Best essays of 2017: The mothering class

In my summer of minding other people’s children, I carefully studied their lives, which were nothing like my own

Published December 27, 2017 7:00PM (EST)

 (Getty/IP Galanternik D.U.)
(Getty/IP Galanternik D.U.)

We're re-running this story as part of a countdown of the year's best personal essays. Read all the entries in the series.

The house was a green ranch, in a neighborhood of wealth that strives to appear modest. It was unlike the Section 8 apartment complex I grew up in, where new trucks had bumper stickers that said, My Kid Beat Up Your Honor Student. But on the scale of expansive houses I would come to learn as a babysitter, the home was average. The boy answered the front door and said his name. He could have said, Charlie, except it was less childlike, a name between Charlie and Henry. He was barefoot and there was white between his toes. I noted that the previous babysitter had not been diligent with sunscreen.

My dad’s in the back, he said.

The fireflies, which I called lightning bugs, were the only awe I felt that summer in Ohio. No sunshine opened through the clouds, which would give beauty to the heat. I’d lived like this all summer long. I’d lived like this for 19 years.

I had interviewed with the family over the phone at the start of the summer and spoke only to the father. He asked the usual questions and I gave sufficient answers. I had been a babysitter many times.

The boy led me down the hall, passed the front room, with its polished maple floors and empty interior, except for a few boxes. He led me past a kitchen, a clean, unnoteworthy kitchen, to the back of the house, a second living room, with gray carpet, an oversized chair, an overstuffed sofa and a television above the mantel.

His dad was not in the second living room but in a different room, and he came out through a hallway and apologized for not answering the door.

He had dark curly hair. He was as short as my ex, with a paunch, too, as my ex had.

I’ll be back at 5. He reads these books. You can go outside.

He kissed his son on the forehead, who said bye, who was casual about being left alone with a stranger. Not desperate.

The front door clicked shut.

Would you like to see my trucks?

Sure, I said.

He may have said instead, Want to play soccer?

Sure, I would have said.

We went outside, kicked a ball, walked in the grass, looked at mushrooms sprouting between the driveway and the curb.

*  *  *

I had gotten a call that May from my father. He said he was taking a vacation. An unplanned vacation. He was a man that did not travel unless he had to.

Where are you? I asked.

Oh, somewhereMemphis!

On the phone his voice was light. His voice was so light it could float away.

I don’t have a phone number now! I’ll call you again soon! Love you!

I heard the clink of my father hanging up the pay phone.

*  *  *

When the father returned, the boy and I were in the backyard. I noted that the father drove a grey Saab from the '90s, the kind that resembled a brain with an exaggerated frontal lobe. My ex had this car, too, with red velvet seats that stunk. He bought it because it had style, despite the poor reviews, which I read aloud to him from a consumer reporting guide. The car was always broken — an oil leak, a slipping transmission — and it was one of many things he desired not because they were sturdy but because they were beautiful. An aesthete, I’d say now. Considering my interest in him, I was an aesthete, too.

*  *  *

A week before I began babysitting the boy, I packed my suitcase, four boxes of books and my toothbrush when a letter arrived for my live-in boyfriend from Vanna White, courtesy of Newark, New Jersey, and I knew this letter was from an ex-girlfriend, who was not-Vanna White, whose name was a day of the week. Inside the envelope, I imagined, were blurry naked pictures of her. I did not open it.

The advice to leave him came from my mother, who called 10 minutes after the letter from not-Vanna White was slipped in the mail slot and onto the living room floor, what I already knew landing at my feet. I was afraid of being pushed down, of being held underwater.

Leave, my mother said.


Now. Pack your bags.

Listen, my mother said, it's like this. . . .

My mother said Listenit's like this often. Her summarizing was mostly about men but once she got sober her summarizing was mostly about self-actualization.

I left the ex that afternoon. I drove to an apartment complex near campus and failed to hold back tears in the apartment manager’s office. The manager had lollipop red hair and an inch of white roots. She said, We’ll take care of you. The studio apartment she assigned me looked out onto a parking garage.

