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Tuesday, March 12, 2013

what i learned. . .as the nanny {insights}

This is the story of the summer between Sophomore and Junior year of college. It was the summer I was outsmarted by a four year-old. It was the summer I was a nanny.

ed. note: If you are scanning this article looking for the juicy part about the nanny and the dad, this isn't that kind of story. Well, it is, kind of but not the way you think. 

I've worked since I was 14. I had the memorable jobs where no matter how many showers you take you just can't get the smell of french fries or the hospital out of your hair. So, when a professor asked me if I was interested in being a live-in nanny for the summer for some friends of his, the thoughts of reading a book to a toddler while drinking endless glasses of iced tea seemed to be the ideal summer job.

I said yes.

I arrived at the M's house on a bright blue May day. I met the husband first who stepped out of an outbuilding holding a horseshoe in one hand and a bicycle tire in the other. Behind him toddled a little towhead named for a literary figure but inexplicably called Binnie. She was backlit by the sun as she ran towards me, her long hair flying. She was shirtless, wearing just shorts and boots. I bent down to her level as she came face-to-face with me. I smiled at her.

She looked beyond me at my car then looked back at me. "Your car is very ugly." She ran back into the barn. I stood up.

Mr. M. grimaced and shrugged. "So, you've now met Binnie. Come in. Meet the the house and my wife."  The house was what would now be known as a fixer upper if the fixer upper were to be featured on a home improvement show of million dollar vintage homes. Built in the 1800's it was quirky with a floor plan that seemed to have been drawn by someone Binnie's age. The kitchen had an enormous walk-in fireplace/oven but barely any countertops. The family room was just big enough for a television and loveseat but the living room was large enough to be nicknamed 'the ballroom.'

The floors were tilted south just enough so that when you sat in one the bathrooms you had the slight feeling of disorientation, making you question "Did I drink too much last night?" The house itself was enormous and on the second floor some of the bedrooms were only reachable by walking through another bedroom. It was charming, quirky and would be another character in my summer.

In the kitchen I met Ms. M who when she introduced herself made it clear that she was NOT a Mrs. (They called each other husband and wife but neither wore a wedding band. I still have no idea if they were actually married.) She told me to call them by their first names. She was friendly, willowy, model-like.  Both were famous enough to have been in the papers for their respective careers in entertainment. At night after I read Binnie her books I'd lie in my bed listening to the voices from downstairs. They along with their friends talked about politics, music, books, law, inventions they came up with. . . Throughout the summer I never knew who I would meet in the kitchen the morning following one of their impromptu parties. When I was upstairs with Binnie, we'd hear familiar music rising from 'the ballroom' only to find out while making oatmeal the next morning that it was the actual artist (and friend of the M's) singing live.

This was the summer I was exposed to what adulthood could be and I think some of the things I learned that summer helped shape the girl I am today.

the easiest way to make a bed
One of my duties was to make all the beds in the house every morning. This was easy because instead of having a top sheet, blanket and comforter, Mrs. M replaced the whole thing with just a comforter inside a duvet. There was just one thing then to fluff up on the bed. No top sheet to get tangled in, no blanket to straighten out, just a duvet cover to throw in the laundry once a week. Genius.

a real precocious kid is not the same as a movies precocious kid
The M's believed in constantly challenging Binnie's mind. So, I took her to local children's plays at the park. I did science projects out in nature with her. I read her books at the second grade level. I was not there to reprimand her but to guide her which made for one whopper of little girl. Binnie was smart, absolutely. She was brilliant but she was also a nightmare. On a typical day I might I teach her how to make blueberry pancakes, explaining measurements to her. Then we would go to a clever play in the park followed by a hike up the hills in the Berkshires, using our guidebook to discover the different foliage. After an educational and fun day like this, when we sat down to dinner, the conversation would go something like this:

Mrs M: "Binnie what did you learn today?"

Binnie: "She (looks at me) is a terrible driver. She spilled juice on the carpet in there (looks in tiny family room) and she said shit 5 times."

I learned quickly to watch my language or I would hear a little voice in the backseat say "Fuck fuck fuck."

the trick to blueberry pancakes
I am over the moon for blueberry pancakes but my pancakes always had a blue-grey  hue. One morning one of the M's overnight guests (a chef) taught me to toss the blueberries in a little flour before I folded them into the batter. This kept the blueberries from staining the batter blue. It worked. Genius.

how to quiet a tantrum
Binnie was a bright little girl. Her parents called her an old soul. I believe it. One day when we were out walking along the M's property, Binnie found an old arrowhead sticking up from the ground. "I remember this," she said turning it over in her hand. I asked "You found this before?" She looked at me exasperated as she often did and said "No, when we used these. I remember this." Make of that what you will.  She was exceptional, yes, but she was still a little girl without boundaries. When I would correct her ("Binnie,  darling, you must wear clothes if we're going out") and she didn't like it, she would throw herself on the floor and scream. Her parents believed in letting her scream it out. So, often I would sit on the floor near her as she screamed and screamed and screamed. Sometimes her parents or I would try to reason with her but she kept screaming.

One day, as I was sitting next to her  in her bedroom as she screamed I looked up at her ceiling. In the cracks and subsequent patches I spotted what looked like a duck. I whispered "Binnie, look at the duck." She halted her screaming for a moment and turned her ear towards me. I whispered again "Binnie, look up at the duck." The screaming had stopped and she looked up at her ceiling and laughed. "Why, it's a duck!" she said. "What a silly duck to be up on my ceiling!" I had found her Achilles heel. Whenever she was in a tantrum I would whisper to her. In order to hear me, she had to stop screaming.  It didn't always work, of course. Sometimes she didn't care about what I whispered but it worked most of the time. I still use this today when I want to capture the attention of our dog, my husband or even our nieces when they were little. Genius.

That summer I also learned that when you drink and yes, smoke pot with a bunch of really smart people, the collective can come up with some incredible inventions, some that even seemed brilliant in the light of day. . .I  learned that renovating a 200 year-old home is nowhere near as romantic as it sounds. . .I learned that sometimes just sitting and talking to a four year-old is one of the most eye opening, wonderful experiences in the world. . .I learned that some things are inexplicable and amazing. 

It's been many years since I last saw Binnie, waving at me from the swing in her front yard, still shirtless but wearing a skirt and boots. She and I reached a detente of sorts by the end of the summer. I still remember the last play we saw at Look Park. It was a hot, humid August day and Binnie was in my lap. I held her as we were both rapt by the actors on the outdoor stage. As she watched, she reached up and wrapped a piece of my hair in her hand. As I felt the weight of her against me, the happiness of her joy for life, her unyielding quest for every bit knowledge in this world, I felt my soul just burst with love.  In that moment, with the sun beaming through the pine trees I hoped that someday I would be able to teach my own Binnie all that I learned from one very wise little girl.

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