The Babysitter's Club

Tuesday, July 10, 2018 | 1 Comment(s)

(The names of all non-family members have been changed)

There are some family stories that get retold so many times, to so many different people, that at some point the tales cease to be a collection of facts and instead morph into lore. There was the time my mom swam way way out in the ocean with kid me in a raft. There was the time my pre-puberscent brother put on a historic Hannukah magic show for the family.  The time I told the telemarketers that my dad was dead. And, when we were slightly older, this.

One of my parents' favorite bits of Mattiti lore is that, as a kid, I declared loudly and proudly that when I grew up, I wanted to be a professional babysitter.

Now, I wholly agree that's funny. I mean, right off the bat, who did I see as the amateur baby-sitters?  Those people taking care of me for free weren't babysitters, those were family members. Where did I get the idea that babysitting was a a competitive occupation where only a chosen few reached the elusive peak of going pro. Additionally, I didn't arrive at this choice of occupation after many successful babysitting experiences. No. Rather, I made this declaration well before I had any actual child-care experience. So, in essence, one of two things has to be true:
1. I loved the experience of my parents leaving the house so much that I wanted to make a career out of it.
2. I loved the time I spent being taken care of by my babysitters so much that I wanted to provide that service to other kids like me.
Maybe it was a combination of the two.

Finally, when I was about 15, I got my shot at the big time. Sophie Rosenthal, mother of two and one of my family's close friends from the synagogue, was looking for someone to stay with her children while she and her husband went out for the night. Sophie asked my mother if I would be interested in looking after David, age 10, and Anna, age 6.

Hells yah I wanted to babysit. I don't think my mom even asked me before she told Sophie that I'd love to.

David and Anna were the perfect first babysitting gig. Anna was well past diapers and "accidents," and David was super into Nintendo. This job was all gravy. It was sure to be the beginning of a long and storied babysitting career.

Alas, David and Anna would be the only kids I would end up babysitting for. I'm not sure if I simply never recovered from the disillusionment that you couldn't be a "babysitting major" in college, or if my next occupational interest, becoming a zoo nutritionist, simply diverted my easily distracted sense of future purpose. Regardless, my babysitting work never grew into a budding career. Instead, I ended up working the counter at a local pharmacy. I am unsure what convinced me that this minimum wage slog-fest would be more either more responsible or more lucrative than babysitting -- but I regret my error in judgement.

At least I was correct about how much fun babysitting for David and Anna would be. It was always close to Anna's bedtime when I arrived, but she made sure to stay up long enough to be able to see me. Anna was all-eyes at that age, with one of those little kid open-mouth smiles that radiated her inner joy. She was happy and affable and looked at me with the same glazed admiration I had in my eyes when playing hide and go seek with my babysitters. Six-year-olds are still young enough to love without shame, and the purity of her esteem made me feel grown-up and dependable. The protective parental response she evoked obviously resonated with me. That particular dynamic is one I've replicated throughout my actual jobs as a camp counselor, an elementary school teacher, and a college professor. I find great reward in helping lift those in my charge towards their best self. Perhaps, when declaring babysitting my future life's work, this is what I meant, but I didn't yet have the words.

Most of my time babysitting was spent with David. The 5 years that separate a 10-year-old and a 15-year-old is wider a chasm to cross than, say, an older couple five years apart in age. That said, in 1992, before we all had the ability to both be present and also completely disconnected via cell phone, the 8-bit glory of the original Nintendo ruled the gaming universe -- mostly due to its lack of viable competition. With controllers in hand, David and my age difference evaporated instantly. Factoring in the innate advantage David had being the owner of the games we played AND being younger than me (thus innately better at video games) - we played together as brother. David, the little brother I always was in the context of my family, and me, the older and wiser brother David lacked, who would cheer and encourage him, the way I too wanted to be encouraged.

David and I formed a secret connection. When I would lead Junior Congregation at the synagogue for the children, I would always give David, and Anna for that matter, a wink and a smile so they would know they were special to me. They weren't like all the other kids singing along with the congregation leader, they were FRIENDS with him. I won't even try to pretend that I didn't love having my mini-minions following me around the halls of the social hall, looking up to me, and generally making me seem way  more important than I actually was.

After graduating high school and heading off to college, I gradually lost touch with Sophie, David and Anna, as well as the rest of the Jewish community of my hometown. At first I'd see them during trips home to visit my parents, but as life continues forward, our pasts rarely wait around for our return.

Years later, around 2006 or thereabouts, I was living in Central Square in Cambridge Massachusetts, teaching ESL and enjoying life in my late twenties. One night my roommates and I decided to go to one of our favorite music and dance joints, The Cantab Lounge. The Cantab, at the time, was known for its lead musician, Joe Cook, the self-proclaimed Peanut Man. He was a Black man in his late 70's with a trademarked wrinkled face who sang the absolutely bejesus out of all the soul standards from the 60's and 70's. And the man could MOVE!!! He danced or, more accurately, shimmied across the stage and dance floor as his frolicking fans cut the rug so hard all that was left at the end of the night was a wooden floor.
Joe's Early Stuff
Joe later in life
"Hey Matt!," I hear coming from a a group of younger 20-somethings sitting in a darkened corner table.

I turn and look in the direction of the voice calling my name. I see no one I know. I squint to get a better look at the faces hidden by the darkness of the corner of the bar.

"Hey Matt, it's me, David. David Rosenthal."

Holy fucking shit. Nothing could have prepared me or my sense of personal mortality for the shock of seeing a 13-year-old David morph seemingly instantaneously into a 23-year-old Ivy League graduate who was now in medical school.

We chatted for a little while with the Peanut Man wailing in the foreground. He caught me up on the path that lead him to living in Boston, I did the same. What I remember most about our interaction that night had little to do with our actual conversation. I remember my metaphoric brain exploding on the walk back to the house at having seeing this grown up David. Inside my own deep narcissism, I was most violently reacting to how old I must be if the kid I babysat was a full fledged grown-up. Nothing could have prepared me for my past's sudden appearance in my present.

Similarly, nothing could have prepared me for the phone call I got last week from my father, telling me David had passed away at 35. He was found dead in his apartment in Pittsburgh, to the best of my knowledge, the victim of an overdose of psych meds. I don't know if it was purposeful or accidental, and truly, it doesn't matter to me at all, his loss is tragedy regardless of the details of his circumstance. Additionally, in many ways, both potential outcomes reflect the same internal pain, the same underlying causality. And it breaks my already bruised heart to know he is gone.

I mean, I was his babysitter. He was left in my capable hands. And while the timing of my  responsibilities was twenty years ago, with his passing, David is now forever frozen in my mind with the ever earnest eyes of his 13-year-old self. And therefore he is still, inexplicably, in my charge. The loss of that beautiful boy, that striving soul, is personal.  I doubt that pain will ever go away, much like my memory of the boy I babysat.

1 comment:

  1. "I was his babysitter" - amazing words and a terrible loss. love you bro.