For the rest of that summer, I would arrive at the boy’s house in the near dark, 6 a.m., and stay until 3 or 4 in the afternoon. He was too old to nap and was not to watch more than 20 minutes of television. Normal things I knew from babysitting similar families that year. I brought a bag of crayons, markers and sketch pads, encouraged by the babysitting agency, who gave me a bag with the agency’s name. They needed three references to hire me and I gave them the names of two aunts and my mother, all who had different last names than my own. I instructed my references to say I had babysat their children, which was true, but to not mention our relation.

Why not? my mother asked.

Because you are my mother. They think you are biased.

I couldn’t use the names of mothers I had babysat for who were not related to me because those mothers had long moved away from the apartment complex, in the transient way of apartment complexes. People rarely stayed beyond the one-year lease and often had to leave before the year was up, losing their deposit because the women had been fired from their jobs. Women lost their service jobs when their children were sent home sick from school and they had to call off too many times. Even if I had their contact information, though, I thought they were not classy enough — the language I used then — to impress the babysitting agency.

Always leave the house cleaner than when you arrived, the agency said. Offer the child something from your bag when you get there, so the parents see the child is excited to see you. This was how I learned to look like a nurturing, competent babysitter.

*  *  *

Midmornings babysitting I was tired — so was the boy. Afternoons we both gained energy from knowing our day together would soon be over. We went to the pool, we read books, we kicked the soccer ball, we made lunch.

What does your father do? I asked one day, wagering he would not tell his father about my rude inquiry.

He gives drugs.

Oh, I said.

*  *  *

As a child, when people asked what my father’s profession was I said he was a salesman.

What does he sell? the person — a teacher, a basketball coach — would ask.

Beauty supplies, I would say.

I might talk about when I was 7, this boy’s age, and how my father drove into Cincinnati, Detroit and once St. Louis to the strip malls with beauty supply stores, how he sold do-rags and acrylic nails, but the money, the real money, was in clippers. I told this story long into adulthood and made it a light story about a man selling beauty.

My mother was 28 when I was 11; my father was 30. As a child, he did not wear his retainer after braces, so his two front teeth were crooked, and one could see that his acne had been as pernicious as mine. My father carried acrylic nails in fake crocodile cases that shut with two brass latches. He was late for the sales appointments he arranged and smoked cigarettes in the Chevy Cavalier, speeding and cursing on the highway about the other drivers who were making him late. Once, in a motel in Michigan before a sales appointment, I told my father he had a very large pimple on his forehead. Fix it, he said. I applied my tinted acne cream. An hour later, in the storeowner’s office, as I sat in a chair looking at a "Calvin and Hobbes" comic the owner offered me, sympathetically, the pimple was bulbous and orange and did not match his skin tone at all, for which I felt responsible.

After the sales appointment, my father took me to a Chinese restaurant at a mall. The restaurant looked down on the first-floor shoppers and had black cloth napkins. That afternoon my father showed me how to place the napkin on my lap, how to use chopsticks — the pointer finger as the guide — and another day, which fork one begins a meal with.

You’ll need to know this one day, he said.

But I know how to eat, I said, possessive of the way that I had learned already while also enjoying the fanciness.

*  *  *

Pharmacist? I asked the boy.

Anesthesiologist, the boy said. It was a word I did not know.

The boy did not ask what my parents did because he was a child and had not yet learned the reciprocal requirement of the formally causal conversation of certain social classes. I found this aspect of children to be a comfort.

*  *  *

When playing with the boy, I thought of the ex. Had I acted too harshly, too abnormally, disappearing from the apartment without giving a warning? His coming home from work to me and all my things gone, calling and calling, until my phone’s mailbox was full. I felt excited when his number appeared on my phone, but I never answered his calls and I did not listen to the messages.

We’d moved in together rashly a year ago, the summer before, between my freshman and sophomore year of college. He had introduced himself by first and middle name because he thought his last name sounded too pedestrian. His band had just signed to Duran Duran’s record label, a detail he was not modest about sharing and in his attire, too, he effected Britain of a different era. I wanted to be that confident. He deepened his voice when answering the phone and ordering at fast food drive-throughs. People frequently thought, from his voice, that he was a woman. He had the most delicate fingers. In those days, in the middle of America, he was the closest to a woman I would venture.

I bailed on a shared apartment near the campus with my friends my sophomore year to live with him in a historic building in a neighborhood with sushi restaurants and cafes. My father said I was making a big mistake, that I was too young to live with a boyfriend and that he would not give me any money as long as I lived with him. If you are going to make adult decisions, you are going to pay for them, he said.

