For those of you who are regular readers, you’ll know I grew up in a family of 13. Second generation breeding eventually happened and there was born lashings of limbs and faces and screaming babies; it seemed that children were endlessly thrown onto your hip mid-hallway or some sweaty hot little body was crawling into your bed or asking you to play at some ungodly hour and since I was now an Aunt I had to act like one whatever that meant.
No one really ‘watched’ after children in our house. You were sort of shunned if you were high maintenance. In fact, as the smallest, and a girl, I always felt lucky to have survived the day. It often felt like a race and I loved the manic pace of it with all the near misses of botched explosions, bikes tearing off of jumps, torturous tickling, pranks, thievery, flailing fists, falling out of trees, and so much more on any given day that the phrase ‘rough and tumble’ simply sounded like laundry softener in comparison to our activities.
My mother alone had a pretty strict schedule, an army-like precision that formed itself around laundry and cooking while our days were spent out of doors, wild and free and game for whatever came our way. I was always determined to follow the group despite my small stature and heard many a time from the front of the pack ahead of me “if you die, we’re not stopping” but I was not dissuaded. I just peddled harder and faster.
So when I was 15 and my friend asked if I wanted to babysit for this fancy pants music agency kingpin guy (that’s how he was described to me) I thought, babysit? My god, who wants to babysit? No one was ever ‘babysat’ in our family. You were left in the care of the mob. Besides, the idea of a clammy screaming baby in the middle of summer was not my idea of fun. It was all I could do to find a moment’s peace and quiet in my own house, why would I want to hold some other family’s baby?
Do me a favour? begged my brother’s friend, David Gray. I argued that it was beneath me to babysit; I was in theatre. At the time, I was volunteering for a Pirates of Penzance musical as an assistant stage manager so felt haughty and theatrically superior; I likely resembled a strange stage version of Norma Desmond to the people in my life. But David was working as a clerk in an upper crust men’s clothing store in Kerrisdale and this was one of his important clients so I relented.
That is how I ended up becoming a nanny. This family also lived near Point Grey where I was raised but they were very different from my family. Not only were they a small family, they were not Catholic. As in, they were Jewish. I’d never met a Jewish family before then. But I didn’t know they were Jewish for many months and the first Christmas I knew them I brought over a Christmas cactus that was in full bloom. I knocked on the door and the mother said, oh, that’s lovely but we’re Jewish. I felt like a total fool but their wizened old grandma said that the Irish were a lost Jewish race anyway and so I was forgiven all my gentile shortcomings and taken into their fold.
I also learned how to negotiate from the first night I babysat. The dad (the mogul) made me defend why I should be paid. I got a little ticked, I mean, wasn’t he just supposed to pay me an hourly wage? Nope. He didn’t believe in that. What did I do that I should be paid for? Exactly? So I had to negotiate, every time I babysat. For six years. One time I refused to look after the children as I needed a day off and was at my friend’s hiding out poolside when I heard the crunch of tires outside the fence on the gravel drive. The dad popped his head over the fence. I barked from the hot diving board where I was tanning I’m not babysitting for love or money. I’m not. I won’t.
He negotiated me into a babysitting but it cost him large. At 16 I was making 60 bucks an hour. Not bad for an afternoon’s nap time with babies.
I became a staple in their house. I loved being there because not only was there always great food (my first time seeing Häagen-Dazs in real life), deeply soft carpets, couches you never wanted to stand up from, Much Music blasting out of widescreen TV’s, but the dad was always-always-making deals on the phone. His business was pretty glamorous because it was the music industry and it wasn’t uncommon for me to chat on the phone with some well-known names. One musician in particular was invaluable to me when I couldn’t figure out the various clickers for the large screen TV’s. I would play on the floor quietly with the toddler and cock my ear to the pitching going on in the corner. I would smile as I could hear the familiar twists and turns of his sales technique and I learned an MBA’s worth of business intelligence from listening to him. I never tired of hearing him regale me with his stories. He’d crawled his way to the top, having never even graduated high school. He’d not been born rich but he’d make it to the big league. I admired him for his tenacity, humour and ability to see right through people in a moment’s exchange. He missed nothing.
There were always lot of galas and parties and I’d love sitting at the bottom of the stairs and look up at them in their tux and gown and watch as they stepped into the waiting limo. At the end of the night, maybe 2 am or so, I’d get to be driven home by the driver. Richard was one I remember well. One night I said, hey I don’t want to be driven home, can you take me to Club Soda? (the dad owned the nightclub so I knew I’d get in). I was 17 by this time but the rest of my friends had all turned 19 and I was forever lying about my age and trying to catch up. Nothing really new for me as the youngest.
Richard the driver lowered the window and said, are you sure? I said, oh yeah, just meeting up with my brother, no big deal. There was a long pause as he drove through the quiet streets then he turned right, towards the Granville St. bridge and I was screaming for joy on the inside. For years no one had ever seen me quietly being dropped off by stretch limos but for once I would be. I took my heels out of my backpack, tucked my sensible nanny shoes back in it and prepared to strike a pose.
It was a great moment to come up to that block long lineup that night, with Richard camping up the driver routine and opening the door as I stepped onto the sidewalk. The bouncer unclipped the rope and I walked right in. Heady stuff for an underaged girl but for that brief moment I felt pretty rock star-ish.
I was a nanny for the first little girl from the time she was a small infant and held the second daughter the day she was born but as life would have it, I decided to pursue a Directing degree after my first year of college (which my nanny job paid for thank you very much). I had to say goodbye to my surrogate family. I loved the older daughter like my own having essentially been a third parent for her first 5 years and her wails and tears and my wails and tears on my last day holding her in my arms nearly kept me from leaving.
I learned so much with those children and that family. While watching the movie The Help the other day with my son he said, “Wow, I can’t believe people treated their help that way back then.” I said, “it’s not that far off the way some of the nannies were treated when I was in that world.”
It was true. Sometimes, as I’d be sitting in some mansion or other with a group of nannies, most of whom were Filipino, and the mothers would talk about us like we weren’t there. It shocked me but rolled off the backs of those young nannies, most of whom were thankful for the work. I felt a little sick they just took it like it was an ordinary part of their day.
One day we were in Shaughnessy at a birthday party and someone motioned to me and said, ‘where you’d get her?’ to the mother I worked for. She stood back and said, “I didn’t ‘get‘ her anywhere. Margaret is our friend and a part of our family.” And with that we left the party. A brave thing for her to do and I admired her for it.
For a job I never wanted, I gained a lifetime of lessons and memories. I’ve never regretted saying yes to holding that sweaty little baby and looking after her all those years. She was a handful but I loved her spirit and hope in some small way I made an impression on her life She certainly did on mine.