We sat outside on a sticky August evening – four tired mothers, spent from trying to keep all the plates spinning on our fingertips and tiptoes and the one woman who made it even close to possible, Kay. We raised salt-rimmed margaritas in celebration of our dear friend’s 59th birthday and looked lovingly upon her.
To know Kay is to know belief. She is proof that God walks among us; That He does some of His best work through others’ hands. She infuses everyone she meets with honesty and love and conviction. She has a peace that only comes with unwavering faith and firm truth and the understanding that you have found your calling. And the best part about all this? For five beautiful years, my girls have rubbed up against these rare qualities in Kay’s home, which is really their second home.
“You really need to do something nice and celebrate.” I said
“Well yeah, you know me.” Kay responded sarcastically.
“No, seriously … you do so much for everyone else.”
“Yeah, well, I have been thinking a lot about my kids and things I need to do and things I’d like to do and, well …” [pregnant pause] “… I do have a date.” [bigger pregnant pause] “I’ve decided to stop watching children around Christmas next year.”
Tears. So many tears.
And then congratulations.
And then more tears. This time with snot.
I knew this day was coming. I mean I practically promised to sell my kidneys to get JoJo in with Kay when we moved back from Indianapolis. I knew she was wonderful and I knew my children needed to be in her home and I was willing to stalk her, beg her and just start dropping my little girl and money off until she settled into the idea. But I didn’t have to do all that. After a good referral from a friend and a pleasant chat, Kay decided to take our then 2 year old. We, I was told, would be the last family she would care for before retiring.
When we had Spike she mentioned that when we were done having kids, she would soon be done as well. She told me the same after we had Sloppy Joan. She planted subtle reminders of her impending retirement along the way – pebbles for us to pick up and remember that her home, sweet as it was, would not be open to us forever.
But still on this suddenly unforgiving summer evening, with the bitter taste of the salt biting my tongue, I felt shocked. My heartbeats were thunderous in my eardrums and my eyes were drowning in hot tears. What would we do without Kay? What would any of us do?
I don’t call Kay a babysitter, a fact that has been pointed out to me by several different people on several different occasions. I’ll say, “Kay, who watches the girls,” or “Our friend, Kay” or “You know, Kay, the baby whisperer,” but never “babysitter”. It just feels so inadequate. A babysitter is a 15 year old who sneaks her boyfriend in the back door and gets gum stuck in her braces. Kay is a miracle worker. Kay speaks child. Kay is the captain and the wind and the vessel itself.
There have been so many times she’s told me something about one of the girls that should have been so obvious, but it took having her gently point it out for me to see it. She’s taught them all how to go up and down stairs. How to pray before meals. How to bump a volleyball and swing a bat. How to roll up their sleeves and get dirty and scoop up crayfish in the creek. She treats each one equally but sees the intricate nooks and folds of their little personalities perfectly.
In 27 years the woman has never taken a sick day. I’m not kidding. She doesn’t take vacations, she doesn’t get the stomach flu, she doesn’t get strep. She’s a machine. And it’s not like she just got good at connecting with kids in her veteran years, either. I rode up to Kay’s daughter’s lakehouse (because they actually want to spend time with all of us outside of the weekdays, proving she is, in fact, a saint) with two freshman in high school who grew up at Kay’s. Their stories were the best. Kay sent a snake home with them and it had 200 babies. Kay let them build a tepee in the ravine next to her house. Kay got them to do things their parents would only dream of. She was a main character in the beginning chapters of their lives, and they would never ever forget her.
And let’s talk about the food at Kay’s.
Kay shops at the exact same grocery store where we shop. Exact same. But for whatever reason (magic pixie dust one can assume) everything is tastier at her table. One of the teenagers I was with confirmed the hypothesis I’d had for years.
“So, you’re saying if I buy a gallon of Hawaiian Punch, and Kay buys the exact same gallon of juice, it will taste better at Kay’s house?”
“I know! I can’t explain it! It’s just better. The fruit snacks are chewier, too.”