Once we lived together, my ex inquired why I did not wear dresses, why I did not wear tights, and asked if I wanted to cut my hair into a bob. I was to be the 1960s school girl muse. When this felt wrong, I reminded myself about his limp, an outward vulnerability that irritated him. As a young child, he fell down the stairs; his father did not believe it hurt as much as he said, and the bone healed incorrectly. A military doctor reset his hip but his legs maintained a noticeable length difference into adulthood. In the hospital bed as a child he watched the Monkees perform. It was his origin story of becoming a musician. I used it as an empathy touchstone when he was unkind. But we fought. He said things like, Only one of us in this relationship can be in a band. Commenting on my appearance or my friends was one thing, but attempting to squelch my ambitions was something I had been trained to see was very wrong. When my stepmother called and asked how I was doing, that my dad was wondering about me, I said I was great.

One warm June morning at the boy’s house the phone rang and the answering machine picked up.

Namaste, the answering machine said, in the father’s voice.

Hi, this is Kate. Call me.

An hour later, the phone rang again.

Hi, Kate again. Just call whenever you have time!

Mornings, these calls continued. Variations on the caller’s name and how unimportant it was that he call her. Until one day.

This is Kate. I’ve been trying to reach you. Why aren’t you returning my calls? Please call me.

The urgency of the woman’s voice unnerved me. The boy and I looked at one another as Kate spoke, then looked back at the television. In the gray living room, slurping cereal, watching the allowable 20 minutes of cartoons, we did not discuss this woman.

*  *  *

My ex called mostly at night, when I was at Larry’s bar with Keith, an older student who worked at the record shop and grew tomatoes on his rooftop. My ex, who played music around town, knew him and called him the Missing Link. Keith and I snuck into apartment complex pools after the bars closed and had Lucinda Williams sing-alongs with his friends. When his friends left and I held back, he told me of his fondest memories. His mother reading to him in a rocking chair before bed. Sweet, ordinary memories that were not ordinary to me and therefore alienating. He asked me to stay over. Though I wanted to, I said no.

Just lie with me, he said.

The Missing Link, I heard the ex say.

I returned to my studio apartment in the blue light of early morning, the air sweetened by the doughnut shop’s first batch. I broke my vegetarian diet at the sight of a gas station corn dog. The more Keith called the less I went to Larry’s. I was not ready for anyone to be nice to me.

*  *  *

By day I cared for the boy.

In July about a month into babysitting, the boy’s father called. He gave me an address and said the boy would be at a different house on Tuesdays and Thursdays.

It was a dark brick house on a treelined cul-de-sac. The rooms contained the things that would have felt homey and lived in if somewhere else— dishes in the china cabinet, rugs on the floors, a cat meowing from behind the laundry room door.

Where is your mom? I asked.


When I looked upward, to the ceiling, the boy added: Sleeping.

She was always upstairs sleeping, but I met her once, near the end of the summer.

The boy was at the kitchen table and I had just turned on the overhead light. We were arguing over if he would read for his assigned mandatory 30-minute reading period a rhyming board book or an early reader chapter book. He wanted the rhyming board book, which he recalled from memory instead of reading. In it green alligators jumped. It was a stupid book.

So you’re the babysitter, his mother said, coming into the kitchen with an empty glass.

At the sight of his mother, the boy curled into and against her as if he were a cat.

The mother looked nothing like him. Where he was brown with dark eyes, thick as his father was, she was pale and thin, her face sagged, her skin nearly translucent, her voice weak. Even her smile was translucent.

The mother got ice from the freezer, a Coke can from the cabinet and poured the soda over the ice.

My mother taught me to sprinkle salt on my Coke, she said, sprinkling salt on the top of her glass of Coke. It makes it taste better.

She let her son hug her legs and waist, as far as he could reach. She patted his back.

After a while but not too much longer, she went upstairs.

Was his mother ill? Did she have cancer? Did the father give her drugs? Did the father feel guilty that she was addicted, guilty he was leaving her, and once when I saw him come by in the midday was it to ease her pain or his own? Perhaps instead it was the memory of my own parents scrambled up into the story I was telling myself about this family.

I was ashamed of my childhood, ashamed of my own stories. A casual conversation about family with a stranger gave me confusion and anxiety. Perhaps because of this desire to be rid of them, the memories came unbidden when I babysat the boy. My father had not called in two months and I worked through my memories to piece together where he might be.

