During a recent Portland Public Schools in-service day, my teenage son looked after two younger kids whose parents were at work. When he returned from his shift, I asked him how it had gone.
“Okay,” he said. “I got paid $10 an hour.”
“What did you do?” I asked.
“I don’t know,” he said, “played some board games and stuff.” His eyes and focus were elsewhere. He grabbed some milk from the fridge and disappeared into his room.
He had been looking after these young kids, and he hardly seemed to think of them. People had looked after him and his sister when they were young. People had looked after me when I was young and after my mother when she was sick. These moments matter—these people are there, and then they are gone. Why does this unsettle me now?
Pearl. When I was a baby, an elderly woman would sometimes look after my sister and me. I learned later that her name was Pearl. My memory of her is an amalgam based on comments my mother made and images of older women named Pearl who look after kids. I don’t directly remember Pearl at all. I know she was part of our lives because my mother told me so. I believe she had white hair and liked to keep our small black-and-white television on. Sometimes she would read to us. My mother entrusted my sister and me to Pearl when we were utterly helpless and my mother was working at the local library. I don’t know if Pearl had kids of her own. I don’t know how many other kids Pearl looked after. I don’t know what she liked to eat. I don’t know when Pearl died or who attended her funeral.
Maria. Maria came to our family through a hospice for the last few days of my mother’s life. She was small and hardly older than my mother and seemed to know how to take care of everything—my mother, the pain medication, logistics, us. It’s hard to explain, even to myself, how much her presence meant to us as our mother suffered and died and we floundered through her final days.
There was a moment about twenty-four hours before my mother’s death when Maria walked into the bedroom where my mother was installed. My uncle and I were trying to use the drugs on hand to hasten my mother’s departure. Maria, who could not help with this, saw what we were doing. She made a slow and gentle wave with her arms: a bird, flying away. Then she stood still for a moment, nodded, and walked out of the room.
Maria came to my mother’s funeral, which she didn’t have to do. She was some sort of gift, there and then gone. I suspect we gave her very little in return.
Astrid. When my kids were young, Astrid, a high-schooler, would kidsit. Together they would make worlds in maps, drawings, character sketches, elaborate plots. Astrid would roughhouse with our kids at just the right pitch. They would laugh together, and their faces would be red when we returned home.
We still have some of the worlds that Astrid and our kids made together. They’re rolled up in our attic. I imagine that our kids, older, will unroll them and remember and smile. I think it’s possible that, once or twice, Astrid will be there with them. She lives across the country now, but we are still in touch.
Astrid was a kid looking for a few hours of work a week when we met her. My wife and I were working parents scrambling for a few more hours of coverage so we could do our jobs. Somehow our kids ended up in the company of someone who filled the world around her, our kids’ world, with imagination and laughter.
There have been other people—women, all—who were there like this in our lives. Shalah, Bozena, Nicole, Elsa. They were paid, they were there, they were essential, and then they were gone.
Where is Maria now? What, if anything, does she remember of the work she did in our home? How does Astrid think of her work with us and the relationships that came along with it? What did we mean to Pearl? Who might our kids be to families they briefly walk into? Who have I been to people I worked with and then left? What does this transitory work ask of us, what does it provide, and what, after it ends, does it leave behind?
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