July 9, 2020

Ben had gotten kicked out of yet another preschool. He’d been swinging his lunchbox around, endangering other kids. The teachers took it away from him and put it on a high shelf.

The moment their backs were turned, he built a tower of chairs. He was at the top, teetering, reaching for the lunchbox, when a teacher came back into the room.

“I’m afraid he needs more supervision than we can give him here, Janet,” the principal said sadly.

I knew they’d done their best. They’d had Miles for a couple of years, I was a former member of their Board of Directors, and I believe they genuinely liked Ben – they just felt helpless in the face of his wild will.

I did, too.

We found a children’s therapist. He was a nice guy, and he actually did help a little. 

The therapist suggested that Ben was unusually sensitive to overstimulation, which I could see was true once it was pointed out to me. He added that, for a kid like Ben, eight hours a day in the noise and chaos of a preschool was simply too much.

The choice came down to this: either I had to cut my writing work down to part-time (which would also mean the end of my nonmarital dalliances), or I had to hire a caregiver.

That was how Edna came into our lives. I’d placed an ad in the paper, and gotten so many responses that I had to set aside two full days to interview them all.

Two of them actually showed up.

The first was a very nice woman who was profoundly deaf. As much as I liked her, she didn’t seem like a good fit for a kid who liked to sneak off and do dangerous things when nobody was looking.

Edna, the second interviewee, was a tiny, elderly lady with a thick mop of coal-black hair. (I was later to discover that the black hair came off and was placed on the table the moment I left the house.) She had several children and even more grandchildren, and she seemed kind and patient. I hired her to pick Ben up at noon, bring him home, fix him lunch and spend the afternoon with him until I could finish my work and become a mom again.

It was a perfect match. Ben adored Edna, and Edna spoiled Ben unconscionably, letting him get away with things I probably wouldn’t have allowed but which actually seemed to calm him down: once he discovered there was little resistance to his wildness, he stopped pushing. (This might not be the best strategy for other strong-willed children, but it worked for him.)

I got a call one afternoon from our pediatrician: “Mrs. Taber, Edna seems to be a very loving caregiver, but I think you need to be the one to bring Ben in for his allergy shots.” It took me a few minutes to pry the whole story out of him. Apparently Ben had decided he was not going to have another shot, thank you very much. He’d pulled a metal support bar out of its sheath in the exam table, and menaced the nurse with it while gentle Edna sat and watched.

I gave them free rein in the kitchen. One day I walked in to find the two of them, whose combined weight couldn’t have been much over 120 pounds, devouring the last bites of an entire full-sized watermelon.

Most days, though, she would fix his favorite lunch of Top Ramen, then settle down with him to play Atari or watch a movie, most often anime. His favorite – he watched it over and over – was Ringing Bell.

I only got the plot in bits and pieces as I moved through the house. It seemed to be about an orphaned lamb who was raised by wolves, and then had to decide whether he was predator or prey. I don’t understand why he loved it so – Miles, the future puppeteer, had preferred Pinocchio – but it was a weird movie, and Ben was kind of a weird kid, so we went on renting Ringing Bell over and over.

His favorite book was My Book About Me, one of those books for kids to fill in with the facts of their lives. One two-page spread was filled in with the child’s dreams, which he’d dictated to Frank or me. It includes the following:

The teachers tried to kill me. They put a bracelet that kills guys on me. First they put a star that kills guys, but I got it off. I saw Miss Tricia in my dream and Miss Judy. They were trying to kill me because I wasn’t obeying. They don’t call my mom or dad in my dream; they just kill me.

We overrode Edna and refused to rent him Ringing Bell any more (“Dad and I think it may be giving you bad dreams”) and, after some initial resistance, he actually seemed a bit relieved.

Ben’s essay about Edna won a district-wide prize. It was illustrated with a stick figure boasting a layer of white hair under a wild zigzag of black hair, and his love for her shone through every word.

My political consciousness of what it meant for a young white woman to pay an old black woman to watch her child was dim (this would have been around 1988). Even I, though, had some doubts about using money earned mostly by my husband to free my time so I could carry on with other men.

During those waning days of my marriage, I was exploring submissive men I’d found through the personals. I’d prepare for a morning visit from one of them, a stout little fellow with a monkish fringe of ginger hair and an avid shoe fetish, by scattering my high-heeled pumps all over the house so he could lovingly pick them up and return them to my shoe rack. Then he’d crouch in the footwell of my desk and paint my toenails while I worked. He’d blow them shiny and dry, then grab his jacket and be gone by the time Edna and Ben came home from school.

It was a lot of fun (although I remember wondering when I was going to get to spank him). What it wasn’t, though, was sustainable.

Frank and I asked Edna to add a couple of hours to Tuesday nights while we were seeing our marriage counselor.

Inevitably, it came apart.[1] We told the counselor that we were splitting, and that was the end of counseling (although Frank would go on seeing her for a couple of years as he tried to rediscover his personal boundaries after having me run his life for fifteen years). We told the kids the next day, and everyone else the day after that.

We had bittersweet sex one more time before he left.

Ben was five at the time. In some ways I felt worse about taking Edna away from him than I did about the separation – but there was no way we could pay rent on two places and still pay her salary.

I took Ben to visit Edna a couple of times, but the magic of their friendship was over. Maybe it had never existed, for her.

Kids have loved and lost caregivers for as long as there have been caregivers, which means as long as there have been kids. Ben was just one among millions of sad, powerless kids that have had to move on to the next part of their lives.

[1] I sometimes wonder if our story would have had a different ending if someone had given us a copy of The Ethical Slut.

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