Between junior high and high school, my father moved from an apartment into a house. The house grew full: a surround sound stereo, a large screen television and food he never had as a child. Steak, two knife sets, a pepper grinder, four champagne flutes, a pool table, a hot tub, a Cadillac in the driveway of the house he paid for in cash. He was gone in the evenings and early mornings and slept until the afternoon. He had stacks of twenties and hundreds wrapped with produce rubber bands in his top dresser drawer, which I found when I was looking for a pair of socks to take to basketball practice. When he was home, my father’s house was a revolving set of men. In they came light, handling the faux leather briefcases that once held beauty supplies. Out they went 15 minutes later. I missed seeing the women on the acrylic nail packages.

His work in an underground economy gave me money for braces, books, Accutane, aspirational clothes, standardized tests and college applications. When I completed my FAFSA he made $13,000 annually from his work as a beauty salesman. My father’s money gave me access to basketball camps, where I studied parents distinct from my own who went to every practice and hovered over their daughters with sports drinks, sandwiches and praise. My father would appear after a game and say loudly that I was robbed of some ref’s call, but for the most part my parents left me to my thoughts. At night if I was bored, I knew what bar to call to ask when my father was coming home.

Meanwhile, my mother lived in the Section 8 apartment complex on the other side of town that I thought of as home. Once when I was in high school, my 7-year-old brother called his dad and said our mother was in her bedroom with the door locked. Her ex husband, whom she had separated from years before, broke down the door. He slammed his pistol against her arms and legs. My brother stood in the doorway of our mother’s bedroom and said, Dad. Please. When his son touched his arm, he put down the gun. My mother prosecuted.

I quit coming around much, despite knowing what my brothers were witnessing. The guilt would get in the way of my achievement. I worked it out of my mind.

* * *

One day in early August, I arrived to the green house and the father was in a room I never entered. The door was open. I saw a pillow on the floor, a Buddha statue in the corner, a sliding glass door. It felt quiet in the house then, peaceful, and I was jealous or inspired or a combination. I could not tell the difference. I knew the Buddha from a comparative religion class. I did not know about the association with American wealth.

Sorry, he said, apologizing for not greeting me at the door. I was meditating.

I wanted to fuck the father. I was not sure why. It was a vague wish. What I wanted was his desire and my domination of his desire. The Amanda or the Kate on the phone wanted him, too, and he still was not returning their calls.

Or maybe he was. The women no longer called in the mornings. Was he a newly divorced father with a dying spouse, who meditated and worked at the hospital, or a doctor with power, slowly killing his wife with drugs while he went out with Kate?

God rest your sundials, permit what has blossomed to rot on fruit or vine, whoever is alone now will always be so. That was what I remembered from reading that summer of other people’s children and other people’s lives, who knew nothing of my own. I drank their infused water, ate their organic berries, listened with strained attention to their classical CDs, studied their houses and gleaned what ascension looked like.

The summer came to an end. The boy’s regular nanny returned from her pregnancy leave. He started second grade. I started my junior year of college. I rarely thought about the boy and the father. My father came back from his trip. When I came home for Christmas my junior year of college I noticed there was a hole in the hallway ceiling near his bedroom. The reason for the hole haunted me, but I never asked about it.

By the start of my senior year, I moved out of the studio and back in with the ex. I worked part-time at an optical shop billing insurance companies. The ex worked as a therapist for autistic children during the day and in the evenings sold vintage synthesizers on eBay that were already broken but which he claimed, when the buyer complained, had been damaged in shipping. His reviews on eBay were poor. He asked to use my account. We acquired a Saint Bernard. I told myself I’d take a year off from school and accepted a full-time position at the optical shop. I graduated from college.

In the fall of my first year with a college degree, the optical shop smelled like cow manure. Across the street from the shop was a field, the final grazing place for the cows before slaughter. On one of those fall, peat-mossy-cow-manure mornings, I looked up from my desk through the reception window to see a familiar brown face, a cute twirl of front teeth. The father.

How are you? he asked.

I felt myself newly in my body, corporeal. It was a word I learned from studying for the GRE, because I, the babysitter, was getting out of Ohio.

