Transcript

175:

Babysitting
Transcript

Originally aired 01.05.2001

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Full audio: http://tal.fm/175

Prologue.

Woman

All right guys, we're here. Sarah, don't forget your stuff, OK? And Dylan, grab your snow pants.

Ira Glass

Here's a ritual that happens in millions of American families every day, parents dropping off kids at the babysitter's.

Christiana

Hi guys. Good morning.

Woman

Good morning.

Christiana

Oh my gosh, she's got everything on. Hi, sweetie. I haven't seen you guys in such a long time.

Ira Glass

Sarah, age nine, and Dylan, who's six, are being left at a friend's house where there are two other kids, Elliott and Emma, and their regular babysitter, Christiana who meets them at the door, who hasn't seen them since before Christmas. These kids have known Christiana longer than they've known almost anyone. Four years she's been their sitter, an eternity. Christiana takes care of them after school every day, Christiana knows everything about them. And they're such old pros at being left with the sitter that they don't think twice about it. Mom leaves, no tears, no scenes.

Woman

All right. Bye. I love you. I love you. Be good.

Ira Glass

Christiana serves cereal to the four kids. Emma gets the Powerpuff girl bowl, Sarah gets the Barbie bowl. Then Dylan and Sara fill me in on the differences between Christiana and their other main babysitter, a college student named Natalia.

Dylan

She's not as calm as Christiana and everything.

Ira Glass

Like if you want to get away with something, who is it easier to get away with? Christiana or Natalia?

Dylan

Natalia. She doesn't really know the rules of our house. So then we say we can drink Coke.

Sarah

I know what Dylan's gotten through. You say you can wear your clothes to bed all the time. I remember that trick. Mom lets me wear my clothes to bed. That was for like half a year that you would do that to babysitters.

Ira Glass

And why do you want to go to go to bed in your clothes?

Dylan

Because then I don't have to change.

Sarah

He just basically doesn't like changing. He thinks it wastes too much time.

Ira Glass

With Christiana it's different. She's like a second mom.

Dylan

That's what she thinks.

Christiana

I think of you guys as my kids. I've known them since they were also a little and I love them like that.

[INTERPOSING VOICES]

Sarah

--I was in kindergarten.

Christiana

Yeah. And these guys, I've just been seeing them growing up and growing bigger and learning things. And I'm just very, very attached to them.

Ira Glass

When a mom shows up at the house a little later to drop off yet another child. She doesn't use the word mom to describe Christiana. Mom, that's her territory. The word she uses is aunt. How do you define this job, watching children for money? Well today on our program, babysitters and what exactly happens when mom and dad are out of sight. Our show today in three acts. In the first, an older brother babysits and the younger brothers cower. Act Two is about a day in 1988 when huge companies accidentally found themselves taking on a massive babysitting job because of snow. In Act Three, a brother and sister get a job babysitting for some children who do not exist.

And before we say anything else about babysitters, first let's just have a little brief word, just you and me, about Mary Poppins. Mary Poppins, let's just say right here, she is the gold standard of all fictional babysitters. Maybe of all real ones, too. She is the one that all others are to be measured by. And the movie, Mary Poppins, it contains what is probably the classic modern song about babysitting. You remember, the kids in the film sing about what it is that they want in a babysitter.

Jane

[SINGING] If you want this choice position have a cheery disposition.

George Banks

Jane, I don't--

Jane Banks

[SINGING] Rosy cheeks, no warts.

Michael Banks

That's the part I put in.

Jane Banks

[SINGING] Play games, all sorts.

Ira Glass

Let me just stop this right here. This is not exactly the tone that we are going for in today's radio program. Let's cut through the treacle.

[MUSIC - "THE PERFECT NANNY" BY THE DISHES]

Act One. What Big Teeth You Have.

Ira Glass

Music recorded for our program by The Dishes. Engineering by Elliott Dix and Mike Segal at Engine Music Studios. Which brings us to Act One. Act One, What Big Teeth You Have. Lots of babysitting is done by family members. In this first story, parents leave their kids in the care of their teenage son. But instead of acting as a surrogate parent, standing above sibling squabbles and rivalries, acting as judge and mediator, the teenage babysitter stays squarely in the center of those rivalries. But as ruler and king, now with no parental forces tempering his actions, Hillary Frank has this cautionary tale about what happened.

Hillary Frank

The Pearys grew up in rural Idaho. When their parents went out, the oldest son, Doug, was left in charge of his four younger siblings. Doug was the kind of guy who ruled the last three rows of the school bus through a combination of force and psychological pressure. He told other kids that the bus driver signed an agreement putting him in charge of the back of the bus. He wore a bomber jacket. He rode a motorcycle. Still, his parents thought he seemed responsible enough when it came to his brothers and sister. There was a lot they didn't know.

