Under the Influence of the BabysitterBy Dianelaneyfitzpatrick
We hired Willie shortly after my son was born. She not only taught my son how to count to 13 (the number of steps in our house) and how to say yes instead of yeah and how to say May I please have some appa juice, but she also taught him some Youngstown-area-African-Americanisms that he used for years after Willie was gone.
“Scat!” is what Willie said when someone sneezed. Apparently, it’s a way of verbally chasing away germs and evil spirits. And it makes more sense than “God bless you,” which I always thought should be followed up with “you poor sap.” So “Scat!” is what my son said when someone sneezed.
Willie didn’t “live” at an address, she “stayed” at an address.
“Where do you stay?”
“I stay on McGuffey Road, on the East Side.”
That kind of thing.
So my son stayed on Youngstown-Pittsburgh Road, getting the maximum African-American upbringing from Willie until he was 2 and then he stayed on East 236th Street (or as he said, East Do Dirty Dick Street).
When we moved to East Do Dirty Dick in Cleveland, we had to find a new babysitter. I was advised to get him into a home-based Jewish daycare, because, as my Jewish advisers told me, “The Jews are the best at pushing kids to achieve to their limit while still spoiling them rotten.”
I was willing to look around for another African-American woman, but the Jewish thing sounded pretty good, too, so we started taking our son over to Dianne’s house, where he learned to eat kosher, spin a dreidel, and talk like a South African.
Dianne had her own child, red-haired Anna, and two wards, my son and Marc, a boy whose parents were from Capetown.
Marc was trouble. His mom or dad had to stay long after drop-off time because Marc didn’t want to stay at Dianne’s, and then when they went to pick him up, they had to stay for a few hours longer because Marc didn’t want to leave Dianne’s house. Marc needed a good swat, but that wasn’t for me to say, so as a result, my son spent about a third of his time at Dianne’s house with Marc’s parents, who taught him many South African pronunciations.
A battery was a batt’ry.
The fire department was the fahr brigade.
“Cool the fahr brigade! Cool the fahr brigade!” Marc’s dad screamed one day while I was sitting at Dianne’s kitchen table.
“What’s he saying?” Dianne muttered to me. We had gone to the front window and were watching Marc’s dad flail his arms. There was a tiny wisp of smoke coming from the hood of his car.
“I think he wants us to call the fire department,” I said.
There was always some kind of excitement going on, usually followed up by someone saying, “Oy vey,” sometimes my son.
Eventually, I quit working and didn’t need a sitter anymore, so it was more difficult to expose my children to ebonics and other cultural experiences. I had to seek out people of color at the library story hours, and learn some recipes from Betty Crocker’s International Cook Book. It’s not easy being a WASP and raising worldly kids. Sometimes you need to bring in an expert - the babysitter.
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“My Jewish Roots”
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