Way back in high school I babysat often. I stuffed my backpack with crayons and markers and games and books. Most of the hours spent caring for children were a busy sort of calm. Of course every now and then I would have to correct sibling squabbles or rude behavior, but more often than not it was a matter of playing outdoors, providing snacks, enjoying board games, and reading aloud.
That is, until one stormy night.
To give context, I did not want to go to this particular babysitting job. This family’s reputation preceded them, and their two children were known to be terrors. If memory serves, I was the third string quarterback that night. Their normal sitter was unavailable, and my good friend had taken the job. At the last minute she was asked out by some dreamy boy and begged me to spot her. So I did.
The father of these two was a prominent surgeon, while his wife attended charity luncheons and cocktail parties for a living. She was cool and remote, with dark, polished lipstick and unhappy eyes. They sometimes attended a church across town, and we had a few mutual acquaintances.
I had heard many a tale about these children, and the problems sitters regularly encountered in this vast house. On the upside, they paid handsomely, so that was positive. But goodness, their babysitting victims certainly earned every last dime.
On this rainy night, the doctor picked me up in his shiny black BMW, and for the entire twenty-minute journey uttered a draining soliloquy about his amazing career in medicine. He wore driving gloves, slipping them on with a sigh and naming their mighty price tag. They help me to handle this sleek beauty, he crooned, patting the steering wheel affectionately, a crazed look in his eyes.
Such words meant to impress had the opposite effect and I cringed. What a creep! I thought. I could hear my grandfather’s words echoing in my head: Big Feeling! A legend in his own mind. Does this guy want a medal or a chest to pin it on?
As the doctor waxed on I stared out the window at the cold drizzle pattering on the Beemer’s windows and wondered why on earth I had ever agreed to this misery. The only question I managed to voice in between paragraphs of his lengthy speech was in regard to his children.
What are their names and how old are they? He was fuzzy on the details which spoke volumes.
Their house was enormous, and when I entered through the heavy front door and into the Great Hall his wife stood fastening her diamond studs, head gently tilted, the other earring dangling between her pouty lips as she slipped into beige heels.
Yes, it is nice–
Necessary phone numbers are on the counter, she interrupted as she waved toward the kitchen. We are late. The kids’ dinner is in the fridge waiting to be heated. I am not sure where Andrew is, probably playing in the basement. Callie is in her room.
The doctor helped his wife into her coat as her heels clicked toward the front door.
We should be home by 11.
And with that they were gone.
I think of it now, how different those days actually were. In this present age I might have texted a friend, asking questions about the parents’ bizarre behavior. But back then? I was armed with nothing other than a spirally corded rotary phone coupled with a marginal list of emergency numbers.
Time to push along and figure things out for myself.
So I stepped into the kitchen and Callie appeared. An awkward, buck-toothed, nine-year-old who seemed unfazed to have an unfamiliar sitter. I introduced myself and made small talk which turned into Where is your brother?
I dunno. She shrugged her shoulders. He doesn’t like sitters.
Oh boy. This child was four, and I chastised myself for not asking the mother to make proper introductions before leaving.
Let’s go find him so we can eat dinner, okay?
She shrugged again, pushing her glasses to the bridge of her nose.
I called down to the dimly lit basement, but no response. I then searched the main floor, checking closets and peering under furniture. No response. Callie was combing the upstairs.
Andrew? Andrew! I called.
I eyed the emergency phone number sheet on the counter as Callie returned.
Has this happened before, Callie?
Again, the shrug. Sometimes. He doesn’t like dinner.
For the love. Did this boy like anything? I began to panic. Where was he?
Andrew! Dinner is ready. Macaroni and cheese!
Darkness was settling in and as I turned on more lights, I heard a noise from the basement. I quickly descended the steep, narrow staircase which gave way to an expansive carpeted room, filled with toys and boxes.
A little boy flew out from behind a box, glaring and clutching what appeared to be clothing. He was wearing absolutely nothing.
He doesn’t like getting dressed so he doesn’t, Callie explained.
I was catching on to how things rolled around here. Andrew did what Andrew pleased and no one stopped him.
I crouched down directly in front of him.
My name is Kristin, and I am your babysitter tonight. It is my job to take care of you and your sister until your parents get home.
He stuck out his tongue.
You may choose to be rude, but that is disrespectful and very sad.
He stuck out his tongue. Again.
You will have to get dressed before eating dinner. Callie and I will be upstairs.
I glanced about, making certain he could not escape outside from this space.
I walked upstairs.
Rifling through cupboards and drawers, I found pretty placemats and heavy stainless-steel silverware. I folded napkins and poured iced water into goblets. Scooping the steaming macaroni and vegetables onto our plates, I then sprinkled a touch of salt and pepper over our food before inviting Callie to be seated. I closed my eyes and said grace which startled Callie into dropping her fork.
We ate dinner amidst broken bits of conversation. She seemed terribly unhappy for a young girl, and every bit as unreachable as her mother.