Doug Peary

If I had to be there tending these dang kids, I was going to make it fun for me, too, you know?

Hillary Frank

Doug often subjected his three little brothers to what he calls bravery tests. He would do things like stuff them in a sleeping bag and tie them to a tree limb, or snap huge rubber bands at their skin until they stopped flinching.

Doug Peary

I really hesitate to tell this one, because it could have been-- well anyway. We had this iguana, this big lizard. It was about three feet long, and it died. Well, I was so attached to this thing that I, of course, didn't want to take it out and bury it. So I put it in the freezer and kept it. Well, this was a fun thing for all of us boys to take out of the freezer and thaw out and play with it. And then we got tired of playing with it, then we'd put it back in the freezer and we'd freeze it again. After about a year and a half of this, we decided we needed a new bravery test. So we thought, what can we do? I think we should boil and eat the iguana. That would be the ultimate bravery test.

Well, we put it in a pot. We got out the biggest pot my mom had. We stuffed it in there and boiled it. It's been boiling about five minutes, it's probably done by now. And we got the thing out of there and, honest to goodness, we ate some of that lizard. I even ate some. And they even ate some.

Hillary Frank

Really? What did it taste like?

Doug Peary

You know, at that point it actually tasted kind of like sawdust.

Hillary Frank

Doug did all the bravery tests he made his brothers do. He was right in there with them. But they were on their own when it came to one of Doug's long-running babysitting pranks. I spoke with Doug and with his youngest brother, Mike, who was the easiest target. They're 10 years apart.

Mike Peary

We are convinced for three or four years of our lives, I think, that he could actually turn into a werewolf. We would walk out of the house and then you'd hear this, [HOWLS], and it would literally stop you in your tracks. And you just knew he was out there somewhere.

Hillary Frank

Again, here's Doug.

Doug Peary

We had a pasture in the back. It was maybe half an acre. And they'd go out, clear up to the back fence, and that's where they liked to sleep out. So this is a perfect place for me to stalk them in the night, and sneak up and be the werewolf. I was going to just crawl out into the shadows. And I could hear them out there talking. I'd be sneaking up to the bushes and I'd go, [HOWLS]. I'd hear dead silence. And then I'd hear one of them go, Doug's a werewolf.

Hillary Frank

Doug kept this up for years, and the kids began to dread it whenever their parents went out, knowing something scary would happen to them. Until finally, it all came to a head one night. Mike was eight years old, the middle brothers were 11 and 13, Doug was 18. It began the way it usually did, out in a pasture surrounded by potato fields. Here's Doug.

Doug Peary

We had a full moon, which was wonderful. And I kind of got to where the moon was silhouetting me, and they couldn't really see me. I stuck a bunch of weeds down in my glasses so they were poking out all around, and then I rose up out of the weed patch. And they could see the silhouette, with all this hair poking out. That convinced them. I was totally growing hair, I was completely a werewolf, so run for your life.

Mike Peary

And we all, of course, knew that the best thing to do was to get out of our sleeping bags and run as fast as we could to the house, because that was the surest shelter.

Hillary Frank

What were you afraid that Doug was going to do to you?

Mike Peary

Well, it's just the whole idea of being chased around in the dark. And it's not like there was ever a lack of physical contact. It literally was a situation where you were scared for your life. And we knew that Doug was in between us and the house somewhere. And as we were running to the house, Doug was just sitting on the roof in a gargoyle position, just as still as the night and just staring at us, watching us. And so we just kind of slowly walked underneath him and ran into the house.

Doug Peary

Well now I'm peeking in the windows, I'm rattling the doors more, I'm trying to get in, and they're running from door to door trying to lock all the doors up. And I was always right on their heels as they made it to the door. And I made sure that I just didn't quite catch them. And they would run in to slam the doors. Just about the time they thought they were all safe, I snuck over and shut the breaker off to the house.

Mike Peary

And then all the sudden, the lights go out and it's pitch dark in the house.

Doug Peary

It was like, we're all going to die. They had no safe place they could think of to go, until one of them finally thought, get to the car. We got to get in the car and lock the doors.

Mike Peary

And as we were all sitting in there looking around at each other, we realized that my brother Steve didn't make it out of the house.

Steve Peary

And then the next thing I know, I'm in the house alone.

Hillary Frank

Let's introduce another brother. This is Steve.

Steve Peary

And of course, my fear went through the roof. And then I see him look in the patio window at me.

Doug Peary

Well, I was still around back. So I thought, well, Steve is still in there. I could see him in the darkness, I could see him rocking in the chair. Well, I'll get Steve.

Mike Peary

He snuck into the house, and he saw my brother Steve just sitting on the couch. And Steve just said, I don't care. Kill me if you want.

Steve Peary

And that was when I told him, kill me or whatever. But you're done with this, however you want to end it. I'm done.

