On the loss of a maternal figure
by Madeline Pillari; illustration by Arielle Drisko
It was the day before my fifth birthday when she first arrived. My siblings and I had already successfully scared away three nannies in two months.
She brought me a doll, a gift I promptly rejected. I was a tomboy in Greenwich, CT, and deeply offended by Addie’s pink-skirted, blond-haired peace offering. It didn’t take long for my siblings and I to realize that despite our valiant and ruthless efforts, she wasn’t going anywhere.
Addie was from Ecuador. She was in her late 20s, and overweight, but had the kind of roundness that complemented her constant smile and bubbling laughter. Happiness seemed to come easy to her, in an effortless way that still confounds me, 14 years later. It was a happiness that was both contagious and comfortable, and her easy laughter was in many ways the soundtrack to my childhood. Addie lived with us for almost a decade, helping my mother wrangle, and raise, five very loud children.
When you are four, you don’t think about the complex nature of the nanny-family relationship. About how Addie had her own life, and feelings, hopes and dreams. That she wasn’t mine, that she was technically an employee of my mother and would eventually leave. It’s an awful thing to assume, the ownership of another person. But when a person is so giving, and loving, and available, what else would a five, or six, or seven-year-old assume? She became a second mother to us, as much a part of our family as she could have been, ever-present and unquestionably loved.
It was all so wonderfully and horribly suburban. The live in babysitter was commonplace, and all of my best childhood friends had their own “Addie.” In many instances, these nannies were their most prevalent maternal figure; their real mothers nowhere to be found. Soul Cycle, spa appointments and the much-needed escape to St. Barths had a strange way of making these women unavailable. My friends were bathed, nourished and raised by these often young and foreign babysitters. To my family, Addie was not a replacement for a mother, but an additional maternal figure.
And then she left.
I was 13 and my youngest brother Matthew was seven. No longer did diapers need to be changed or baths given. There was no goodbye and I think my mother arranged this on purpose. Addie’s departure happened over the course of a week, three half-days, and only stopping in and out for the last four. Then she was gone.
It is a different kind of loss, when someone you love leaves, and for whatever reason never returns. My mother told me Addie was working for a new family in Manhattan, caring for a family with two pairs of twins.
I only saw Addie once after she left, a year and a half later, when my parents went on vacation and she happened to be in town and available to help. I remember being anxious for her return, nervous about what it would be like to see someone who was once so close to me, both physically and emotionally after such a long time separated.
Time moved slowly at that time, and the year-and-a-half absence ruptured that intimate and familial bond. I was apathetic to the new nanny, and antagonizing her seemed like a waste of energy. Little things, like the way my shirts were folded, or how the how the table was set, were the only physical reminders of her absence. I didn’t allow myself to miss her or indulge in memories. The gaping hole her vacancy left in my life perhaps never did fill, but just as any other grief, each day it seemed a bit smaller.
She brought presents for all of us when she returned, and I remember being so crushed when she handed mine to me: a small backpack with purple straps and a pink cat face taking up the large majority of the exterior. I hugged her in thanks, enveloped once again in her softness. My eyes blinked tears of weird heartbreak and I escaped to my room, leaving my thrilled siblings downstairs to their happy reunion. I stared at the backpack from my bed, feeling an inappropriate amount of anger and frustration at the hideous bag. The garish cartoon cat seemed to stare at me, unblinking and unabashed to be so out-of-place on a nearly cultural level, meant to be cherished by a girl my age in Ecuador, not Greenwich.
For the rest of the weekend that Addie stayed at the house, I did my best to avoid her. I couldn’t handle the awful space that time apart had created. And I couldn’t forgive her for the abandonment I felt. When I ask my mom now about what exactly happened, it’s clear that we had simply grown up. Addie still needed a full-time job. Maybe we could have stayed in touch, but maybe she, too, needed a clean break. She was so embedded in our family, in a way I like to believe was separate from the other quintessentially Greenwich babysitters. Next to the other Stepford wives and their ‘help,’ Addie was refreshingly genuine.
For some reason, the one memory that I catch myself thinking about more often than most is of a routine car ride to hockey practice. I had recently turned ten and she let me sit in the passenger seat. I remember glancing sideways at her as she hummed along to the radio and thinking that all I wanted to do was stay in that seat and listen to her.
“Can I skip today?” I whined, already knowing the answer. She laughed that laugh that I can still hear so clearly.
“Don’t try that with me today chiquita,” she responded, her pet name for me rolling off her tongue.
I was no match for her. She could get me to stop complaining and go to whatever practice, lesson, or appointment I had in a way that I don’t think my own mother ever could.
There are times when I stop and think, I could really use Addie right now. 18 is far too old a nanny, but I can’t help selfishly wanting her to swoop in with her gentle happiness and fix everything that isn’t going right. College is the kind of place where you learn to be your own nanny.
There is no one to fold your clothes or clean your room or wash your scraped knees. And this is a good thing. Learning to take care of yourself, regardless of if someone ever did everything for you at one time or not, is really, really hard. Learning how to laugh, as she did, no matter how awful and overwhelming things sometimes seem, is even harder. But it’s worth it to try.