Little Silver #6 – The Housekeepers
For five years after Atkin and Connie split up, it was a revolving door at 301 Rumson Road in Little Silver. Connie had taken an executive assistant job in the Big City of Hope and Dreams and hired a host of elderly women to look after Alex and me during the work week.
Number one was Lita, an endearing Filipino lady in her 60s, who wore big glasses and an even bigger bun on top of her head. She used wide, toothy smiles to communicate with us, and since she didn’t speak English and Alex and I spoke no Filipino, this was the most positive non-verbal communication we could all manage. I imagine that she understood us, but I found it awkward, I guess, milling around the house and smiling.
“But don’t you love her baked chicken?” my mother encouraged. I paid special attention after that, finding it just okay — mostly, I wanted it to be great so I could agree with my mom. When Friday finally arrived, Alex and I breathed a sigh of relief and looked forward to Saturday morning when my mom, brother, Lita and I would climb into the car to deliver her back to her husband in Carteret for the weekend. And so on it went, week by week, until it was Atkin’s turn to move back into the house, at which point Lita gave her notice because her husband didn’t want her living in the house of another man.
Our next score was Aunt Jill, the Rock of Gibraltar. I’ve published an entry solely about her so I won’t go into more detail here, but she became a bonafide member of our family for the next three years before she retired, at which point Connie resurrected her ad and up turned Maria.
Maria was Hungarian, again in her mid 60s, and another whose thick accent Alex and I struggled to understand. She too made a mean chicken dish and was overall a fabulous cook and seamstress to boot. For fun, she spent her days hemming and mending our clothes, and one evening when Connie arrived home from work, Maria surprised us all with thick, heavy, yellow curtains for our den, a room that drew in the heat of the afternoon sun, Hades-style. My mother, unable to filter her initial reaction, said softly, “But I don’t like them,” to which Maria responded, “Well, I’m the one who has to sit here, not you,” and up the curtains went. But again, Maria’s tenure came to a close when my father was due to return for his 6 months, because (as we’d heard before) her husband didn’t want her living in the house of another man. Nobody seemed to want to cop to the fact that my father was in his early 40s and these women could all have been his mother, but we were living in the old world, I guess.
This time around, it was on my dad to hire somebody and along came Pauline, an Italian close to 70. She drove a royal blue Lincoln Continental and owned a trailer behind the mall. Pauline wore housecoats and sprayed her tower of fake-blonde hair into a fixed, un-moveable bun that rested on the tippy-top of her head. She did our family’s food shopping at the Fort Monmouth Commissary, since her late husband had been a member of the armed services, and this alone made shopping suddenly fun for Alex and me because you had to cross through security to get in.
Bright eyed and tough as nails, Pauline pedaled around Little Silver on my dad’s bicycle in her housecoats, for daily exercise. When Alex and I arrived home from school, Pauline routinely asked ‘whadda-ya-wanta-forra-suppa?” I must have said something cheeky to her one day, because she looked straight at me over the kitchen counter and held my gaze for a minute before saying, “Oh. You think you’re smarter than me because I have an accent. You think I’m stupid.” I’m embarrassed to admit that Pauline was right, though I hadn’t realized it until that moment, and I treated her with full-on respect after that. As a matter of fact, it was precisely then that we became friends. The day my brother, while following me on his bike across the street was hit by a motorcyclist, she called my father right away at work before slamming down the receiver and whisking me off to the hospital, her Lincoln Continental only a few cars behind the ambulance. The nurse asked me multitudes of questions and there was only one I couldn’t answer; “Were his pupils dilated at the time of the accident?” I looked at Pauline, who fixed her blue eyes on the nurse, put her arm around me and said, ‘She’s not gonna know that.”
Pauline ran a kooky household and became like a mother figure to my father, who, believe me, desperately needed one. And in keeping with all her predecessors (except for Aunt Jill), Pauline was an amazing cook and excelled in the chicken category. My dad was in heaven. Her four year old granddaughter used to come over to spend the day with her, and with all of us once we were home from school, and things seemed overall to be running smoothly and consistently when Pauline got her pancreatic cancer diagnosis.
At the time, I didn’t recognize that diagnosis for the death sentence it was, and I listened doubtfully to my father’s explanation for why Pauline wanted to leave right away to live with her daughter. Silent and expressionless, he looked as he always did except for the tears that trickled a path down his otherwise stoic face. I had seen this before — once when our family dog died, the day the divorce was final and he showed up at my soccer practice, standing quietly next to the goal I was tending, and once more when we pulled out of the driveway after our last visit to Pauline. By that point, she resembled a forward facing skeleton, as if in a trance, breaking out every now and then to flicker her gaze over us.
Though it seems a sacrilege to follow Pauline up with anyone, well, such was our life. I introduce to you, Marge, the final character in our lineage of sitters.
This time my mother’s mother, Grandma Amy, conducted the interviews and hired Jersey-born Marge, who weighed at least two hundred and fifty pounds and smoked like a chimney. Marge wore a significant amount of caked-on make up, had dyed red hair and drove a pea-green bomb of an automobile. Despite Alex’s and my pleas to walk to school as we had for years, Marge insisted on driving us. “I wanchaz in the cah.” Why, we didn’t know, but we were prisoners who resorted to shrinking our bodies down as far as we could in the backseat of the guzzler, and scrambling out as quickly as possible at every drop-off. When we begged to walk home from school, Marge hit us with the same line and waited in the parking lot in the green bomb, a plume of cigarette smoke billowing from its barely cracked windows.
One summer day, bored, we consulted Marge on an idea for something to do. “Why donchas put some buttah on yah bodies and lie in the sunshine?”
“What?” We asked partially out of disbelief, and partially to savor the shocking absurdity again. That evening, she made a chicken soup that sent Alex choking before he pulled the small bone from his throat, and I suppose the most profound takeaway of this story is that it’s amazing that we both still eat chicken.
That night, Alex and I called a summit with our mother. Sitting on my bed, we rolled out our list of grievances and unprecedentedly, asked her to please, PLEASE…. fire Marge.
“Well, I think we need to give her a chance,” Connie replied in a thin voice — a voice that sounded foreign coming from her, and a voice that made me think we could finally, legitimately get away with it.
“How about no more babysitters? I’m twelve — we can take care of ourselves.”
Connie, I think surprised by our request and also seeing dollar signs, looked at me. That weekend, she took Marge aside, told her it wasn’t working out, and we were free.
Later that year, Grandma Amy died and Grandpa Oscar bought out my dad’s half of the house and moved in with us. Our gamut-ranging chicken dinners now were reduced to Swanson Chicken TV Dinners and Alex, Oscar and I were totally cool with that. And Oscar, as you will come to know, was delightful character who not only didn’t impede our freedom, he expanded it.