When the father asked how I was I said, I’m good, not thinking of how I actually felt. One was good or one was well, if they wanted to be hoity-toity, but one was never bad or terrible, and one never told a bad or terrible story, unless one was peculiar, which was frowned upon.

How are you?

He answered within the acceptable range. He was smiling. And then he added, But his mother died six months ago, and frowned and motioned behind him to the boy, who had been there all along, a large distance from his father.

I’m sorry to hear that, I said, saying what I said before I had lost a child, before I knew what loss was.

This boy was 7, maybe 8, and now he was 9 or 10, and he wore the same green T-shirt and striped shorts from the summer I babysat him.

Someone behind the father said, Excuse me. It was a woman wearing frameless glasses with orange temples in a durable, lightweight, surgical-grade plastic — I still remember the marketing language for that brand — and a thick gray bob, the usual customer to this boutique eyewear store. I wrote the woman’s name on the sign-in sheet for her two o’clock appointment.

The father took a step back, said, I’m sorry.

I nodded no, as if to say, no need to apologize.

I told the woman to make herself comfortable.

An optician fit the father’s glasses. The optometrist handed me a prescription. The phone rang.

The father slipped farther and farther away, until he was waving goodbye, until he was out the door, down the sidewalk and out of the parking lot.

The woman chose her glasses and left the store. I was at the desk processing insurance claims when the store owner put his hands on my shoulders and gave a lingering squeeze.

How’s it going? he said.

Before I worked here I was the babysitter for the owner’s children, too. When he sat on the sofa and tied his shoes before leaving for work, I watched his arms flex and looked away when he noticed my looking, but looked back to see him smiling to himself.

Good, I said.

He had never put his hands on me in this way. I had given my two week’s notice that week.

I stiffened and did not look up from the insurance paperwork. Now that he was offering what I thought I wanted, I knew it was not what I wanted. He was a proxy for what I wanted — my own power — and acting on his request would only slump my position further down the ladder I was climbing. He lifted his hands off my shoulders.

The front door jingled open. I heard his shoes on the carpet and his welcome to a new customer.

Well, I said to myself.

Well, I repeated, a correction I would make again and again.

*  *  *

On one of the last days of that summer with the boy, I took him to the country club swimming pool. It was early for me, perhaps 10 a.m. and the air was not yet suffocating. I was tired and hung over from a night out. The pool was not yet crowded. The boy asked me to play in the water with him, and I kept putting him off, saying, In a minute. I wanted to read a gossip magazine and ruminate about my ex. I wanted to close my eyes under black sunglasses.

Please, he asked.

I got in the water, but only up to my waist.

He wore water goggles. I tossed sinking toys into the water and he dove and caught them.

Come down with me? he asked and pointed to the slide.

I shook my head no. It would mean that I had to walk across the pool and climb the stairs and slide down and anyway wasn’t a pool in summer designed for parents and babysitters to have some quiet time alone while a lifeguard made sure everyone did not drown?

I’ll watch you from here, I said.

After a few more pleadings, he got out of the pool and walked across the edge of the water. I saw another woman, a mother, with her child in the water. They were having so much fun. She smiled into his face and lifted him into the air.

The boy turned to look back at me to see if I was watching. Inspired, in a melancholy way, by the mother, I smiled and waved back. When it was his turn, he looked to me and I waved again. He slid down fast, slid under the water, and I like to think that when he came up I had swum across the pool to meet him.

But I’m not sure if I did.

*  *  *

Warshing the dishes ended with my father’s Appalachian accent. I uprooted it from my lexicon. He rarely leaves his house and men do not appear with briefcases. The hole in the hallway is patched up. He has diabetes and tells certain stories over and over. He smiles and drinks beer as he tells them. The saddest one goes, I knew I raised my daughter right if she never came back.

By TaraShea Nesbit

TaraShea Nesbit is the author of "The Wives of Los Alamos," which was a New York Times Editors' Choice, a finalist for the PEN/Bingham Prize, a Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers Selection, an Indies Next Pick, a Library Journal Best Debut, the recipient of two New Mexico-Arizona Book Awards, and translated into three languages. Her prose has been featured in The Guardian, Fourth Genre, The Collagist, Quarterly West, The Los Angeles Review of Books, The Iowa Review and elsewhere. She is an assistant professor of fiction and nonfiction at Miami University.

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