Searching for Mary Poppins

A few weeks ago, I put an ad on Craigslist for a babysitter-slash-housekeeper. Given the current economic climate, I was quite optimistic that I would find tons of highly (and overly) qualified applicants for this position. A friend in Brooklyn recently went through a similar search process and said she received over 100 responses to her ad. One applicant was even willing to teach the children 19th Century French poetry between doing the laundry and making dinner!

After hearing that glowing report, “optimistic” might not be the right term for my state of being. I actually woke up the morning after placing my ad and peered out my window, expecting to find a line of spiffy-looking Victorian ladies in wide-brimmed hats with resumes and umbrellas in hand, winding around the block like in the opening scene of Mary Poppins.

Instead I saw my filthy car in the driveway, sighing under the weight of its own ugliness. The list of things to do had just gotten a little bit longer.

I had been without a babysitter for two months when I finally bit the bullet and started looking for someone new. Truth was, I didn’t even want anyone new. I had stopped working in large part due to my desire to actually be my own children’s babysitter. What a novel idea! And now that my kids were in school all day, wasn’t it possible – indeed probably – that I could accomplish a great deal between the hours of 9-3?

During that time, I figured I could do everything except teach graduate school or see a Broadway matinee. But since I was to begin teaching every Wednesday night during the Spring semester from 3-8 pm, a babysitter was indeed required. Of course I immediately thought of my mom as a free source of support. Unfortunately, my mom tap dances on Wednesday nights – yes, you heard that right, she tap dances – and so, a paid babysitter would have to be found.

My former babysitter was great until one day when she suddenly wasn’t even good. That’s the only way I can explain the rapid decline in Wanda, my family’s long term babysitter. I think the change in her had something to do with skydiving. Yes, you heard that right, I said skydiving. Once Wanda started jumping out of airplanes every weekend – and then falling in love with her instructor for this death-defying activity – things changed. She stopped caring about finishing the laundry, often leaving it for me in the dryer and mentioning on her way out the door, “Oh, Julie, there’s some towels that need to be folded.” I would nod and thank her as she headed off to some concert in the city. Thank her!? Then I would clean up all the toys left out in the playroom, detox my children from three hours of television viewing, and fold towels.

I was on the verge of firing Wanda when she quit. She had decided to move upstate to live with her boyfriend. I had cut her job down to something like 10 hours a week and the minimal amount of work just wasn’t enough for her to live on. So we all went out to dinner to celebrate her departure. My kids cried when Wanda waved goodbye as our car pulled away from her house. They loved her and would miss her. I was feeling lukewarm.

It was only after she left that I noticed things missing. They were odd things, like a pair of designer jeans and some great black workout pants. Brett turned the house upside down one morning to no avail, looking for his new t-shirts and a zippered sweatshirt. He actually missed his train that day obsessing over the vanished items.

“I swear, they were right here! In the laundry room!”

I think I said something really helpful like, “Yes, dear. Whatever you say. The little mice people keep moving your stuff. I get it. Now go to work!”

Later that very day, my friend Kate called to say that while Wanda had worked briefly for her, she noticed a fleece North Face jacket of hers missing. She didn’t want to accuse Wanda, but…had I also noticed anything like that?

Lightbulb!

In retrospect, Wanda’s huge pocketbook didn’t seem like a fashion statement.
I immediately called Brett at work and told him that I knew where all his stuff was.

“Great!” he enthused. “Where?”

“New Paltz!”

In re-telling this story to people, I heard from many who experienced something similar. One friend said that her former babysitter had also stolen small items from the house, mostly of the candles-and-wine variety.

“She sounds like a romantic,” I mused. “Mine was more into the gym and the Great Outdoors.”

“How about this one?” My friend Laura confided. “A while ago, I got this huge cable bill. It was just after we moved into the house and I thought maybe the cable company had miscalculated, or that we had signed up for the wrong plan. But no. The bill was filled with pages of paid porno.”

Yes, you heard that right, she said porno.

Laura went to her husband, trying to approach the subject gently and with understanding. She used phrases like “Honey, there’s something I need to ask you….it’s okay if you feel you need to…I know men have needs….” and the like. After hearing her out, however, Laura’s husband laughed in her face and declared in no uncertain terms that the porno was not ordered — or viewed — by him.

Laura became a detective. Like in a game of Clue, she put the pieces together. She called the cable company and traced the bill to a particular cable box in the house, discovering the source and finally determining whodunit.

It was the foreign au pair, with the porn, in the basement.

What was the solution, I wondered? Did she confront her? Yes. “I asked her not to rent ‘movies’ quote/unquote from the television anymore.” Here she paused. “And I also decided that I needed to keep her busier. Much busier.”

Nobody is perfect. But when you let someone into your home and give them charge of your children, they need to be pretty darn close to perfect. To me, there is no job more important in the world than this one.

So, faced with the task of finding a new sitter, and feeling a little bit jaded, I opened my email and began to look at the responses from my Craigslist ad. All in all, I received about a dozen. Which, in case you are doing the math, is pretty far off from 100. But several of them seemed promising, and so I began to call.

I left messages for some, and spoke to the roommate of another. After speaking to one really nice-sounding person named Lina, I decided to move our relationship quickly to the next level. I asked her for a reference and she gave me a woman’s number in Westchester. I called and got the reference on the phone.
I told her the purpose of my call.

“Ah, yes!” She began. “Lina. She worked for me for a year.” That’s good, I thought.

“Now, what can I tell you about Lina? Well, she drives.” That’s good too, I thought, though not a necessity. I started taking notes as the woman continued.
“Though she did have two rather serious car accidents with our car while working for us, so maybe you won’t want her to drive for you, on second thought.”

I crossed off the word “driver” from my notes.

“Also, you should not expect her to cook.”

That’s okay, I explained. It’s mostly mac-n-cheese and chicken nuggets around here. No real cooking required.

“Yes, but for example, take those chicken nuggets. Lina only listened to half of the directions. So she would put the food in for 8 minutes, and then forget to turn them around for the other eight minutes. Your kids will have to eat slightly frozen chicken nuggets, you see. But my kids didn’t mind. They just took a deep breath and ate it.”

I started to think that my kids might mind this. It bothered me. Really…who lacks the capacity to successfully defrost chicken nuggets?

As the woman continued in this vein for a good 10 minutes, I wondered if this was a real reference or not. Was it possible that I was I on some sort of reality TV show without my knowing it?

In short, the best this woman could say in support of Lina was that she had a serious lapse in judgment. However, she was really a lovely person, and, were my house on fire, she was petty sure Lina would get the kids out safely. “You should really try her out!” She concluded.

I started my day wishing for Mary Poppins and ended up with something more akin to Amelia Bedeila.

No matter. I peered out the window again. There was a definite change in the wind. I remained hopeful that my perfect babysitter would blow into town tomorrow.

Transportation? Umbrella, perhaps.

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