When I was born in 1968, the first of four children, my mother was given a shot to dry up her milk, and I was put on a bottle of formula. In fairness, I guess a lot of kids from this era weren’t nursed. It was considered déclassé among the “educated.” But having had two kids myself, I can’t imagine how you can bond to your baby if you’re not required to hold and nourish them every couple of hours. The stimulation of oxytocin. The eye contact. The knowledge that they need you for survival.
An ambitious reporter, my mother was back to work within the week. My siblings and I were raised by a series of live-in housekeepers and nannies, beginning with Christina. I don’t remember her, but I hear she was a flower child who used to take me to her ashram. I saw a photograph of her once. In the photo, she is holding me. I look to be about two months old. She had a cloud of wavy red hair, luminous white skin, and a startled expression in her turquoise doe eyes. She is very young.
I don’t know how long she stayed, nor who was next in line. The next I can remember was Teresa, a young Latina woman who served us flour tortillas with butter. She must have brought them with her. I don’t think the mainstream supermarkets stocked tortillas in those days.
I remember the four of us seated on a row of black, vinyl-covered bar stools at the kitchen counter waiting impatiently as Teresa heated tortillas on the griddle, applied a thick pat of butter to each steaming center, and dexterously rolled them up for us. I remember the light crunch of the outside, the delicate steamy insides, and delicious golden butter leaking out the edges and down our chins. I remember Teresa teaching us the word “moco” (snot). For years, I called boogers mocos.
I don’t remember Etme, the Indonesian-Dutch girl, but my father certainly did. I saw a photo of her too, once, and she was indeed striking. In the photo, she is wearing a short, white dress with a smart collar. She’s twisting away, sort of looking over her shoulder in a move that accentuates her curves. She’s poised, with smooth brown skin, sleek dark hair, and expressive eyes. “Exotic,” my parents said. She was famous for wearing a “real French maid’s uniform” when she helped serve at my parent’s parties and driving all the men crazy. There was one very rich one who took a particular shine to her, and whom she rebuffed. Or so the story goes.
There were many that didn’t work out, or that only stayed a short time. We were terrors. We had no rules at all, no chores at all. We were bored. And these women were hired as house cleaners. For the most part, they ignored us. We had no after school classes, no sports teams. We spent hours watching TV every day after school and into the darkening evenings.
I remember Lois, and Sue Henderson. Lois was an black woman in her 60s with cat-eye glasses suspended from a chain around her neck. She was thin and spry like a bird. She spoke little and carried an eternal laundry basket on her hip. Sue Henderson was a light-skinned black woman with a lot of moles and beauty marks on her doughy face. She was pleasantly overweight, and always wore a white nurse’s dress and shoes. She had short, brassy hair. She was perhaps in her late 40s. She tolerated us.
One left ignominiously. I don’t remember the circumstances. There were several more I don’t remember, I am sure.
Then, there was Dorothy. Dorothy Goodjoint, from Louisiana. Dorothy was tall, statuesque in fact, and finely built. I remember her long, strong legs and tiny waist. She wore a blue bandana on her head most days. She favored tight knit tops and had a great laugh. She’d throw her head back, shove me playfully, and call me “Girl.” “Girl!” she’d say, delightedly, and she’d laugh with her mouth wide open. I seemed to amuse her.
I was maybe 8 or 9 years old when she arrived. She was 27. I followed her around and slept frequently on the floor of her room. She kept the electric heater on constantly. The air was always sweltering and highly scented with oils, creams, and cigarette smoke. Ashtrays filled with cigarette butts perched on dressers and shelves. I used to buy candy cigarettes and trade them for the real ones. She didn’t like it, but she never got mad.
When I was in fifth grade, Dorothy tried to teach me how to smoke in front of her bathroom mirror. I didn’t like it because when I went upstairs for ice cream, I found I could only taste the smoke in my mouth.
Sometimes, Dorothy’s boyfriend Jerome would climb in the window and join her in bed. He was a gruff, stocky man with an afro who ignored me. I can’t imagine what the two of them thought about this 9 year old white girl curled up on the floor of her basement room. They were very quiet; I don’t remember being aware of any high jinks.
Once I found a polaroid of Dorothy naked on the edge of her dresser. Even with my lack of experience, I knew she was stunning.
I loved Dorothy. I would chatter away to her. She’d listen patiently while doing her work. She kept the house spotless.
One Christmas, I mowed a few neighbors’ lawns to get some money to buy her a short-sleeved knit sweater. I was proud and a little scared to give that to her. She was pleased and a little embarrassed. We were alone in the space between the living room and the entry hall. I seem to remember her standing, with a stunned expression when I gave her the gift. “Shucks, girl,” she said. Then, she got busy with something.
I began developing before any other girls in my class. I was the first to get breast buds, and I was horrified. I didn’t go to my mother. The idea never occurred to me. I went to Dorothy. I asked her how to make them go away. She laughed and said I needed to go on a diet. I said, “Will you put me on a diet?” She said, “Sure.”
When I found a few faint, soft, new pubic hairs, I was doubly aghast. I showed them to Dorothy. She laughed again and said, “You growin’ up, Girl.”
In spring of my fifth grade year, my father got a job managing a port construction project in Yanbu, Saudi Arabia, on the Red Sea, and we began packing to join him. Dorothy and Jerome agreed to work with the movers on final arrangements. They said they’d take our Dalmatian, Dandy.
Shortly after we arrived in Yanbu, I heard my parents speaking in low tones about Dorothy and Jerome, whether to file a police report. They had stolen our possessions, including my mother’s violin and our expensive drapes. Dandy had appeared on the front porch a week or two after our departure with ragged, bleeding paws.
My parents chose not to press charges. I never knew why. I also didn’t hold a grudge about being robbed by Dorothy. I remember only a certain befuddlement. I overheard my parents speculating that Jerome had probably put Dorothy up to it. I just felt awkward about it, and faintly embarrassed.