Friday, July 22, 2011

When I was seven, my parents travelled to Switzerland and left us in the care of a friend from church. It didn’t go well. I pulled the old croup routine and wound up in an oxygen tent at the hospital, getting steroids or some such thing injected into my legs.

When I was nine, my parents travelled to France and left us in the care of a lady named Chris. The first afternoon, I popped a wire from my braces and Chris had to take me to the orthodontist because it was excavating a hole in the side of my mouth.

La-La,” she said, “you’re not allowed to get sick. I don’t like kids getting sick or hurt while I’m watching them.

Getting sick was my big fear. Huge fear with dragon teeth and eagle talons. But as it turned out, I didn’t even get the chance. Chrissy’s philosophy on taking care of kids was to keep them too busy to realise that their parents are gone. She took us to Chuck E. Cheese and out to lunch. We played with her dogs and went swimming in her pool. She even took us to see the Buffalo Blizzards.

And was I ever happy when my parents came home – happy like an overexcited kid bounding off the bus from summer camp, with a “Mom! Dad! I CAN’T WAIT TILL NEXT YEAR!” Chrissy was an integral part of our lives after that. She stayed with us when our parents went away and for years came over to clean and make sure we didn’t burn down the house after school.

Though I love my Parentals dearly, one of the best things about Chrissy was how very unlike my parents she was. She talked in funny voices and told fart jokes. She liked bright colours and things that were useless but fun. When she came over to clean, she kept a portable TV on in the kitchen because she liked the background noise. She would take us out to lunch – just because – at the places our parents refused to go, like KFC or Moon Chinese Buffet. I was allowed to order pancakes with a side of mashed potatoes.

She loved music. There are a select few people in the world who I love playing for because they make their enjoyment of it so clear. My grandmother is one. Chrissy was another. Pieces like ‘Traumerei’ and ‘Liebestraum’ I especially enjoyed playing for her, because her dad used to play them and she liked them in particular.

Chrissy called me La-La. She’d put on a baby voice when she said it. Or sometimes, she’d call me “you bag o’ bones”, then poke me in the ribs. Usually while I was sitting on the kitchen counter shovelling Cheez-its or zebra cakes into my mouth.

When I had my wisdom teeth out, Chrissy made me special cheesy mashed potatoes.

When I went away to Switzerland, she snuck a note and secret chocolate bars into my trunk.

When she drove me to piano on Monday afternoons during my last year at home, she insisted that we leave so as to get there ten minutes early. I never said so, but being the overly-anxious kid I was, I needed those ten minutes to sit in the car and calm myself down before going in for my lesson. I wonder whether she knew how much I appreciated that.

Everywhere we went, people knew Chris, and everybody loved her. All the many kids she cared for and all of their parents, the people for whom she did sewing, the lady at the bank drive-through who she’d tell jokes to through the intercom. She was like a cheerful, mischievous, life-loving kid, but wholly in charge, wholly responsible and wholly reassuring when you needed her to be.

When I learned this week that she had died, I was shocked and just so sad. You’d think that someone so full of life would be immune to death.

They say it takes a village to raise a child. Our Chris raised a village. And however far my travels may take me, that's my real home.

Chrissy and her husband, Gene, with Geoffrey at one of his high school jazz band events.

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