Immigrant Bengalis

1. Carol: A Valuable Coin

            Decades ago, it happened. How can I forget? Even, if I try?

            I was living in Montréal, Canada at that time. My husband and I were the only foreigners at McGill University. We were doing our training for higher medical education. That called for active duty for more than 24 hours, every other day. At that time, we had been blessed with our firstborn, Neil. I used to drop him off in the morning at Carol's, the home of a nice middle-aged babysitter, while my husband was still on duty at the hospital. Being a young mother without any help and supervision, I was on my own, trying to raise our child.

            One early morning when the sun was trying to peep out of the horizon, I hurriedly dressed our ten-month-old baby because I was a little late for work. Quickly, I kept my toll money at the very corner of the crib and then I put clothes on Neil in his crib. Then I went to grab my purse and returned to pick up Neil from the crib. I found him sitting, his face turned a little blue, and he was gagging. A few coins were near him and one dime was missing. Panicked, I picked him up, placed him on my shoulder and went towards the wall phone to page my husband. While waiting without thinking, I started to shake Neil. The hospital operator informed me, "He isn't answering. He must be busy." I hung up.

            In the meantime, Neil turned blue all over. In horror, I hit his back, again and again, a few times, without comprehending what I was doing. Suddenly, Neil cried and his color became pink. I kissed Neil, while my tears of joy fell on his clothes. I knew then, I had to take him to the doctor to get the dime out of his stomach. I dialed the babysitter, Carol, and told her in a disturbed, scared voice, "I am not bringing Neil to you this morning".

            “Why?" She asked.

            “Neil swallowed a dime.”

            "He must be okay by now. I can hear him cry." She assured me.

            “Yes, but he was blue a few minutes ago.”

            “Don't worry. Bring Neil to me. I've cared for babies before who swallowed coins.”

            I answered in a shaky voice, "I must take him to a doctor to get the coin out from his stomach."

            Carol answered calmly, "Don't you worry. The coin will come out when he poops. Bring him to me and you go to work."

            I thought she has her own children and she knows better than me. My attendance at work is vital; otherwise, I might be fired. So, I dropped Neil at her house and felt relieved. At work, I didn't mention this to anybody, not even to my husband, although I was scared, worried and feeling guilty. I called Carol often that day. She assured me, "Neil is OK and not to worry."

            The next morning when I called, she informed me, "Neil is fine. No bowel movement but nothing to be concerned yet."

            At 12:00 noon when I picked Neil up, Carol handed me a shiny dime and said, "This is for you to keep as a costly souvenir. He pooped this morning and the dime was there," I hugged her tightly as a few tears poured out of my eyes and soiled her beautiful dress.

            When I saw my husband that evening, I explained the whole scenario to him and handed him the dime. He remained quiet but was furious for a few seconds while he unnecessarily flipped the pages of a book which was lying on the table. The only word coming out of his mouth was, "Thank God!" From his look I understood; he was extremely upset with me and he was trying to keep his composure.

            It was a terrible experience for me.

            I'll never forget Carol, one of my lifesavers. She moved out of Montréal within a month, because her husband was transferred. I lost track of her when I moved to the USA. May the Almighty bless her! She was an angel in my life.


2. Jeannie

            Although she disappeared from our lives many years ago, Jeannie still comes to our minds off and on. Maybe it’s because we liked her so much. She was unique in her own way and contributed to our lives in a very special manner, and her attraction to our children endeared her to us.

            I vividly remember the day she entered our lives. A cab stopped in front of our small rented condo in Aurora, Illinois. It was the middle of the year in 1971 – a gloomy, cloudy, Sunday summer evening. I was watching the road in front of our condo through our kitchen window and there she came. As she stepped out of the cab I could see she was a middle-aged lady with beautiful blonde short-cropped hair. She was about five feet six inches tall and wore a lovely printed blue dress, a white fancy hat, and black high-heeled shoes. She stepped up to our front door and rang the doorbell. She surprised me when I opened the door.

            She immediately said, “Hi, I’m Jeannie, your babysitter, and housekeeper.”
          Before I could say anything, she rushed back to the cab and asked the driver to unload her suitcase, and quickly paid him. She carried her five laundered dresses, all on white hangers and wrapped in plastics, her large suitcase and entered our house.

            ‘Excuse me,” she said and rushed past me to climb the stairs.
            I realized she was the lady who I spoke with on the phone. She had answered our ad in the newspaper for a babysitter.

            Up the stairs she went, looking down at me and asking, “Which one is my room?”

            I was a petite Indian lady, a doctor by profession, and I had never seen a stranger arrive in a house with such confidence! I followed her up the stairs and directed her to her room. She entered, looked around, dropped her clothes on the bed and came out asking, “Where’s your son?”
            “Neil is in his room, next to your room, playing with his puzzle,’ I softly replied.
​         “I’m going in to meet him. You don’t have to come with me. In your condition, you should rest. I’m here now. I’ll take care of everything for you. In the next few days, you just show and tell me all the things I need to know.” She said everything quickly and in a confident voice.
            Puzzled I said softly, “Of course.”

