up to my nose to see if any other bills smelled as intoxicating.
In December, I would go over on weekend afternoons and wrap her Christmas presents. It took days and miles of ribbon to wrap all the gifts for her cousins and brothers and uncles. The presents would pile up on the dining room table and be corralled into large shopping bags to make room for more. I was a child whose family tree was a barren winter silhouette of disappointments and only children, and this family gave me a warmth and boisterousness I craved.
They had a Christmas Eve party every year and the house would overflow with friends and family. Good-looking dark-haired men with mustaches and easy smiles and woman with long red nails draped in gold chains took over every room in the house, all laughing and hugging and cooing over babies. There were cut-glass bowls of salted mixed nuts and chocolates in crinkly cellophane wrappers, and so many plates of cookies that you could eat as many as you wanted and nobody would notice.
This year when we came to visit, she invited us to Sunday dinner. She made baked chicken and biscuits and green beans and salad while we sat at the kitchen counter and talked, an effortless routine followed for half a lifetime, a beaten path going from stove to sink to refrigerator from years of entertaining and feeding hungry boys. We caught up on family news and gossip, and she made sure we all had enough to eat and, of course, there was desert.