Of course, there were babysitters.
The first one I remember was Penny, a secretary who worked with my dad at Peat, Marwick & Mitchell when we lived in Holden, Massachusetts. She was called into our household after my adoptive mom had died. I’m sure Penny was, in a manner, pressed into child-minding service; although, the time being the early 1960’s, and she being a young, single woman, might have been thinking about children of her own someday and might have been modestly considering that taking care of me could get her closer to my dad, a fairly successful, intriguing recent widower. That is speculation, but what is for sure is that my memory of Penny is of her being nothing but enthusiastic, tender, and loving toward three-year-old me. This was at a time in her young womanhood when she could have been enjoying a steak dinner with a suitor who could stay up late, didn’t need help going to the bathroom, and probably wouldn’t have asked to be read a bedtime story before turning out the lights. To my childhood memory she was really pretty. I sure liked her, and she sure liked me. Heck, I’d take her out for a steak dinner today.
The next string of babysitters began several years later, after my dad had remarried and we moved to Portland, Maine with my new little brother. In the interim, there had been caretakers and aunts and uncles for days and weeks at a time, but when we finally settled in Portland, and the newest of their three babies was no longer an infant in a bassinette who needed to be changed, my mom and dad found some time to get out of the house for dinner, or for my mom to clear her mind of us millstones of an afternoon with either errands, or one of her many sisters. For the babysitting duties, we mined the Asali family, two doors down, whose oldest daughter, Rosie, went to Deering High School. Rosie, mercifully, was tapped to mind the Chandler siblings when I was at the most obedient time in my life and when my younger brothers and sister were sleepy enough at 7 p.m. to rarely stir. At about age ten, I was known in the neighborhood as a fair artist, and Rosie would bring over magic markers and poster paper for me to draw renditions of Charlie Brown and Blondie cartoons to use as publicity for Deering High’s dances. I would challenge her initial ideas, and we’d have a final mission statement before I began the pencil sketches. Doing art for high school kids, I felt really big. She thought the posters were better than I did.
After Rosie graduated from Deering, Kathy Asali was the sitter next in line. Then about age twelve, I was rambunctious, and Kathy, roughly four years my senior, was game. She was wiry, wily, and wise. I was wiry, wily and not so wise. I was about two-thirds Kathy’s size, and she was a good wrestling partner, which I do believe falls into a babysitter’s job description. One afternoon during a wrestling fall, I inadvertently plunked my hand down onto one of her breasts. Her eyes widened, as they might, to see if I had done that for a purposeful pre-adolescent feel, and, locking my gaze, I am sure she saw nothing but my desire to win the match. I gave her a left knee to the buttocks, and, if memory serves, she pinned me on my back, un-aroused, at least two more times. I have to admit, she smelled nice. As skinny as we two were, we had voracious appetites, and our guilty pleasures were copious salads and ice cream sundaes. We loaded each up with everything that was available in the refrigerator and the cupboards. Each dish would be disgustingly decadent, three types of salad dressing and any cheese we could pilfer, tomatoes, carrots, olives, pickles, Bac-O-Bits, piled high over a quarter-head of iceberg lettuce (the only type known in the 1970’s); the sundaes were more and more and more so and involved anything that contained sugar, probably equivalent to a quarter pound in each dish. Marshmallow, strawberry preserves, jimmies, fudge, any kind of nuts, peanut butter, maraschino cherries, Cool Whip, and... oh yeah, Sealtest ice cream--it didn’t matter whether or not they all tasted good together. The sugar combination only made our wrestling matches tougher, our TV watching more intense, my bedtime later, and Kathy to forget about her homework. With all that food raiding, it is no wonder she only got seventy-five cents an hour. I think that because of the hardscrabble wrestling and my folks’ absolute acknowledgment that I was nearly too wild to be handled, they gave Kathy Asali and most other babysitters a fair nightly tip.
After a couple of years at the Chandler household, Kathy got a steady boyfriend and was unavailable for most corralling duties. I do have a chuckle today, knowing that I had touched her breast before her boyfriend did. After Kathy’s tenure, my folks would have mined the large Roy family from across the street for more babysitters had it not been for what continues to be referred to as “the spaghetti fight.”
My mom had a dear, elderly aunt who was dying in Boston. She was a spinster and a poor, lonely woman, and my mom cherished her like a furless Teddy bear from one’s childhood; although, in our years as a new family, I had met her only once. As she, my great-aunt, lay at the point of death in Boston General Hospital, my dad and mom had to scurry down for the weekend, and they, in a bind, called up Joyce Roy to do a couple overnighters with me - the crazy kid - and my crew of malleable, willingly-participating younger brothers and sister. Joyce showed up in the morning, and we waved my parents off. It all looked so innocent and open.