Doug Peary

I don't think we ever played it again after that point.

Hillary Frank

These days, the brothers are all quick to say that Doug was playing werewolf, that it was just a game. None of them carry resentment towards him, though when they were kids, clearly feelings were running a bit hotter. Around the same time that Doug had his little siblings convinced he wanted their blood, he got into a motorcycle accident that nearly killed him. He broke every bone in his face, one arm, and one irreplaceable kneecap. The force of the crash made the helmet, along with his scalp, shoot off his head. It took around 350 stitches to sew him back up.

Doug Peary

When I came home from the hospital, I had my leg in a cast, my arm in a cast, I was in a wheelchair. My face was all banged up, and my brothers say, Mom, we'll take Doug down the road in his wheelchair for a walk so he can have some air. So she goes, OK. And I get in the wheelchair and they get me out on the highway and run as fast as they can and then let go. And I'm like ahh, going down the road, the wheelchair heading for the ditch. And just about the time I go in the ditch, they catch up to me and straighten me out and go again. So this was kind of a get even with me kind of a time. And there was nothing I could do about it. And they had great fun with me that time. I guess I was expecting a lot of sympathy and poor Doug. No, it wasn't that at all. It was let's get some revenge for all this time.

Hillary Frank

Revenge came in other forms as he got older. When Doug had kids of his own, to his horror, his oldest son Cory turned out to be exactly the same kind of babysitter that Doug had been. Doug would come home from a night out and find himself pulling Cory aside and saying things like, next time, try and tie the rope a little looser around your brother's neck. Steve, the brother who told Doug, just kill me, is also a parent these days, of four daughters. And like Doug, he's had moments flashing back to the days when Doug babysat.

Steve Peary

I remember, there's one time he came out with this box. And he said, look what I found out in the street. And we open this box and he had his finger sticking up through the bottom of the box so that all you could see was this bloody finger in there. I freaked out over that for years. I still remember it vividly. of course, after we saw how freaked out we were by it, he showed us how it works. I did it to my own kids, if you can believe that.

Hillary Frank

You did? Why would you want to freak them out like that?

Steve Peary

I don't know, I remembered it so vividly. I think back on it and I go, well, it's kind of cool, actually, how he did it. So here I go, and I'm going to try it with my own kids. And I lift up the box, and my oldest daughter just broke into tears. I apologized all over myself for a week or two afterwards to her. She probably is going to have as crappy a memory of that as when I seen it the first time.

Hillary Frank

Did you feel sort of like you were in Doug's shoes, like you knew what it felt like to be him?

Steve Peary

I catch myself wanting to tease them, too, like he did sometimes. In a fun sort of way. But my wife will go, you know you're acting just like Doug.

Hillary Frank

As an adult, Doug has gone to each of his younger brothers and apologized for how he treated them. But he also thinks if they'd been less aggressive with each other as kids, they wouldn't be as close now.

Doug Peary

I know family that has grown up more mellow than us. And they get along fine. And they're very civil, and they're very happy to see each other. But they're almost like, when they see each other, they shake hands. And I'm like, give me a break. You haven't seen your brother for six months and you're shaking his hand? I mean, we're grabbing each other and bear hugging, and we're jumping up and down. It's a whole different relationship, as far as I see. Like people who've been through traumatic experiences together. Maybe that's why. You feel like you've been through that and survived it all together, so it creates a deep bond or something maybe. So I think we're closer because of it, actually.

Hillary Frank

Did part of you know that when you were younger, that it might make you closer when you grew up?

Doug Peary

Well, I think maybe subconsciously you do, because after every time, you would feel somewhat closer. So I don't think as a kid you actually sit down and think, if I do this, it's going to make me closer to my brother. You just do it if it feels that way. You just tend to do the things that make you grow closer together. And those are the things that we did that drew us together, so we continued doing those kind of things.

Hillary Frank

When I asked the other brothers if they'd do it all over again, they all say they would.

Mike Peary

Yeah, absolutely. I loved my childhood.

Hillary Frank

Even with all the terror and danger that was there? You would still do all of it over again?

Mike Peary

Absolutely. I look back on those years with complete fondness.

Ira Glass

Hillary Frank. Her new novel, The View From the Top, comes out next month.

[MUSIC - "THE PERFECT NANNY" BY JON LANGFORD]

Act Two. In The Event Of An Emergency, Put Your Sister In An Upright Position.

Ira Glass

Jon Langford of The Waco Brothers and the Mekons, with John Rice on mandolin, in a song recorded for our show. Whatever we are paying them, it is not enough. And this brings us to Act Two.