            She slowly opened Neil’s door. I could hear her say, “Hello Neil, I’m Jeannie, your new babysitter. I’m here to take care of you.”
            Neil was astonished. Looked at her and said, “Hi Jeannie.”
            She told him, “I’ll be back” then came back downstairs to get her suitcase.

            I told Neil to be respectful to her and call her Aunty Jeannie.
            Neil asked me, “Does this mean I don’t have to go to Shelly’s house anymore? I can sleep in my own bed?”
            Hugging him I said, “No more do you have to go to the babysitter when I work during the day or nighttime.” He was happy. We had no relatives in the United States.

            Sophisticated, cultured, and full of grace Jeannie made our lives easier, sweeter and better within a week. She was quick in her action, did more than we asked of her and looked after all of us as her own family. She wouldn’t let me do anything. She cooked sumptuous amounts of breakfast for us and insisted I eat nutritious food because I was eating for two. She took care of Neil as if he were her own son. She’d call my husband “Doctor” with respect and took care of him to my satisfaction. My house was neat and clean. Neil was content. She did not take off even during the weekend as she told me she had none of her own family other than her older married brother who lived in Morris, Illinois, which was about an hour away from our home. He was an administrator of a hospital there. She never talked to us about her own personal life. We didn’t know if she was a widow or if she was ever married. She was quick, neat and a hard worker.

            There was a complete makeover of our daily lives. Our household budget had increased, which we could barely afford as these were the early years of our family life.

            We were happy. Neil loved Jeannie a lot. She sewed a design on his pillow cover which read. “Happy dreams. Goodnight”. She advised us on many things and went with us to pick out new furniture for the baby, even though we didn’t even know the baby’s gender at the time. She suggested, “Go yellow” and we took her advice as we were more and more coming to depend on her. Ben and I both felt she had become part of the family. When she wanted to have a doctor, Ben selected the best physician for her. She loved seeing Dr. Shapiro and wore her best clothes and hairstyle when she saw him, which was on a monthly basis.

            Then came the time for my delivery. Jeannie treated me as if I were her own sister. After I delivered my second son, Tim, she was there to welcome me home. She kept everything ready for me to use and told me, “You don’t have to wake up at night when Tim cries. I’ll take care of him. Dr. Bani, you just recover.”

            It was good for me as I was sore from the Caesarian Section. The way she showed her love and care for my baby, it was hard for anybody to tell who was the mother. I appreciated Jeannie so much because I had to return to work within three weeks after my delivery.

           Neil became attached to Jeannie. My husband was well taken care of by her. Jeannie met one of my neighbor’s brothers and became friendly with him. We liked that, as we felt she needed a man in her life. All the flowers and gifts she received from him she displayed in our living room instead of taking them to her own room. She told me. “I know you like flowers.”

            When Christmas arrived, she gave the boys the biggest stuffed animals I had ever seen – a giraffe for Neil and a teddy bear for Tim. I knew it had cost her a lot of money. She even bought gifts for Ben and me. We insisted she go home for the holidays and she did. But two days later, she was back as she had missed Neil and the baby.

            A few months passed. She had become so attached to Tim that every time he woke up at night, she fed him a bottle of milk and soothed him back to sleep. She insisted that I don't get up as I had to go to work the next morning. Jeannie would now go twice a month to see Dr. Shapiro, always wearing her best clothes. Being suspicious, I asked her if she was alright. “Of course,” she would say. “It’s just for a check-up.”
            I asked my husband why she had to go so often? He replied, “We don’t have her medical history to know about that. Don’t even ask her.”

            Another two months went by. I noticed a change in Jeannie. She would wake up a little later than usual and forgot a few chores. Her mood started to change and fluctuate. Sometimes she would be rude to Neil, mostly in the morning. As the day matured, she behaved normally again. When I complained to my husband about her, he said, “Maybe she’s not feeling good.”

            On one evening Ben asked her “How are you feeling? Do you like your doctor?”
           Jeannie answered, “He’s very nice, thank you. But, why are you asking? I’m sorry if I’m not doing my job well. Certainly, I’ll put more effort into it.”
            Ben didn’t know what to say to her after her reply. I didn’t know how to deal with Jeannie when her mood changed so suddenly and quickly each day. At home every day, the talk between my husband and I was about Jeannie. We were worried about our sons and their wellbeing.

            Early one morning I heard some groaning noises coming from her room. When I listened carefully, I thought I heard her crying. A little later I asked her again about her health. She replied, “Why are you asking? Aren’t you happy with me, Dr.Bani? I love you all, you know. I can’t think of living anywhere else. Please don’t fire me.” I felt sympathy for her. I realized she was trying so hard, but something in her body or mind was bothering her, and about that she didn’t want us to know, thinking we would fire her.