I don’t know how or when I discovered the spaghetti fight process. It must have been of an idle moment, absently poking at my hand or forearm with a stick of raw spaghetti. It snapped, and it snapped again. The synapse happened that if I pushed that pasta with steady pressure, it goes, “brraap, bbbrraaap,” several times like the rhythm of a machine gun. It has an odd and distinct feel on the skin, like six or eight rapid pinches, which mildly sting but don’t hurt for long. Mueller or Prince spaghetti work the best; use #8 spaghetti, as I’ve tried, in my recent babysitting years, both angel hair pasta and linguini, and they don’t work. That afternoon, I opened up a box of #8 spaghetti (of which there were a few) and started freely stabbing the arms, legs, fronts and backs of Joyce and my siblings. As in any war, the side with the most advanced weapons is at the early advantage until the losing side develops the same weapon or something better. I knew that they all knew the cupboard where there was more ammo to be found, and, hell, it ain’t a game until everyone is playing. We ran chaotically through the house, “bbbrrraap”-ing one another with delight. The youngest, my sister Julie, about four, excitedly bewildered, scuttled about in the mix, screeching and chasing us with a piece of uncooked rotini. We all took that skirmish onto the porch, the driveway, into the yard, back into and out of the house. Couch cushions were thrown, chairs and tables upended, magazines and newspapers heaved in self-defense. I think, at one point, my brother Charlie had been so clever as to use the ironing board as a shield.
The problem with a spaghetti war is that it leaves its participants worn out, while there are several pieces of spent “ammunition” at the site of every hand-to-body attack. Thousands of half-inch shards of spaghetti littered the house and yard. The sun had gone down, and we all, worn and satisfied, had a little supper, and I agreed with Joyce Roy that we would clean up that spaghettified mess in the morning. I even changed the vacuum cleaner bag so that we would have a fresh start. We got the kids to bed and settled down to television.
True to many parents’ form, mine did not stay overnight at their destination, as they and we at home had planned. No, they returned late that night to a floor-riddled mosaic of dried #8 spaghetti fragments and a houseful of at least disrupted, if not overturned, furniture and appliances. Livid, my mom and dad paid and dispatched Joyce back across the street to her far more peaceful family in shame. I stood in my Nuremburg and took all of the blame. I was too much for Joyce Roy to handle, and without a doubt in everyone’s minds (and mine), I had created and executed the entire debacle.
“Ma,” I decried, “We were gonna clean it up, and look, I put in a new vacuum bag.” I was told to put that new vacuum bag to good use immediately, and I was sweeping up the back porch and driveway until about 2 a.m.
By age thirteen, I was certainly old enough to mind our home and the kids when the folks went out, but given my track record with babysitters, broken furniture, windows, garden tools and sundry items, and my instigative, inventive, and mischievous hold over my siblings, hiring an outside babysitter was worth the nominal amount of money and inconvenience, my parents, enjoying a restaurant’s Muzak of a pleasant evening, partially safe in the knowledge that there would be someone to at least call the fire department or run screaming to the neighbors. Somehow we got a hold of Rosemary.
She was a student at McAuley, the Catholic girls’ high school. She was stout and tall; I think she played field hockey. She didn’t put up with too much crap from any of us, but she was intelligent and fun to be around when she found, after a night here and there, that I was not the prescribed Holy Terror of whom she’d been warned. I washed and dried the dinner dishes, did my homework, and, after the kids were put to bed, she and I would have our television time.
It must have been a Thursday night, because we were watching “The Waltons” together. As stated, I was quite sexually naive. In conversation, my immediate and extended Catholic family never alluded to anything of even a romantic nature in other than hushed tones. What I knew of sexual relations came from youthful, sandlot myth and speculation and from dirty magazines that the big kids would leave behind after their beer parties in the woods.
As Rosemary and I watched “The Waltons” that night, there was a scene in which John Boy was taking a bath in a steel laundry tub. If I remember correctly, he was singing loudly.
Rosemary squealed, “Ohhh! I just lost my virginity!”
Catholic upbringing had brought me to where I figured that word meant not much more than something along the lines of “purity,” “goodness,” and being “faithfully forthright.” Think of hearing the term, “The Virgin Mary,” by, at my age, tens of thousands of times, and I was not thinking of fornication. I laughed along with Rosemary’s comment, and I then believed that we had shared quite a hearty moment together. We went back to the show.
My parents arrived a short time later, and pretending not to, nosed around to see that their home was still intact. Pleased, they, Rosemary and I gathered in the kitchen. I was standing in about the middle of the group, the easiest spot to be whacked had the household inspection not come up clean, Rosemary behind my dad’s shoulder, where she would be less likely drawn into a fray.
“So,” my mom chirped, “How did it go tonight?”
We were in the clear, and now I could be witty and free and – oops! – pure, good, and faithfully forthright.
Grinning, looking straight into Rosemary’s eye over my father’s shoulder, I spilled what was our evening’s bit of conspiratorial humor, “Rosemary lost her virginity.”
Like a tarantula, Rosemary’s hand clasped over her jaw-dropped mouth, and her eyes sprang wide-open in such a way that even a midnight strangler could not evoke.
As my mom and dad looked across me at one another, it quickly dawned on at least my mom that I didn’t know what I had just said. She blushed, and I’m sure she was trying not to laugh.
“I think you’d better have a talk with your son.”
Poor Rosemary did not look up from the floor as she went to collect her schoolbooks, put on her peacoat, and wait for my father to open the kitchen door to give her a ride home. My dad still had to pay her, but I don’t think Rosemary was, at that moment, concerned about her earnings. I believe that was her last venture into the Chandler household. I wonder if my dad had any kind of reassuring words driving Rosemary home that night, because he never did have “that talk” with me.