Her cheese sandwich is one slice of white bread with a Kraft single on top microwaved for 22 seconds and folded over. The kids go nuts for it. I make it, and nothin’. No love. But the gleaming cherry on top of the sundae that is Kay’s, is the crumbs. Imagine if you will, the broken shards of fried potato that reside in the bottom of a grease-soaked bag of plain potato chips. You’d toss them away, right? Consider that a crime at Kay’s. At Kay’s, everyone has an assigned crumb day. When the bag gets down to potato pieces, she spoons one tablespoon of chip dip (a special Kay kind of chip dip that I have purchased but did not taste like Kay’s special chip dip) into the bottom half of the potato chip bag, which she has cut in half for convenience. She then uses her hands to push and massage and squeeze the dip/chip components together to form the ideal consistency. She hands the crumb day child the dip spoon and gives them the green light to shovel their prize into their watering mouth as the other children at the table look on in complete and utter jealousy. That, my friends, is the crumbs. And it is the holy grail of Kay’s.
Seasons passed. That summer gave way to this past summer and before we knew it, it was fall.
Every year over Fall Break Kay has a wienie roast and bonfire for the kiddos. They push leaves into giant piles and roll down her perfectly sloped hill and laugh and play and torch marshmallows. When I came to pick up the chicks on this special day, Kay called me over to show me pictures on her phone. The kids had found an owl sitting in a tree down in the ravine. How fitting, I thought. An owl, a universal symbol of learning, would preside over this, their final autumn gathering. The lessons learned in this yard, in this home, around that kitchen table, from this woman, are lifelong. She has been their greatest teacher in the years when the rules really matter and the instructions aren’t always clear for tired mothers and well-meaning fathers.
When you make the decision (or the decision makes itself) to be a working mom, you accept the sacrifices but they still keep you up at night. Agony is wrestling with all of the things you’re missing and the precious time you’re losing. Your greatest wish is that you can find a place to take your child where they will be safe and loved and understood. I know people who search and search and search for that kind of environment. We were lucky enough to have it for this short time and our girls will be better people because of it. Kay’s house is an extension of our home. It is warm and welcoming and her entire family has carried our children in their hearts.
Another season passed. And now, here we are at “Christmas time next year”.
It’s time for me to be an adult. (Let me go on record as saying I despise such occasions.) I’m so thrilled for this beautiful woman who’s dedicated so much of herself to other families. She deserves – more than anyone I know – a day off, a vacation, an impulsive decision. She deserves to sit with her grandbabies for hours and share her gifts with other people and to let others stand in her light. I tell the girls why it’s so important we support Kay and celebrate this time for her. Then I turn away from them and cry like the giant woman-baby I am.
I cry every time I think about Sloppy Joan missing those summers down in the ravine, when I pull up to find them sitting on the driveway barefoot with vanilla ice cream running down their sun-kissed arms to their elbows. Or the girls begging to go to “Kay-Kay’s” in footie pajamas with their blankies under their arms. Or Kay giving them kisses on their cheeks and telling them she loves them after they had a tough day. Or all of the 8 million things that only the families who went to Kay’s can appreciate, that won’t be part of our routine anymore. Our days will be a little less full without her.
A few weeks ago she had all of our families over for a Christmas dinner. Kay gathered the children around her dining room table, where they’d sat for so many meals, and she invited them to pray, just as she had so many times. As they folded their precious hands and followed her in making the sign of the cross, I felt those steamy tears I’d felt a year and a half ago rolling down my cheeks. No one could love our little tribe of misfits the way she had. What will we do without Kay? What will any of us do without Kay?
The night Kay told us she would be moving on, I went home and wrote this:
The woman who cares for my children is not a babysitter.
The woman who cares for my children is a maker of memories.
The woman who cares for my children is a friend to me and a light to all.
The woman who cares for my children is the wisdom through trivial tears.
The woman who cares for my children is a compass at the crossroads.
The woman who cares for my children carries them in her heart just as their mother does.
She is a light and a guiding force and a selfless soul whose role in this village will never be forgotten.
I feel it more today, on your last day with our babies, than I did on that August night.
We thank you Kay.
We love you Kay.