Adventures in Babysitting
At least back in the 70s, the concept of a babysitter was pretty simple: you had to have a pulse.
Because my dad was a musician, for the most part he was around the house during the day, and my mom at home at night. But every once in a while they would need to leave us kids in the care of someone, and for the most part, Grandma was the first choice. They could dump us off at Grandma's indefinitely; after all she had the extra bedroom that was once an uncle's should my parents stay out all night, which occurred sometimes if they both went to a rock show or something. We loved Grandma's house. Grandma let us eat sugar by the spoonfuls, she had a Hammond organ that I relentlessly played Chopsticks on, a creek behind her place with tadpoles to collect, and its where Grandpa taught me chess and how to smoke a pipe on the rare occasion he wasn't out golfing or watching football.
Grandma and Grandpa were still relatively young (I didn't think so then, but they were in their 40s) and often traveled or had evening plans, so on the occasion we couldn't go there, my parents had to find alternatives. Now, I need to explain my parents a little here... my dad was a rock musician, and the first of his peers to become a parent. When his bandmates were doing whatever young 20 year old guys do when they don't have a real job and want to be musical gods in a lumberjack town like Seattle, my dad was home changing diapers, picking up Barbies and Playdough stuck to the carpet, and begging God for 20 minutes of sleep, locked in the bathroom away from the screeching. My mom was the primary breadwinner, scoring glamorous jobs in the world of office administration. They were young and hip but saddled down with two small children, one of which had chronic health problems (surprisingly, not me). If my dad got sick, or they had the chance to get out together, their only prerogative for a caregiver was that he or she knew how to work a phone, had two arms, and was conscious. Beyond that, it was pretty much Don't Ask, Don't Tell.
Most of the help was culled from the local music scene. I have early memories of KOL rock DJ Burl Barer being stuck managing my ass for a few hours at a time. Burl was my dad's band manager, and he and his then-wife Britt often took the reigns for my parents, usually in the daytime. Burl was physically there, made sure we didn't drink poison or stab family pets but other than that, he kept himself busy with whatever busy DJs do when tethered to small children as a favor, but would rather be somewhere else. Britt was more attentive, but as a health food fanatic I recall dreading when the pair of them showed up; she inevitably had some kind of nine-grain, tofu infused granola crap with her we would be forced to eat. Mostly though, I recall them using our kitchen table to canoodle, under the assumption small children don't get what goes on, nor have any kind of hearing capacity. Now mom knows why dinner post-Barers was usually some kind of oppositional trial with me.
Another memorable babysitter was a lady named Suupi, her real name Jean Christensen. She was a tall lady, and worked as a stage manager and befriended my dad. Suupi was a lady wrestler from a family of notable wrestlers, but also worked as a seamstress in the rock world, christened "Suupi" by the great Alice Cooper after she designed his trademark eye makeup.
Tiny children were foreign to Suupi; we were underfoot and moved fast. I recall one day she came over to tend to us kids while my dad suffered the flu and my mom was at work. My sister and I were in the tiny kitchen of our crappy Mercer Island bungalow as Suupi was boiling water, something equally foreign to her. My sister was maybe 10 months old and not quite walking, and scooted around in one of those (now illegal) toddler walkers, those wheeled things that when combined with the mind of a 10 month old, makes for a parental challenge. I was sitting on the ground, drawing.
Oh, and off to the side of the kitchen stood an open door to the basement cellar. Yeah, you know where this is going.
Perhaps a demon from the depths of Hell called out to Robyn, lovingly nicknamed Baby Kong by family friends. Who knows what compelled her to spin around and beeline for the cellar door, but I looked up as she skidded into her 180 and tore for the cellar. I don't know what held my tongue for the first couple of seconds, but I just sat and watched until she reached the threshold, then calmly alerted Suupi, "Thoopee, Wobbin's goin' down tha stare-ers."
Suupi spun around just as Robyn tipped over the edge and I could hear the rhythmic wumpwumpwump of the walker hitting every step. It was momentarily quiet before the final WUMP and Suupi screamed at the exact moment Robyn's little muffled wail traveled up from the dark abyss below. I went back to my drawing.
All this screaming alerted my dad from his death bed and he stumbled into the kitchen like a snotty tornado, bloodshot eyes wide open. What the hell?? He looked at me, then caught a glimpse of Suupi, still screaming, racing down the stairs. He sighed and followed her down. A few moments later they brought Kong back up, a gigantic goose egg on her forehead. Suupi was a blubbering mess, and asked to go home. She never came back.
Despite her vows to never care for children again, Suupi did wind up marrying Andre the Giant a few years later. She told me that despite that horror show, she always loved the name Robyn and named their daughter Robin after my sister. To note, Robin grew up without a scratch.
Some of my favorite babysitting moments were with my dad's bandmates; often dad had to drag one or both of us to practice if he couldn't find any local kids to watch us. Musicians are basically gigantic children, and I was fortunate to have these uncles often willing to stop what they were doing to toss me up in the air, or give me drumsticks and let me smash things. Playing catch, tag, or tickle fests were common, and they never tired of the millionth crappy Knock Knock joke a four year old could cough up on repetition. The practice studio was a place of wonder, so many knobs to turn, cables to plug/unplug, pedals to step on, strings to pluck! My dad would play Bad Cop and tell me to sit tight in the corner and draw for a while so they could work, but the guys never seemed to mind whenever my energy could no longer contain itself and I would jump up and juggernaut into a set of lanky legs for an impromptu wrestle match.
There was only one babysitter I was not fond of, a neighbor lady named Bonnie. Bonnie was in her late twenties, did not seem to have a job of note and was terribly obese. Bonnie was unkempt and slow; I've never met anyone who seemed permanently stuck in slow motion. Her favorite word was "bummer". Everything was a "bummer".
Bonnie did not own a comb. I don't mean metaphorically, either. She had long, frizzy brown hair that was not quite one enormous dreadlock. I had never met an adult with hair so bad. It bothered my little sister so much that one evening Robyn emerged from our bathroom with a wide-toothed comb in hand, determined to take a shot at Bonnie's mop. Bonnie's sloth-like protests were no match for Baby Kong, who lept up onto the arm of the couch and attacked Bonnie's head with the comb. Bonnie could not reach for the comb as it plunged into her hair with the force of a freight train. My mouth dropped open at the site of the comb AND my sister's hand getting caught in the hair like a greasy web, my sister tearing and yanking away, Bonnie's slurring "heeeeeyyyyyy, oowwwwwwww", and finally hearing the snap of plastic as the comb actually broke in two. My sister was able to get her hand out, but the comb was forever lost, like the Titanic to the Atlantic. I doubt James Cameron could even imagine a resurrection scenario for that poor comb.
I had the regular stream of teen babysitters, some better than others (I loved the one who let me crank call people). I was fortunate that most of my babysitters were simply well intended goofballs, but the 1970s gave way to the sobering reality that kids really do need more than a toilet and a bed to crash on. Nowadays, "safety" is the calling card of the parent. As it should be. However, I can "safely" say that you will never read stories anything like this from the future blogs of today's children. And that's kind of a shame.
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Julie Baroh is a US artist, entrepreneur, and chronic chatterbox.