Act Two, In the Event of an Emergency, Put Your Sister in an Upright Position. On the day after Christmas all across America, divorced kids shuttle from one parent to the other. If they fly, the babysitters are the airlines themselves. This is babysitting encased in corporate procedure and corporate language. Kids flying without adults are called unaccompanied minors. Little ones get brightly colored tags pinned to their coats or hung from their necks. When you see them, it's hard not to feel bad for them and wonder what they're going to say about the experience someday when they grow up.

Back in December of 1988, on December 26th, divorced kids from all over the country got snowed in at O'Hare Airport here in Chicago. Susan Burton was one of those kids, now old enough to tell the tale. She and her sister Betsy were traveling from Colorado where their mom lived to Michigan, where they had grown up and where their dad lived. Here's Susan.

Susan Burton

There were two types of unaccompanied minors on flights out of Denver, divorce kids and skier kids. You could spot the skier kids because they always wore something to prove they'd been to Colorado. They had lift tickets fanning out from the zippers of their jackets, or baseball caps that said, Vail. But since today was December 26, we suspected that even the boy with a raccoon face tan, the kind you get from ski goggles, was like us. A divorce kid, too. As soon as our flight left Denver, my thoughts turned to our layover in Chicago. Betsy and I loved the O'Hare Airport with its shiny food court and chain bookstores and big glass atrium ceiling, it seemed like a beautiful new mall.

When we landed in Chicago, it was snowing, snowing hard enough to shut the airport down. It was only the middle of the afternoon and travelers were already reserving sleeping spaces by throwing their parkas over blocks of chairs. Even floor space was scarce, and some people were stuck alongside the moving walkway. The mall had become a refugee camp. The departure boards showed that our fight to Grand Rapids was cancelled, so we went to a service desk where an agent took our tickets and typed things into her terminal. Then she turned on her microphone and sent a cryptic message out over the PA. "I have two UMs at the service desk, two UMs at the service desk." OK, the woman told us. Someone's coming by for you.

A second woman appeared and we followed her to a gray, unmarked door. She fumbled with her keys. I squeezed Betsy's hand. The door opened into a room packed with kids sitting on their winter jackets. There were dozens of kids, all kinds of kids, some in small groups. The young ones conversing with stuffed animals, others looking uncomfortable in dresses, or overheated in moon boots that had been too big to pack. Most of them were facing a podium at the front of the room as if they'd been dropped off at the public library and were waiting for a reading by Shel Silverstein. At the podium, a steward put our names on a list. The woman standing next to him was wearing the uniform of another airline. It was strange to see people from different airlines mixing, almost like something that shouldn't be allowed.

There were a handful of folding chairs in the room, and we found a free one near the center. I took the seat and Betsy settled on the floor beside me. She got her baby blanket out of her bag and began to sniff it. It seemed we'd never been around so many divorced kids at once. Back home, most kids had both parents. You'd forget you were different and then you'd be at someone's house after school and the dad would come home, and from the landing on the staircase, you'd see him sorting through the mail, talking to the mother in the kitchen. It was hard to explain why this was sad. As a result, all that most of our friends knew about our divorce was that my favorite video to rent was Kramer vs. Kramer and Betsy's was the Parent Trap.

So now it was strange to hear kids talking about the things we kept to ourselves. A group nearby was engaged in a kind of divorced-kid one-upmanship. A girl wearing a sweatshirt with a Christmas tree patch said she saw her father only a couple times a year. A boy lying on his stomach claimed that he saw his dad even less. They exchanged a series of anecdotes about stepmothers, and took a poll of who had been the object of a custody battle. It seemed improper to talk so freely about these things. I had no way of expressing this at the time, but it felt like we were part of something on a grand scale. All these kids here in Chicago, at the transfer point between mom and dad.

Being babysat by the airlines was a lot like what you'd expect. Gate agents darted in and out, consulting papers and making shushing noises and yelling out names from the podium. They seemed flustered, annoyed. Normally, their babysitting duties were small scale. They were good at shepherding kids along moving walkways and doling out little pins shaped like wings. In the UM room, they reverted to the same crowd control techniques that they used in-flight. Secure the doors, withhold information, and discourage people from getting up to use the bathroom. So we did what any group of fed-up, delayed passengers does. We started to generate our own information.

In the late evening, a rumor filtered through the crowd that the reason some kids were being escorted away was that their parents were making a bigger fuss than the other parents. Where were those kids going? The question arose from those of us in the landlocked middle and traveled to the crowd. The answer was transmitted back to us by our intelligence forces stationed at the podium. Those kids got hotels. The rest of us would have to sleep here in the UM room. A divorced kid reacts to his parents' separation in one of two ways. As the rumor about the sleeping arrangements spread, it became clear who was the divorced kid who avoided conflict and who was the divorced kid who acted out. Fart noises increased. Crushed drink boxes began to litter the floor. I realize that, when thrown with sufficient force, a Nerf ball could cause injury.

