Although the whole gang came home for Thanksgiving, only one little glitch created a semi-panic. Finding a babysitter for the mid-week night we all wanted to go out, adult-style, took some dedicated networking. I quickly realized how very limited my contacts are for babysitters, a need that goes at least three eons back into my parenthood. And of course in order to qualify to sit for the world's most perfect grandchildren, he or she had to possess the joyful enthusiasm of the very young together with the seen-it-all maturity of a lovable grandmother. Genuinely enjoying hours of time with the curtain- crawling set would be a bonus. None of this should be too much to ask.
Imagine it, this lucky person was going to be allowed to spend an evening with the multi-talented and charismatic Princess of Boston and her little brother, Mr. Smiles. I couldn't understand why local sitters weren't lining up for the privilege. It took three days and twenty-plus phone calls before we finally found the lucky candidate.
I called parents of teens and parents whose children might be home from college for the week. I talked to the answering machines of friends with grandchildren, their children, business associates, and at last a high school classmate of my daughter who has returned to Warren. Aha! That connection finally yielded the older college-age sister of their regular sitter. I hope she didn't detect the desperation in my voice. I was trying to remain calm as she explained that she had been a playground instructor and was home early from college to do her classroom understudy. She was sweet success.
I was reminded how different the situation was when I was babysitting as a teenager. I'm sure parents were fussy then too, but times were harder and the fear factor not as high in our collective conscience as it is now.
My first babysitting job was the night before my eleventh birthday. The two little girls who were entrusted to me had no idea how lucky they were to have survived the evening. As I played with them, it was more as an older sister, not a caretaker. I had no idea about safety, no training and as I look back, I wonder what the parents were thinking. Then again, they just wanted a fish-fry at a restaurant down the street and at the princely sum of 25 cents an hour, I was their answer. Today some well-meaning neighbor would probably turn them in to child protective services.
By the time I was 13, armed with a Girl Scout babysitting course, I was sure that sitting at a quarter an hour was the gravy train to untold riches. I imagined some new clothes, a burgeoning record collection, and more time with the girls at the ice cream parlor after school. Sometimes an evening's work, with tip, added up to two one dollar bills, far more satisfying than the jingle of coins. I hoarded my new-found wealth in my little desk drawer and grew quite pleased with myself as the wad grew fatter. To this day I don't remember what I spent it on but I do remember the satisfaction of watching it grow.
On some jobs my paltry sums were more hard won than others. I sat quite often for the Campbell family, whose four young children were so wild they were widely known as the Cannibal Kids. If I told my friends I was sitting for the Cannibal Kids, the universal response was rolling eyes and groans . . . their reputation was well known throughout the babysitting crowd who mostly pitied me . . . or thought I was crazy.
Looking back, I wonder why an only child like myself even attempted to maintain order among those wild savages. It was me against them. I didn't understand sibling rivalry, and I couldn't wrap my head around why they fought so much. They also spread out throughout the house so that keeping track of them required more agility than I possessed. The oldest boy would be jumping off the top of the sofa onto the unsuspecting toddler on the floor while the pre-school girl invaded her mother's makeup or jewelry drawer upstairs. All this would be going on while I was investigating the water noises in the basement which turned out to be the six year-old daughter starting the washer and adding a quart of motor oil to the detergent mix. I was no match for a Campbell/Cannibal full scale assault.
Mr. and Mrs. Campbell always escaped within five minutes of my arrival. They usually had just finished feeding the tribe, leaving the kitchen sink, stove and table covered with dirty dishes and pans. As I stood surveying the disaster area, watching the cat walk across the counter and the dogs lick the dishes on the table, the Campbells would blithely call over their shoulders to have fun but just make sure everyone had baths. I think they drank.
I can't even describe the tsunami-like destruction of the second floor at bath time, but I do remember naked little bodies screeching and running with sopping towels in all directions while I tried to shampoo the victim in the tub. Needless to say getting them into bed and keeping them there was another hour's work.
Now remember, I did this all for my cash stash. The Campbells paid 35 cents an hour because they had four kids. On my first overwhelming night there I decided to pick up the house, wash all the dishes and clean up the kitchen. Either they didn't notice or they expected it, but there was no tip, no rounding up, as Mr. Campbell carefully counted out the $1.75 for the five hour evening. I became determined to make it so nice when they arrived home that they would eventually cough up the two dollars I wanted. Week after week I persisted with my labors, but it never happened. Like I say, I think they drank, but a better explanation might be that they knew a good thing when they saw it.
It took a while for me to acquire more families to sit for before I could get out from under the Campbell's particular form of serfdom. The experience, however, stood me in good stead because nothing on the babysitting front fazed me after surviving Cannibalism. I've seen that English Nanny on television who takes on family problems. If she'd sat for the Cannibals at age thirteen she'd have become a dog trainer.
Where my daughter lives in Massachusetts, the going rate for sitters is $10 to $12 an hour with $15 not unusual. That amount made me pause. Someday when I retire I'll probably want to supplement my income a little bit . . . and let me just say that babysitting, for any amount of money, never entered my mind. The "two and only" royal grandchildren have tested my remaining abilities. I know my limits.
Marcy O'Brien, who lives in Glade Township, can be reached at Moby.firstname.lastname@example.org.