            I said, “No, I wasn’t thinking of firing you. If it's your health or something else bothering you, please take care of it.”
            “I'm fine. I’ll put more effort into make you happy. Please don’t send me to a hospital. I don’t want anyone to take my place. Your children love me, as you know. Don’t ask me to be hospitalized.”
            I didn’t know what to say to her anymore. She was begging me.

            The next day I noticed Jeannie kept the oven on when there was nothing in it. I turned it off and pointed her mistake out to her. She just said, “I’m sorry. Thank you.”

            At night I told my husband about it. He thought it was very dangerous, so he said, “I have to ask Dr. Shapiro about her condition. I don’t know if he'd tell me what’s going on with her.”

            From that night, and every night after, when Ben and I went to bed, we talked about Jeannie. We didn’t know how to approach firing her or asking her to leave. Again, we loved her and didn’t know if we could get another babysitter as good as Jeannie. At that time, there was no other daycare center close by. We needed someone to look after our boys at night, also because my husband was a solo OBGYN Doctor.

            Two days later when I came downstairs to leave for work at the hospital, I saw Jeannie was pouring coffee into a cup but the cup was not under the stream of coffee. Her hand was shaking. I became scared. How could I leave Tim with her when she was so confused? I had to go to work; otherwise, no one was there to give anesthesia to the surgical patients in my scheduled operating room. An idea came to my mind. I went upstairs and called my neighbor, Lisa. I told her my babysitter wasn’t feeling good and could she keep Tim with her until I got home from work.

            She agreed. Neil had already left for school on the school bus. After dropping Tim off at Lisa’s, I went to work. Jeannie was resting in her room.

            From the hospital, I informed my husband about Jeannie and told him I had left Tim with Lisa. I called Neil’s school and told him to go to Lisa’s after school. Around 2 p.m. I received a call from Lisa that Jeannie had knocked on her door and asked Lisa to return Tim to her care as she was Tim’s babysitter and it was HER duty to take care of him. Fortunately, Lisa refused her demand and closed the door. I also received a call from my husband and he told me that Dr. Shapiro informed him of Jeannie’s condition. He was worried about the safety of our boys. Jeannie was having terrible pain because of her varicose veins and asked for pain medication instead of having surgery. Perhaps she had taken more pills at night in order to get better quicker. That was probably why she was so confused. Doctor Shapiro told us not to depend on her anymore.

            I picked my boys up from Lisa’s and thanked her. When I entered my house, Jeannie was irate with me. Her eyes were swollen and red. I understood that not only was she angry, but that she seemed under the influence of medication. I told her to go to her room and get some rest.

            When my husband arrived home that evening he told Jeannie to please pack and leave our house, if she didn’t want to go to the hospital. He promised we would take her back when she was cured. She said, “I know you won’t take me back when I’m cured, and I can’t live without seeing Tim and Neil. They ARE MINE!”

            Those words startled us. Ben told her to pack her things and that she would leave the next morning. “You are terminated,” he said those words firmly.

            That was Friday evening. Luckily, I was off that weekend. She cried and begged us to give her another chance. Ben offered to take her to the hospital, but she refused. We ate leftovers for dinner and offered her dinner too, but she refused.

            Jeannie cried and begged us to give her another chance. Little Neil was confused, not knowing what was going on. Ben explained to him. “Aunty Jeannie is very sick. She isn’t able to take care of you and Tim. We have to let her go. We'll take her back when she gets better.” Neil cried.

            Ben and I didn’t sleep the whole night. It was a nightmare for us. The next morning Ben called a taxi and told Jeannie to leave. When she refused, Ben put her clothes and accessories in her suitcase using one of our suitcases as well. He put the luggage outside the front door and again asked her to leave. She refused. A little while later she slowly walked out the front door. We felt bad. Neil cried because he was scared.

            None of us talked to each other. Ben was busy looking for the names of babysitters from our old babysitter list. We decided to have no more live-in babysitters or housekeepers. Jeannie stayed outside our door for approximately eight hours. Ben called another taxi. When that taxi arrived, Jeannie left. We had a contract with the taxi company as we often needed a taxi ourselves. When I saw through the window that Jeannie had left, I felt a sharp pain in my body.

            Since Jeannie, we never had another live-in babysitter. We never heard from Jeannie. We called her brother, knowing he was a hospital administrator in the town he lived. “We never heard from her since her Christmas visit,” he said.

            Jeannie was with us for approximately one and a half years. She touched our souls. Tim was nurtured by her for nine months. The last two months were worrisome, scary and full of confusion for us. In the long run, we only remember her kindness, gentleness, and love. Neil asked about her many times. Although we were from another part of the world, we loved Jeannie as though she were a part of our family. Her love for us was so profound that she neglected her own health. When Neil asked me about her, I told him to pray that she would have a better-fulfilled life, wherever she was.

(Posted February 15, 2018)

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Happy Memories of Kindness

Bani Bhattacharyya

[NOTE: After describing one instance of babysitter cruelty in a previous post, the author here describes two instances of babysitter kindness to round out the narrative of her experience.]