By Katie Ravich
My family lived in Waldwick, New Jersey from when I was about two years old until I was nine. Waldwick was easy commuting distance to NYC. Both my parents worked in NYC in educational publishing at the time. When my brother Nick and I were old enough to go to school and needed to be looked after, after school my mom found an in-home babysitter just a few streets over on Roberta Lane. Nick and I went to Fran’s everyday after school and some of the summer for four long years.
Fran was a no-nonsense working class mother of three who took babysitting jobs to bring in extra money. Her home on Roberta Lane was within walking distance of both our house and Crescent Elementary School. What I remember most about Fran, which kind of sums up her way of being, was she wasn’t giving anything away for free because she was no sucker. If Fran had to pick us up from school because of snowstorms or sudden illness she charged my mother gas money. If we wanted to eat anything at Fran’s house my mother had to provide it or she charged. If we had to go to say Patterson, NJ to the foam rubber factory to pick up supplies for Fran’s cottage industry (more on that later) during the hours we were in her care, she charged my mom gas money to transport us.
What did Fran look like? The clearest picture of Fran in my mind is from the backseat of the giant station wagon she drove, her tightly permed head and the comically large frames of her glasses (glasses it seems all middle-aged women wore in the seventies and early eighties) humming along to something like the “Gambler” or “Islands In the Stream” playing on the radio perfectly at ease as unchallenged ruler of her tiny kingdom. I liked to look out at the world through, what I considered was the magical blue stripe at the top of the windshield, on the boring drives to some industrial place in NJ. Our cars never had that blue windshield stripe.
Fran was stingy with everything including any encouragement or affection or even adequate supervision though that was supposed to be her job. Her way of thinking about child rearing (and this included her attitude towards her own three children) was from another era even in the late seventies and early eighties. Fran did not “parent” and she would have laughed herself hoarse at the idea of modern “parenting” because that was for suckers. Fran’s guiding principle of childcare was the kids should make things easier for the adults not the other way around.
A common scene I can remember from a Fran afternoon was Fran at a card table in the living room watching her soaps, her hands busy with one of her money making projects. The most long standing of these gigs was the foam rubber dice. Fran would pick up boxes of brightly colored foam dice from the horrifying but fascinating foam rubber factory in Patterson. Then she would use her hook rug needle to punch in string connecting a pair of dice so they were ready to hang from a car’s rear view mirror. Nick and I were put to work taking the finished dice and putting a little plastic band around each pair and repacking them in the boxes to take to God knows where. Fran was paid by the piece so the pace was fierce.
One or more of Fran’s three children Jamie and Josie (older teenagers at the time we were around) and Bobby, Fran’s youngest a few years older than me and Nick would be slouching around watching TV or being yelled at by Fran to move their lazy asses. Candy the long-suffering, aged German Shepard was always there usually flopped down, dead-like in the doorway between the kitchen and the living room. Family members regularly slapped Candy’s morose flank with a rolled up newspaper to try to move her out of the way put she was used to that and remained in her inconvenient place. Fran’s one-legged, demented father might also be there sitting in the recliner in front of the TV drinking out of a “kiss me I’m Polish” mug and sometimes yelling racial epithets at the TV when Good Times was on. Nick and I would do the jobs Fran assigned which included the pairing and packing of dice, changing the TV channels for her, getting her pillows for her aching back or helping her identify which colors she needed for the massive hook rug projects she sometimes took on.
Around 5pm Fran’s husband Charlie would come home from his job at IBM. There was usually a flurry of activity right before Charlie made his entrance, living room tidied, meat loaf put in the oven, Fran’s kids fleeing to their different corners because there was always something incriminating Fran was threatening to tell their father when he got home. I liked it when Charlie came home because, in comparison to Fran, he seemed to exert a fair-minded, calming influence over the household with his short-sleeved white work shirts with a pocket protector. Fran was a bully and a tyrant who ruled her kingdom by caprice and superstition and things were a little more sane when Charlie was there.
The person she bullied the most was my mother. My mom continued employing Fran and eventually both her daughters for childcare, even though my brother and I were unhappy living under Fran’s rule because Fran bullied her into thinking that she had no other options. Fran took every opportunity to insult my mother to me and Nick. We were dirty, lazy and fat because our mother neglected our basic upkeep. We were kind of dirty, lazy and fat but my mother never neglected us emotionally or ground us down with shame and tyranny the way Fran did.
I had a perverse need to wheedle some kind of affection or acknowledgment out of Fran. I can clearly remember the rare times Fran was kind to me, in her way, and the outsize gratitude I felt for her miserly attention. Once I became ill with a fever at school and the nurse decided to send me home. Fran had to come and pick me up from Crescent Elementary school as my mother was far away working in NYC. I am sure she charged by mom gas money but she came and got me and when we got back to Roberta Lane she made a fire in the fireplace (something she never did during the day) and let me doze in the beanbag chair with Candy lolling beside me all afternoon. To be sure she made several comments about how tired I was because my mother was too weak and our household too lawless to enforce bedtimes but I was so warm and comfortable in the beanbag chair, where I stayed, released from my usual chores, until my mom could get there to pick me up.
Soon before my family’s move from New Jersey to Texas truly ended our relationship with Fran’s family, my bother and I rebelled. Instead of walking home from school to Fran’s we walked to our own house and broke in through the window of my brother’s room. When we were found, Fran was not worried about our disappearance but pissed as hell. My mother decided that we had made enough of a statement and our after school sentence at Fran’s was commuted! She overcame her own fear of Fran’s displeasure and decided that Nick and I could wear house keys on a string around our necks and be home alone after school. We still had to go to Fran’s occasionally and Jamie and Josie still babysat regularly at night but Fran’s reign was over and it was truly a golden age.
© 2020 Katie Ravich
Also by Katie Ravich: Domino, The Underpants, Surviving the Kalahari, Raising Sonia, Spirit of the Cimarron, and Fudge Girl