Soon, word came around that the system had changed, that our babysitters were mad and they didn't care who your parents were or how many times they called. Now they were taking the good kids first. Immediately, Betsy lay down on her blanket. I took out the book in my bag, Catcher in the Rye. Within an hour, we were out of there. By now, it was one in the morning. Betsy and I and a group of others followed a stewardess through the dim halls. The metal gates were down over the entrance to the food court, and travelers were sleeping in chairs.

We would share a room with two other people. The first was a girl close to my age who was wearing glasses with pink plastic frames. I convinced myself that she was the same girl who had been on my lane at swim camp years earlier when my parents were still married. I didn't ask her because I didn't want to ruin it if it wasn't true. The second person was a stewardess who looked about 30. She wore a lot of makeup and she was big-boned, packed into her uniform. She wasn't mean to us, but she was pretty standoffish.

We settled into our room. When the stewardess went into the bathroom, the swim camp girl pulled me over to the window. The curtains were closed, but red lights shown in from the parking lot. Will you sleep in the bed with me so I won't have to sleep with the stewardess, she said. I looked over at Betsy. She was sitting on one of the two double beds in the room, sniffing her blanket. I told the girl, yes. It just came out.

Almost immediately, I felt awful. When we lay down, I inched as far to the edge as I could so that I'd feel nearer to my sister on the edge of the bed, across the aisle. The stewardess came out of the bathroom wearing control-top stockings and a lacy slip and got under the covers like that. I'd never seen a grown woman sleep in anything other than a flannel nightgown. I wondered if she always slept like that or if it was just because she had to get up early. Maybe this was what all stewardesses wore under their uniform. But maybe she just felt awkward, or maybe there were rules about what you wore, that you had to keep covered. Or maybe she just didn't want her bare legs near Betsy.

I saw Betsy shift under the covers and curl into a ball. I now felt certain that this was the worst thing I'd ever done to my sister. I wanted the strangers removed and my family restored. I hated the swim camp girl sleeping next to me. She wasn't from Michigan, she didn't have anything to do with my life. On these trips to visit our father, more than any other time, all Betsy and I had was each other. I thought of the kids in the UM room at the airport, the ones saying crass things about the saddest thing that had ever happened in life, and how reassuring it had been when I looked at Betsy, sniffing her blanket the way she always had, the way I thought she would forever.

Ira Glass

Susan Burton. Since the story was first broadcast on our show, a movie based on Susan's story, kids of divorce trapped in an airport over Christmas, was released in 2006. It was a kids' comedy called Unaccompanied Minors.

[MUSIC - "MINIMUM WAGE NANNY" BY THE SIMPSONS]

Coming up, how hard could it be to babysit kids who do not even exist? That's in a minute. For Public Radio International when our program continues.

Act Three. Yes There Is A Baby.

Ira Glass

It's This American Life, I'm Ira Glass. Each week, of course, we choose a theme and bring you a variety of different kinds of stories on that theme. Today's program, babysitting and what happens that mom and dad do not find out about. We've arrived at Act Three of our program. Act Three, Yes, There is a Baby. This is a story that got our interest because of babysitting, but then it ended up being about so many different things. A man in Florida named Myron Jones wrote us this letter. He said that when he was 16 years old, growing up without a father in Buffalo, New York, he was allowed to stay out until midnight. He came and went as he pleased, he spent a lot of time in bars. This was in the 1940s. And his sister, Carol, had different roles when she was let out of the house at all, even though she was older than Myron. This story gets to babysitting in a big, big way, and we called him up to talk about it.

Myron Jones

She had to say exactly where she was going, who she was going with. She could go to church dances, but only some church dances. It all had to do with protecting her chastity, really.

Ira Glass

If one were to ask your mother at the time, what would she have said?

Myron Jones

She would have said, you have to be more careful with the girls. Spelled P-R-E-G-N-A-N-T. So my sister figured out a little scheme. She invented a family called the McCrearys, said they needed her to babysit. I remember when she first told me about it. She said, listen. Guess what I did. I made up a family. I said, what do you mean? I made up this family I babysit for. They're called the McCrearys.

Ira Glass

It seemed clear once I got talking to Myron Jones that his sister Carol might have a few thoughts about all this, and we gave her a call. She agreed to go into a studio and chat. She says if anything, her brother was understating just how strict their mother was with her.

Carol Bove

She used to follow me. She had a friend, we called them Sam Spade and the Fat Man, and they would follow us. And then I'd go home and she'd come in and say, where have you been? It was really, really hard. She didn't believe anything I ever said.

Ira Glass

And were you a pretty good kid, good student in school?

Carol Bove

I was. For a long time, I thought that I was terrible. My mother started calling me a whore before I had any idea what the word was. I couldn't look it up because I didn't know how it was spelled, I couldn't find it. And so it occurred to me that if I had a non-existent family, I could say I was going there.

