Our homeless babysitter wasn’t a normal kind of homeless person. And she wasn’t the kind of homeless person you see in a B grade movie who lives under a bridge in a box that happens to stay clean year round. She was a different kind of homeless.
My mom’s a social worker. Not the paid kind. But the heart kind. These kind of social workers create their own case files.
“Tonight I’m having a babysitter come over.”
“Why?! I don’t need a babysitter.” I was in fifth grade and considered babysitters passe.
“Because your brother needs supervision.”
She had a point. Paolo was five. I had no interest in watching him.
“What’s her name?”
“Her name is Ms Sandretto.”
“SHE’S A GROWN UP?! You got us a grown up babysitter?! Grown up babysitters are boring!” “How do you even know her?!”
The answer to this was crucial. Because if the grown up babysitter was recommended by any of my mom’s friends this night would be worse than boring. It would be a disaster!
My mom had fringe friends. One friend was eighty years old and wrote sex novels. Another friend claimed she could smell the devil in our house. And the rest of her friends started businesses that mad no sense.
I couldn’t understand where my mom met her. And I wasn’t even certain my mom knew how she met her. And this made it even worse. I screamed, “I DON’T WANT A BABYSITTER!”
My mom shrugged her shoulders and said, “I’ll be home after you kids are in bed.”
I pouted by the window waiting. A faded blue car crept up our driveway. The car looked like it had skin cancer, dull and spotty from a hard life in the sun. It was a big car with a little lady driver.
A gray haired lady climbed out. And she was old! Not like a skin-fall-off-your-face-old. But to a eleven year old she looked funeral home old.
I jumped off my pouty perch and yell up the stairs to my siblings, “SHE’S HERE!” “And she’s old!”
The babysitter had a pile of magazines in her arms and took her time climbing up our front porch steps. My brother and sister bounce out of their rooms almost falling down the stairs to come see who this babysitter was. And…we just stood there. Waiting. We had enough time to play Monopoly, and one round of Uno before she made it to the doorbell.
My mom greets her, “This is Lisa, she’s the oldest,” pointing at me. “Tina is the one with the curls. And Paolo is the youngest.”
She nodded and barely looked at us.
My mom takes her in the kitchen and we follow behind listening to her tell Ms Sandretto all the things that were off limits – which were silly things like get out paint, or experiment with our dad’s razor, or make flour in the wheat grinder. Normally these were activities she would say yes to, but she probably thought Ms. Sandretto couldn’t handle them.
When our mom was home we had very few boundaries. We could do pretty much anything – except shit our pants because that would require a hot water wash cycle and an extra rinse. And my parents were against anything that used extra electricity.
My mom finishes talking and ask Ms. Sandretto, “Do you have any questions?” And Ms. Sandretto says, “Do you have three pairs of scissors?” My mom probably thought Ms. Sandretto was going to do an art project with us. She digs three pairs of stabby scissors out of the junk drawer and lays them on the kitchen table as she says goodbye.
As soon as the front door shuts the babysitter says, “You kids are gonna help me cut coupons.” She didn’t ask. She didn’t smile. She didn’t even have a nice library voice. She just told us in a cartoon gravel voice.
“Sit down. Grab some scissors.” And she slams down the pile of magazines she had in her arms.
I had NO idea what a coupon was.
She opens a magazine shows us something for marshmallows. “You cut around the coupon on the dotted line,” and she drug her pointy witch fingernail around this square with the marshmallow. “And when you’re done put it in a pile.”
So it looked like coupons had something to do with food or marshmallows. But our mom didn’t do this coupon thing. And she didn’t believe in marshmallows. They had sugar. And sugar can kill you. Our mom made stuff like cow’s tongue, swiss chard, and zucchini for dinner. And I wasn’t sure there were any coupons for that.
I grab a pair of stabby scissors and flip through magazine pages hunting for a coupon. I didn’t want to talk to the babysitter. She didn’t seem pleasant. But I knew knew our mom would want us to respect her. So I figured I better get cutting.
We didn’t say said anything. We just cut. Ms. Sandretto decided she wanted to talk. Not with us. But to us. About adult things that we didn’t understand. These kind of people need to never talk again.
Her head is down and she’s mumbling something about a divorce. I wasn’t real sure of what “divorce” meant. All I knew was – it was not Ms. Sandretto’s fault.
Still talking….about a fight she had with her daughter. And her daughter won’t let her stay at her house. And that too – was not Ms. Sandretto’s fault.
And rambling some more… about some argument with her son’s wife and her son said she couldn’t come over until she apologizes. And that too – was not Ms. Sandretto’s fault.
I got the feeling Ms. Sandretto couldn’t go to anyone’s house. Except ours.
I couldn’t understand all the adult things she was talking about so I broke into her monologue, “Can I quit now?”
“NO!” She looks up at us and takes her pointy witch finger and begins fishing through Tina’s coupon pile. She yanks out several coupons crushing them in her hand and yells, “These aren’t coupons! YOU AREN’T CUTTING COUPONS!”
And that made me mad. She wasn’t nice. We didn’t understand coupons. And I decided I wasn’t helping her anymore. But she didn’t know that.
I was only going to cut out pictures of men. I was going to cut the men in coupon shapes and stick them on the bottom of my real coupons, so when Ms. Sandretto got home tonight and looked through my coupon pile, she would find a bunch men cut in coupon shapes. I hoped she’d be mad. Real mad. So mad that she would never ask any kids anywhere to cut coupons ever again.