Andrew whined then yelled then raged from downstairs, hollering that he hated getting dressed, and hated dinner, and hated babysitters, and hated rules.
That poor undisciplined creature craved every decent boundary that his parents obviously refused to provide.
Everything about this family was horribly disordered, from top to bottom.
Callie studied me over her glasses.
Most babysitters just do what he wants, like my parents do. It’s easier.
Followed by a shrug.
We had just finished our meal when Andrew appeared, still undressed. I stood and cleared our plates.
I’m hungry, he pouted, arms crossed.
There is good food here for you, once you get dressed.
He dropped to the floor once more, kicking and screaming. I stepped calmly over him and taking a damp dishcloth, wiped the table clean.
He covered his eyes and shrieked. From my peripheral vision I noticed him peeking through his fingers.
I handed Callie a drying towel.
I’ll wash and you dry, I said.
I never ever do dishes, she moaned.
You will tonight! It’s fun, I said.
She sighed heavily and began to dry. I told her a funny story from when I was her age. She dried and listened, and I saw a smile playing at the corners of her mouth. The first of the evening.
And then, a tug on my shirt.
I turned to see Andrew fully dressed, his shirt backwards.
The wind picked up and howled against the windowpanes.
I wiped off his small hands with a warmed paper towel and asked him to sit down at the table. He complied, eyeing me carefully.
Folding his napkin in a triangle, I placed a fork neatly on top. Gentlemen use napkins I said, borrowing a line from my grandmother. I placed dinner before him with a tiny glass of water, and asked Callie to join us.
I prayed grace again and felt their eyes upon me. The dining room lights flickered as the storm picked up.
We say grace only sometimes, offered Callie.
After dinner we played a few games of Go Fish and then the clock chimed bedtime. I told them to run along and put on their pajamas and brush their teeth.
Andrew wailed and said that he hated pajamas.
He stomped his feet and turned red in his fit of rage.
Callie soon returned in her nightgown and combed hair and sat close to me on the couch. I fished in my bag for the fine story of Ping, by Marjorie Flack. A little yellow duck who needs a spanking, avoids a spanking, and is then happy to receive his swift punishment.
I want a book! screamed Andrew.
You may join us once you brush your teeth and get your pajamas on, I said.
But it’s raining and I hate rain.
It’s a shame that you hate so many good things, I said evenly, putting the book down. I will walk you upstairs and wait in the hall while you get ready for bed.
So up we went and he was speedy.
As the lightening flashed, he grasped my hand and we returned to the living room.
So we began the book all over again, and they loved Ping. So much so, in fact, that we read it five or six more times.
They soon fell asleep on the plush sofa and I covered them with soft blankets and turned to the pages of my own good book.
The parents slipped into the Great Hall at eleven, and the mother removed her heels and limped toward the sofa.
Her empty eyes widened.
How in the world did you manage to get him dressed? she whispered. I cannot remember the last time he was dressed in this house.
I did not know what to say.
These were Andrew’s parents, and I was only the third-string sitter. Sixteen years old.
On the winding drive home I started to tell the doctor of our evening: the dinner, games, and story, hoping to pique his interest in his own offspring, but it was late and he was mentally elsewhere. He interrupted me yet again with more talk of the important connections he made at their fancy schmancy dinner.
I glanced at him just as lightning danced across the sky, illuminating the ugly image that seared itself in my memory: driving gloves, the palpable worship of his expensive car, the receding hairline and receding children, asleep within a lonely mansion. Children fading into the basement of their parents’ prominent, important life.
I knew for certain after that haunting night that I would love my future children with my whole heart. The truth? A gently folded napkin placed neatly against the left of the shiny plate, with a fork on top means something. Offering thanks to God through a simple prayer of grace means something. Drying dishes and preparing for bed and savoring read-alouds means something. Requiring obedience and providing structure and being fully present to hear your family means something.
These are the ways to sing a lifelong song: You are precious and you are important. You are a gift from God and worth my attention and my time. Bundled together they create perfect kindling for trust to burn brightly in a world that rages.
What am I seeing everywhere I turn today? Wandering, weak-kneed parents conceding to the notion that babysitters or grandparents or teachers or churches are responsible for raising and nurturing their children. Parents who themselves have never grown up. Undisciplined adults with their own children serving as their mirror image.
Borrowing the perfect words of Marilla Cuthbert? Stuff and nonsense.
Within fifteen years of that stormy night one of the members of this doctor’s family ended their life, wilting under the crushing madness of a perpetually disordered existence. A life where riches and cars and jobs and exquisite things ruled and reigned, charming two parents out of a holy fear and reverence for God. They neglected first their Maker and then their most precious earthly gifts: Callie and Andrew.
The lessons are legion.
Do you see?
You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might. And these words that I command you today shall be on your heart. You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise. You shall bind them as a signpost on your hand, and they shall be as frontlets between your eyes. You shall write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.
(Subscribe to my monthly newsletter here.)