Myron Jones

Carol started working out the details. Because whenever she babysat, my mother had to have the phone number so she could check up on her. So the man in the family was an FBI agent working on a top secret project. So he could not give his phone number to anyone at all. He also couldn't let anyone but my sister, the babysitter, know just where they lived. It would have been dangerous for him to do so.

Ira Glass

So how far did this go? How complicated did the story of the McCrearys get?

Myron Jones

It got very complicated. They had two kids. Michael was three and Laura was two. That happened to be the age separation between my sister and myself, but it was reversed. Sometimes the little boy, in particular, would try to test us and I'd let him get away with it but my sister wouldn't. And they had all kinds of toys, but not too many toys. And they liked their parents very much, loved their parents. They were easy, they weren't spoiled in any way.

Ira Glass

They sound like very special kids.

Myron Jones

Oh yeah, they were great. They were like no kids I ever met, really. I think in many ways, they had the life my sister wished that we'd had.

Carol Bove

I had them rent a cottage at the lake for the summer.

Ira Glass

So the McCrearys had a summer house. Did they require your services at the summer house, the McCrearys?

Carol Bove

Oh yes, indeed. They knew that the kids would enjoy it so much more if we were there. And it was we because both my brother and I always liked little kids a lot. So my mother would accept this quite readily, that they wanted the both of us out at the lake. It was wonderful. We had such a good summer. It was glorious.

Ira Glass

Why, what would you do?

Carol Bove

Sometimes kids we knew would have cottages. Kids used to get together and chip in, or their parents would have a cottage. Sometimes we would just sleep on the beach, which was great. I loved sleeping on the beach.

Ira Glass

I have to say, every time you talk about the freedom you got, your voice becomes completely different. It's like you can still taste it.

Carol Bove

I still remember what that was like. It offered freedom that was just so wonderful to me.

Myron Jones

We really got all of this from our mother, this notion of fantasy people. Our mother had, from the time we were young kids, younger than 10, my mother had three people that she went to see. None of them existed, and we always knew they didn't exist.

Ira Glass

Really? Who were they?

Myron Jones

One was a lawyer. And she wouldn't say what she was doing there, but she'd drop little hints. And what we were supposed to believe was that that was making arrangements to put us in an orphanage. The second person she saw was a psychiatrist, which she pronounced psycholotrist. Interesting. And she went there because he would tell her that we were driving her crazy. And the third person was a doctor, who told her she was going to die. And we have no idea where, in fact, she went. But she was never gone long enough to see anyone at all.

Ira Glass

So this wasn't just something she would say to you. Well, I've been to a psychiatrist and he tells me that you guys are driving me crazy. She would actually leave the house and go to her appointment?

Myron Jones

She'd go for the door. And when we were very young we'd say, where are you going, Ma? Because it was so unusual for her to go out except to work. And she'd say, wouldn't you like to know? Is it your doctor? As we got older, she'd say, maybe. So that was her game.

Ira Glass

In retrospect, where do you think she was going?

Myron Jones

I have no idea. I think she walked around the block a couple of times.

Ira Glass

So at some point, your mother must have wanted to meet them, right?

Myron Jones

No. Shy isn't the word for her, but she didn't like knowing people at all. She didn't know the people next door, she didn't want to know them. She was really, deliberately isolated. The McCrearys were, far and away, her favorite topic of conversation. Our mother would ask questions about them and then Carol would give her far more information than she asked for.

Ira Glass

Say more of what you remember of what she would tell them.

Myron Jones

Well, Mrs. McCreary was very intelligent and lovely, and very kind. She was my sister's fantasy of a mother. And she was my fantasy of an older woman who might fall in love with me and, with any luck at all, seduce me.

Ira Glass

So you would talk about it with your mom too?

Myron Jones

My sister started it. I was a little uncomfortable about it. My sister said, I think he's got a crush on her. And I would almost blush uncomfortably, because I did.

Ira Glass

And then your mom would ask you questions, for example, what color hair does she have?

Myron Jones

No, she didn't ask questions like that. She'd never ask questions like that.

Ira Glass

So what would she ask?

Myron Jones

She'd say, well, I hope you act right over there. What do they think of you? And then the question she, to this day, asks, what do they think of your mother? And Carol would give the right answer, which was, I think you're wonderful, Mom. It was a way of having a conversation with her.

Ira Glass

An in-depth conversation.

Myron Jones

That's right. She liked to hear about fancy people. She imagined, somehow, that it would all rub off on Carol.

Ira Glass

That they'd be a good influence somehow.

Myron Jones

They'd be a good influence, and there might even be some money in it, which Carol also handled it. She wasn't getting money from babysitting, she said that Mr. McCreary was taking all the babysitting money and putting it into stocks and bonds.

Ira Glass

Wait, just back up.