I guess I was cutting too fast my pile was higher than anyone elses. She looks over at it squints her eyes and says, “What are you doing over there? You better be cutting coupons!” Then she gets up and comes over to my side of the table and scatters the pile of men yelling, “THESE AREN’T COUPONS!!!”
She waves her arms at all three of us, “Just get up! Go away! All of you kids. Just go away!”
Paolo and I jump up from the table and head out the front door. As soon as we hit the bottom porch step we were right in front of Ms. Sandretto’s car. She didn’t park it where most people do. And it was sitting right there in front of us, so we decided to look in her windows.
It was amazing! Every inch of space was filled with magazines and newspapers. The floor was stacked to the seats. The seats were stacked to the windows. And the only place left to sit was the driver’s seat. The front seat had a green suitcase on top of it’s pile. And the back seat had a lamp rolling across the highest three piles. I was fascinated! It was a magazine museum on wheels! I had NO idea people even did this! And then Paolo noticed something awesome, “Ms. Sandretto has a TV!”
If you craned your neck just right you see could a TV in the back seat wedged between three stacks of magazines. I couldn’t believe it, Ms. Grumpy Butt had a TV in her car!
We weren’t allowed to have a TV. Ever. Our parents didn’t believe in it. They said it insulted their intelligence. They didn’t want us watching it. Not at our grandma’s. Not at our friends. Not ever. But Ms. Sandretto didn’t know that!
And then we hear this piercing voice coming from the top of the porch stairs, “YOU KIDS GET AWAY FROM MY CAR! GET AWAY!”
“Ms. Sandretto we are just looking at all your cool stuff.” There was nothing cool about her stuff. I was just being a little shit. And I wanted to watch her TV.
We walk back up the stairs. She is staring us down, hands on hips, “YOU KIDS DON’T TOUCH MY CAR!”
Paolo asks, “Ms. Sandretto, can we watch your TV?”
“NO! YOU KIDS CAN’T HAVE ANYTHING OF MINE!” “YOU’RE NOT WATCHING MY TV!”
The next morning I tell my mom about the coupon labor, the yelling, and how Ms. Sandretto thought we wanted all the stuff in her car. I did NOT mention the TV. I needed to keep that in my back pocket just in case my mom wanted her to come over again.
My mom says, “When people are angry sometimes it’s because their heart hurts.” And I knew that meant we were going to keep the Ms. Sandretto case file open awhile longer.
So I said, “Well, when she finds a place to live I hope it’s far away from us!”
“She’s not moving. She lives on Furlong Rd.”
Obviously my mom didn’t know the real story. So I tell her about all the people that won’t let her come over. And that I was pretty sure she was a homeless babysitter with no real house because she had a magazine museum with a suitcase in the front seat and a lamp rolling around the back. (No mention of the TV.)
My mom just smiled.
The next month Ms. Sandretto came back a lot. She always brought coupons. She always yelled at us for looking in her car. And she never shared her TV.
Then things changed. Ms Sandretto started calling my mom to ask when she could sit for us. My mom would say, “You will be the first sitter I call when I need one.” And Ms. Sandretto said my mom couldn’t call her because she didn’t have a phone anymore and she was going to call my mom instead. And she did. She called a lot.
Finally my mom broke down because Ms. Sandretto told her she needed money. And it was our duty as Christians to provide an opportunity for someone who was willing to work for it.
And on Friday she tells us about this horrible opportunity, “Ms. Sandretto is going to be here when you get home from school. She is staying the night while I go to…..…” And my ears started ringing. I couldn’t even hear the rest of the sentence.
I screamed, “ I DON’T WANT HER TO STAY THE NIGHT! SHE YELLS AT EVERYONE AND THINKS WE WANT TO STEAL HER STUFF! AND WE HAVE TO CUT COUPONS!!!” My mom shrugged her shoulders and I knew this was going to be the worse Friday of my life.
When we got home from school Ms Sandretto was in our parents room unpacking the green suitcase that she kept on top the magazines pile in her front seat. She said hello. And she smiled. Then she offered to get us a snack. She was eerily nice. And it was creepy.
After the snack there was no yelling. There was no coupon cutting. And I guess she finally figured out we didn’t want to steal her stuff. So I asked, “Ms. Sandretto since you are staying the night do you think we can watch your TV?” She calmly said, “It’s broken.” And then what she said next almost made me throw up.
“I think I should come live with you kids that way your mom wouldn’t have to call me to come over all the time.”
I tried to say, “Our mom never calls you because you don’t have a phone! You always call her, and my mom is being nice because you need the money!” But I couldn’t form the words. My mouth wouldn’t talk and my head got dizzy.
Did my mom want her to live with us? Was tonight a test to see if this would work? Would she get my bedroom? And I knew I had to shut down the Ms. Sandretto case file immediately!
I needed to do something so awful that she would never want to come back to our house again. So I muster up the most hateful thing I could think of, “Ms. Sandretto, where did you get your old bathrobe?” “It’s ugly.” And that made her cry. And things shifted back to normal.
Before the night ended she yelled at all of us, “YOU KIDS ARE HORRIBLE! I don’t want to baby sit you ever again!”
And she didn’t.
After that no matter how much I prayed to God that my parents would get us a TV – they never did. Not even when we were teenagers. Not even when we graduated. And I’m pretty sure that was my punishment for making Ms. Sandretto cry and covertly closing the Ms. Sandretto case file forever.