November 28, 2011
During the first Reagan Administration, I babysat for a family of three boys who lived at the end of our dead-end street in Andover, Massachusetts. We had recently moved up from Lowell, a city whose appearance a journalist once unfavorably compared to Europe after World War II, to one of six tidy lots formed out of old farmland, each with their own pastel split-levels. Ours was canary yellow. The Burroughs’ house had been the original farmhouse—a restored brick-red colonial with acres of rolling hills and a pond. Almost every family on the street had been lured by the jobs just one street over. Hewlett Packard, Wang Industries, Polaroid, they were all there, on a freshly paved road created just for them: Industrial Way, complete with weed-free landscaping and trimmed dogwood trees.
Tom and Ann never quite fit in. First, there was the way they talked. Though they claimed to be native Pennsylvanians, their accents sounded like an actor’s exaggerated version of a Bostonian. Then there were the clothes. Ann wore navy sweaters with whales on them, denim skirts, knee socks, while the rest of the neighbor ladies still lounged in their polyester pants suits as though the 70s might somehow return. Ann was always rushing around somewhere—folding stacks of permanently blood and grass-stained laundry, driving the Subaru too fast down our dead-end street, moving piles of paper into other piles of paper. I don’t think I saw her sit down even once. Ann had gone to high school with Superman—Christopher Reeve— and sometimes I wondered what would have been different if she had married him in place of Tom. Would I be babysitting Superman’s children? To choose Tom seemed the worst kind of settling—Tom with the thinning, gray hair at 35, who was always still, fixing his engineer’s gaze on everything: the street, the car, his children, as though devising a plan to improve upon their design or performance. He never remembered anything I told him. Walking me home after a long night of babysitting, Tom would ask me, each time, “So what grade are you in?” Christopher Reeve, I was certain, would recall such details.
I was grateful to Tom and Ann, though, for taking a chance on a seventh grader, and I vowed to impress them with my reliability and the knowledge of child psychology I’d gained from reading my father’s graduate school textbooks, like the results of Albert Bandura’s Bobo doll experiment, which found that children will hit a doll with a mallet if you show them how to do it first, or Freud’s case study of Little Hans, whose fear of horses was somehow caused by his father’s penis.
Taking care of the Burroughs boys, I soon learned, required little content knowledge and many skills: a poker face, hand/eye coordination, quick reflexes, a strong stomach. Their favorite pastimes included throwing rotten apples at passing motorcycles and daring each other to climb rickety trees or touch electric fences. One summer, all three Burroughs boys broke bones: an arm, a toe, and a collarbone. The youngest boy brought lice into our house. Indifference to pain ran in their genes. They could vomit from a stomach bug and then eat an entire sub sandwich in one sitting. The oldest boy had a tooth knocked out at school and went toothless for a week before his parents brought him to the dentist.
Tom and Ann were equally unflappable. When the kids had an occasional tantrum, Ann would roll her eyes and remove herself from the vicinity. If one of them threatened to run away, she would remind them to leave the garbage on the curb on their way out—and she was not joking. The only hint of a reprimand I ever saw from either parent happened when Tom grew fed up with the yelling or hitting or swearing and issued the one warning that seemed to work: if they didn’t behave, they were going straight to “manners school”—a threat that, when I repeated it to my mother that evening, made her hoot with laughter. They were always late in coming home, too, and as I waited until one or two in the morning for them to return, I wondered what was wrong with them. It was really hard to impress Tom and Ann with my nurturing ability when they themselves had no parental instincts. They were CEOs, off to a charity event or a work-related party, and I was the middle manager, enlisted to control the chaos and nothing more.
The middle Burroughs boy, Teddy, was my favorite. He wanted to be an engineer like his father, and to invent gadgets that would allow people to expend as little physical effort as possible. He is likely a rich man by now. His greatest achievement at the age of nine was a pulley system that allowed him to feed his hamster while lounging in bed. His plans also included creating a pill that cured allergies for life. His own peanut allergy provoked the kind of severe reaction that compels entire schools to ban nut products and oils with the same zeal they do firearms, and it would cause his throat to close up within a matter of minutes. It didn’t help that he was always sneaking Snickers bars from his brothers or fishing through Cracker Jack boxes to get the prizes, inhaling a full breath of peanutty dust in the process. Ann’s brief instructions to me, given on my first day of babysitting and listed on the sheet with the emergency phone numbers, were simple: Teddy: no peanuts.
It was that simple, too, when my brother and I, home alone, accidentally set the toaster on fire. The only adult we could reach that day was Ann, and to her credit she dashed right over. The first thing she did was take a dish towel, wet it, and throw it over the ignited toaster to douse the flames. She did this wordlessly, without flinching, but also without accusation.
“Don’t use the toaster again until your parents get home,” she directed, placing the wet towel squarely on the counter before making her exit.
By my fourteenth year I was babysitting the Burroughs boys nearly every day. I walked them back from the bus stop, clacking down the road in my black suede boots, unable to catch up with them as they scattered like the feathery insides of the milkweed pods we tore open in early fall. The box of macaroni and cheese was always on the counter when we walked into the house, the package of hot dogs always in the refrigerator, and as I poured the noodles into the boiling water, I could not shake the feeling that I was playing house. I was only pretending to care for these children, after all, and the ruse might be broken at any moment by any shift from the ordinary: a strange phone call, an accident, a rabid animal on the doorstep. Sitting on the faded gold sectional near midnight, I could not help but think of When a Stranger Calls, of the terrifying moment when the babysitter learns that the menacing calls she has been receiving have come from inside the house. There was no question in my mind: if that had happened to me, I would never have been as selfless as Carol Kane, venturing upstairs to check on the children. No, I would slip through the dog door in the laundry room, tear through the apple trees in the dark, and grasp the porch post on our canary-yellow house like the goal in a game of tag, as though the touch of the wood on my hand could save me.
When I retrieve my own daughter from day care each day, I see a sign describing the “Nut Awareness Policy” in detail, in language so roundabout I can only describe it as passive aggressive (as a colleague of mine put it, “Yes, I am aware of my nuts.”) Sometimes in my darker moments I still feel as though I am just playing house, and wonder whether Tom and Ann understood something about parenting that eludes most of us—that words, even carefully chosen words posted in public places, cannot keep us safe. And here is my confession: on at least two separate occasions in my care, Teddy ingested something with peanuts in it. I don’t remember how, but I do know that he survived, and I was invited back again to babysit without a mention of the incident. Each time, Ann left the same box of macaroni and cheese, the same package of hot dogs, the same list of numbers and note, unrevised, on the counter: No peanuts.
Kirsti Sandy is an English professor at Keene State College in Keene, New Hampshire, where she teaches writing, rhetoric, and the history of genre. She is currently making the transition from academic to creative writing; this is her first creative nonfiction publication.