Myron Jones

Carol knew she was going to ask, so she anticipated it. But before it could even come up, Carol said, Mr. McCreary isn't going to pay me. He's going to put all my babysitting money into stocks and bonds. My mother didn't know anything about stocks and bonds, and neither did we. But my mother knew that that's what rich people did. And it was over on the other side, the rich side of town. My mother didn't know anything about that neighborhood. She was the oldest of seven children, grew up in a really poor family. My mother had one friend who was middle class, who she'd met when our father was still alive. And she influenced my mother, and so did the people that my mother cleaned for.

At the end of the summer, the last weekend, that was the real change in the McCreary time.

Ira Glass

What happened at the end of the summer?

Myron Jones

We really were exhausted from our real summer weekends.

Ira Glass

The strenuous work of having fun with your friends.

Myron Jones

Right, and those times when there's no cottage to go to and we'd sleep out on the beach. And we were going home and we headed up the back stairs. We always had to go in the back way. We headed up the back stairs when we lived on the second floor. And we could tell before we turned the corner that our mother was outside the door, waiting for us. And we turned, and there she was. And she looked ready to kill. She looked absolutely furious. She said, where have you two been? And I thought, oh god, she found out all about the summer cottage stuff.

And Carol said, you know where we've been, Ma. At the McCrearys. And our mother said, oh you have, have you? Well, youse are a couple of damn liars. I just got off the phone with Mrs. McCreary. She hasn't seen you in weeks.

Carol Bove

My brother and I agree, we didn't breathe. We though, oh my god, she's talked to them. And then quickly, you realize of course she didn't talk to them.

Myron Jones

Carol got over it immediately and said, sorry, Ma. Nice try. We just left the McCrearys 10 minutes ago. And we went in the house and our mother didn't say anything to us, we didn't say anything to her for the rest of the afternoon. And after that, we really stopped talking about the McCrearys.

Ira Glass

Did she often claim that she had run into the McCrearys?

Carol Bove

Yes, that she had talked to her, that she hadn't seen me. She did it so often she believed it. It was amazing that she never questioned these things.

Ira Glass

Why do you think she didn't question it?

Carol Bove

I think she wanted it to be true, probably as much as I did.

Ira Glass

It's interesting. When you invented them, it's as if you invented them in terms that would reassure your mom.

Carol Bove

I probably did. I didn't know it did. I'm sure it did occur to me that I wanted a family that would please her.

Ira Glass

Is that because it would make her more likely to let you out? Or was there a part of it where you also were the kind of kid where you always needed to be reassuring her anyway?

Carol Bove

Oh, I had to constantly reassure her, always. It isn't something I talk easily about, but she really never liked me. That was a problem.

Ira Glass

Is your mom still alive?

Myron Jones

Yeah.

Ira Glass

So how old is she now?

Myron Jones

94.

Ira Glass

How old are you?

Myron Jones

I'm going to be 70 in another 10 days.

Ira Glass

So have you ever come clean with her on this?

Myron Jones

No, no, never. Do you want me to make my mother look like a liar?

Ira Glass

Well, in a sense, you already have. It's just a question of whether she's going to know it.

Myron Jones

No, it never crossed my mind to do it.

Ira Glass

Are you serious, it's never crossed your mind?

Myron Jones

To tell her, no, never.

Ira Glass

Because she wouldn't be able to laugh about it, it sounds like.

Myron Jones

Not in any way. She might simply say that we were lying now, that there were McCrearys and we were just saying that for some reason.

Ira Glass

Does it make you sad that you can't have the kind of relationship with your mom where, now that everyone's an adult, you can come straight with all of it?

Myron Jones

No. Because of going away to school when I was so young. Let me back up a little bit. When I was nine, I came home on a Saturday afternoon and my mother said, I'm sorry you weren't here because Father Sager-- who was the Episcopal priest-- was here visiting. And he found a very nice orphanage for you. And I said, but I'm not an orphan, Ma. She said, no, I know. I told Father Sager that, but he said, really you are because I have to work all the time. You go there. It'll be a good place for you. You go there.

I was in my thirties before I understood why I went away to school when I was 10. I didn't have to. I could have not gone. I could have screwed up the test. I could have gone and gotten kicked out right away. I knew that. One of the things that our mother did with us from the time we were very young-- I can't remember before, but I know before I went to school-- our mother used to say to us, when your father died, everybody told me to put the two of youse in an orphanage. I didn't, and that was the biggest mistake of my life.

So when the day came I came home and she said, Father Sager found an orphanage for you, what I really did was say, you've been threatening me with this all my life. And now, damn it, I'm going to go. I just felt safer. I was scared as hell. I was one of two kids in the sixth grade. The other kid never showed up. I went to all classes alone for six weeks. And after six weeks, I went home. It was late October, already dark in Buffalo, around suppertime. And I was walking down the street and I loved my neighborhood. I knew everybody. I looked, the lights were on, thinking it's warm in there. That's Sonny Calucci's house. They're in there. And I have a house, too. I go to school now, but I have a house, too. And I'm almost there.

