Children didn’t travel when I was a girl. Our parents gleefully packed their bags and kissed us goodbye and we were left to the mercy of our baby sitters.
My worst memory is of a trip my parents made to Mexico early one summer. “We’ll bring you huaraches,” mother said. “Now be good.”
Somewhere, my parents had heard of the “W” family and had hired them to care for my sister and me for the two weeks that turned out to feel like two centuries.
The family moved in—a mother who cooked cabbage all day, a father who walked about in his smelly socks, a twelve-year old boy called Junior who kept finding snakes near the lake, and a grandmother who once had been huge, but now whose skin sagged horribly. She belched and farted with no apologies. I was horrified—prissy little snob that I was.
My mother left a well-stocked pantry and it looked as if the “W” family intended to clean it out. Mrs. W was impressed with our new kitchen. It had everything. Dishes all matched, pans matched as well. And there was even a brand new mixing machine. She refused to use it as it was “mechanical” and she feared those gadgets were bewitched.
I spent my days playing Robin Hood and Maid Marion with some of the summer kids. These were families who moved into their cottages for the summer season. The kids were boys my age and some older so water polo had a tendency to get rough. One of the rules was they could hold you under as long as the ball was hidden. The boys grabbed my braids, stuck the ball between their knees and held me under until I was near death. But I never complained. Wouldn’t give them the satisfaction. We also played mumblypeg. When explaining the rules to me, Burt said, “You place the knife like this (as he laid an open hunting knife flat on the palm of his hand). Then you toss it like this (as he tossed it in a way that had it flip and fall blade first into the ground). And if it doesn’t land right, the loser picks a matchstick out of the dirt with her teeth.” My teeth were gritty the entire summer.
My sister was younger and played with her friends. We’d meet at noon when we sneaked into the kitchen to get something to eat. However at dinner time there was no avoiding that family. Mrs. W was concerned about eating in the dining room, but we always ate in the dining room as mother was trying to raise her daughters to be ladies and have manners. And as that was an endless job we always ate in the dining room. Grandma W plunked her sagging body onto one of mother’s ladder-back chairs and proceeded to eat everything in sight. Mother would have loved serving Junior as he ate two and three helpings of everything. Mother was a marvelous cook and my sister and I were “picky” eaters. What Mrs. W brought forth was amazingly tasty and her family thoroughly enjoyed their meals. They had loud voices, big laughs, and thought nothing of waving the silverware about in the air.
Mother’s laundry room in the basement was a marvel to them. Daddy had built all kinds of cupboards and storage areas. I couldn’t believe that they might not have a washing machine. Didn’t everyone have one? But they didn’t. They didn’t even have electricity. That helped explain the rumpled look they all had. So everyday they did laundry. One morning, the Grandma asked my sister and me to hang her clean laundry outside to dry. Her petticoats were like pup tents, her nightgown like that tent they put up for weddings. But best of all were her underpants. They were made of soft cotton and trimmed with worn lace. You could tell they were old for you could almost see through the fabric. The bottom was split open so she could sit on the toilet without pulling them down. Amazing! We invited all the kids to come and see. It was the hit of the season.
Mother and Daddy finally returned with huaraches. “How’d it go?” Mother asked Mrs. W.
“Them girls of yours is angels,” she said.
My sister and I smiled sweetly. We had survived. But I remember feeling a tinge of guilt. When I really looked at Mrs. W, I saw she meant it. They’d all had a wonderful time while I’d spent the two weeks making fun of them behind their backs.
I blush now when I think of what a little snob I was. This was a family doing the best they could in the worst depression the country had ever known. Mrs. W was being as creative as she could to make interesting meals with very little. Mr. W had lost his job and feared he lacked the skills to find another. The Grandma was bravely facing her illness and aging.
Mother’s pantry must have looked like manna from heaven to them. Who knows what they had been going through? My parents had seen the W family’s need, looked into their hearts at their purity and simplicity, and had found a way to help, a way that allowed the W family to maintain their dignity. My parents knew their daughters were sturdy and could use a few lessons in gratitude and humility, obviously lessons long past due.