And I walked in the door, and I started to hug my mother. And my mother put out her hand to told me back and said, let me ask you a question. When you're up there at that fancy school, you ever think about your mother lying here in bed, crying her eyes out every single night? You ever think about that? Now, you never think about anybody but yourself. And I, literally, from that moment on, have never asked my mother for anything, never looked to her for anything.

Ira Glass

How old were you then?

Myron Jones

I was 10.

Carol Bove

Through the years, I've truly envied him, that he's able to do that. I haven't been able, to this moment, to take her out of my life completely.

Ira Glass

How often do you see her now?

Carol Bove

Do I see her? I am now seeing her twice a week. I call her every night. It's all something to do with me, because she doesn't know that I call her every night.

Ira Glass

Because she's becoming senile?

Carol Bove

Yes.

Ira Glass

What do you think you've gotten by being the one caring for her?

Carol Bove

One time when I was 35, I lashed out at her in such a way and told her how I felt about her. And she said in a chair in the kitchen and she was crying. And I had never even seen her cry before. And when I finally stopped talking, she said, I did the very best I could. And I thought, oh my god, she did. Her best was so bad. Her best was so empty. But she couldn't do any better, I decided, and it helps me a lot, I have a great aunt that I just adored. And her mother, my mother's mother who was wonderful. and my great grandmother, who I didn't know but who adored my mother, my mother slept in bed with her. I thought, I am going to do this for the people that loved her. You know? All of the people that really loved this little girl. I'm going to do it for them. And that feels fine to me.

Ira Glass

You know what you're describing is you and your sister going off and pretending to babysit for these imaginary kids, but in fact, you guys had a babysitting job. And it was for your mom.

Myron Jones

That's right, that's right. My sister was the chief babysitter there, really. It's true.

Ira Glass

When you were kids, did you ever see it that way? Oh, we're taking care of Mom. She thinks she's taking care of us, but we're taking care of her.

Myron Jones

Oh yeah. There was a kind of humoring her, in placating her. And when I was about 10, she gave me a first-baseman's glove, because I was going to be a Major League ball player when I grew up. She said, you tell people who gave you the glove? I said, yeah. Did you tell them how much it costs? I didn't, but I said, yeah. Did you tell them how long I had to work to buy that? I said, yeah. She said, you did not.

Ira Glass

Let's set the record straight. Here we go, you're on the radio. How long did your mother have to work to buy you the baseball glove?

Myron Jones

She had to work a week.

Ira Glass

That's a long time.

Myron Jones

Absolutely. I've thought about it since then. Have I ever given my kids a present that was worth a week's wages? No, I haven't.

Ira Glass

Mr. Jones, what would have happened if there hadn't been the McCrearys?

Myron Jones

The McCrearys seem absolutely inevitable. I never thought about what would happen if they hadn't been there. They had to be there. I still think, they would be 56, 57 years old now. I've wondered where they're living, how they're doing.

Ira Glass

Where do you picture them?

Myron Jones

I picture them doing very well and dull now. I don't picture them as being terribly interesting. They're more conservative than their parents. But nice, pleasant. Good people.

Ira Glass

Where do you think they're living?

Myron Jones

I'm afraid I think they're living in Florida.

Ira Glass

They are. Not too far from where we all are.

Myron Jones

I may run into them in the store.

Ira Glass

Myron Jones lives in Florida. In the years since we first broadcast this story, his sister Carol Bove moved to California. There is no way, they both said, their mother would ever hear this radio story. And she never did. She died at the age of 95 in 2002. After that, Carol told Myron a secret that she'd promised her mother that she would never tell. Turns out, their mother didn't actually buy that baseball glove for Myron. Their uncle did. When it arrived at the house wrapped as a gift, Myron's mother intercepted it, gave it to him, and pretended that it was from her all along.

[MUSIC - "THE PERFECT NANNY" BY LOUIE PRIMA AND GIA MALONE]

Credits.

Ira Glass

Our program is produced today by Alex Blumberg and myself, with Blue Chevigny, Jonathan Goldstein, Starlee Kine, Julie Snyder, and Aaron Yankee. Production help from Todd Bachmann, Seth Lind and Kathy Hong.

[ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS]

This American Life is distributed by Public Radio International. WBEZ management oversight for our program by Mr. Torey Malatia, who asks us after every show--

Myron Jones

Did you tell them how much it cost? Did you tell them how long I had to work to buy that? You did not.

Ira Glass

I'm Ira Glass. We'll be back next week with more stories of This American Life.

Announcer

PRI, Public Radio International.