The Summer of 1978 had started out with such promise; I was 17 years old, the weather was hot, and we were planning our annual summer trip to St. Petersburg, Florida. Every year my parents rented a place on the beach for about ten days, and that summer was no exception. As usual, though, there was a little fly in my ointment. The week before we were scheduled to leave for Florida, my sister, Debbie, had sent me an SOS call; she was starting a new job and could I please keep the kids for a week until she found permanent childcare? Being the good sister that I was, my first response was, “Uhm-m-m-m-m...NO!” Deb’s kids at that time were 7, 5, and 3 years old, and though I adore them now, back then, mutual toleration might best describe our relationship. I was a teenager; they were messy, germ-laden children...’nuff said. My mind quickly changed when Mom agreed that I could take a friend with me to St. Pete IF I helped my sister. Bribery? Manipulation? You betcha, but both are a Mama’s prerogative, and they worked beautifully. I agreed (surrendered?) to her terms.

As with anything I set my mind to, I attacked this “Auntie Daycare” with great gusto. I made lists, brought craft supplies and planned activities—really, how hard could it be watching three kids? (Ah, the ignorance and arrogance of youth!) I had planned special projects and outings to appeal to each one of them and their varied interests. Bill, 7, was my little “Professor”—he was so certain that he already knew more that any three adults combined. He could grate my nerves till my right eye twitched—but I adored him! Heather, 5, suffered from middle-child syndrome. She was sullen and petulant if she was with her siblings, yet delightful and charming when we were alone together. She thrived with one-on-one attention and during those moments would reward you with a flash of her dimples! That leaves my little Missy, 3—the baby with the perpetual pacifier plugging her piehole! She didn’t speak till she was 5 (didn’t need to, she had the pacifier!); I had it pretty easy with her—she was and is, an angel on earth. So, with personalities analyzed and my lists, graphs and charts at the ready, I set out to show the world how this babysitting thing should be done!

On my first morning there, I told my sister that I planned to take the kids to Red Top Mountain for a little fun in the sun. Red Top was about 10 miles from their house, and it was more than a mountain; it also featured a man-made lake surrounded by a sandy beach. Okay, maybe it wasn’t in the same world-class beach category as those wonderful stretches of sand in St. Pete, but I figured it would work as a consolation prize to distract my charges that hot summer day. Our family had often gone there together for picnics and swimming, and Deb agreed that a “trip to the beach” would be lovely. As she left for work with a wave and a smile, I could have sworn that I heard her mutter, “Good Luck!” under her breath, but, good sport sister that I was, I waved back as she backed out of the driveway.

I made sandwiches for our picnic lunch, and then got the kids out of bed. After a healthy breakfast, (I could really be good at this mothering thing!) I fed their dog and cleaned the kitchen while they watched cartoons. This was gonna be a piece of cake!

Hold that thought! Bill ran into the kitchen screaming, “Wisi, come quick and see the new trick I taught Wisk.” As I followed Bill into the living room, I watched the dog scooting her furry bottom across the carpet from one end of the room to the other. I highly doubted this was a newly acquired skill of Wisk’s; I leaned down beside her to take a closer look. How do I put this delicately? Coming out of Wisk’s backside was a furry green thread—and it was driving that poor dog crazy. I wanted to help her, but didn’t actually want to, well, touch...ANYTHING!

As quick thinking has always been my forte, I dashed into the kitchen and came back wearing Platex rubber gloves, swim goggles and wielding barbecue tongs in my left hand. Telling the kids to back away and close their eyes, I “tonged” the thread and started to pull...and pull...and pull. And pull and pull and pull! The long green thread just kept coming out like scarves from a magician’s sleeve! I was both appalled and yet, oddly fascinated at the same time by the never-ending string—whose color, by the way, strongly resembled that of the indoor/outdoor carpet on my sister’s porch. After extracting about 13 yards of the endless yarn from Wisk—enough to knit a car cover for my ’74 Pinto (don’t laugh, she was a sweet ride!)—I was startled by an urgent knocking at the back door. Who/what in the world...?

Heart pounding, I jumped up from my doggie ministrations and threw open the door to find Joan, a friend of Debbie’s, looking decidedly worse for wear. As she burst into the house followed by a gaggle of children, I noticed she was frantic. “Where’s Debbie?” she breathlessly asked, but then she answered her own query with, “Oh yeah, the new job, right?” As she paced to and fro, she proclaimed, “Well Lisa, I need a huge favor and you will just have to do.” Obviously, Joan had not taken notes during Southern Etiquette and the Art of Asking Favors 101! She told me she needed to leave her daycare children with me while she rushed her mother-in-law to the doctor. Wait a minute...her daycare children?

I had always been slightly bemused that the state of Georgia let Joan keep her own children, much less tend to anyone else’s in her home. Joan thrived on chaos and disorder. Does that sound mean? Well, here was a case in point. She had now been standing in Deb’s house for about five minutes while the six—no, make that seven, kids she brought in, plus my three nieces and nephews—chased a scared, barking dog with a skein of green yarn coming out of her backside all the while I was talking to her wearing the aforementioned Playtex rubber gloves, swim goggles, and holding barbecue tongs...AND SHE HAD NOT BATTED AN EYELASH!!! I could only assume that this was just everyday fodder at her house. She did finally look around long enough to mutter that it seemed I had quite a houseful. DUH! I did now, I thought to myself.

Nevertheless, it was an emergency, and she was my sister’s friend, so I mumbled a pitiful, “Okay, I guess.” I then managed to squeak out that I had planned to take the kids to the lake that morning, wherein she piped up that she had assorted swim suits in a bin in the back of her stationwagon. Great! I had kinda hoped against hope that the idea of a 17-year-old girl taking TEN young children to the beach might have given her pause! Nope! She just ran out to her car and brought back the bin-o’-suits, shouting a quick, “I’ll see you when I see you” over her shoulder and she was off.

Feeling a wee bit flustered, I stood and observed the bedlam that Joan left in her wake. Mental note to self: “First, NEVER ANSWER THAT DOOR AGAIN! Secondly, finish my ‘knitting project’ with Wisk.” Once that unwieldy job was completed, I then divvied up the boys and girls to find everyone a swimsuit that fit. As I sorted through Joan’s bin, handing the swim apparel out left and right, I tried to coax names out of the kids, but to no avail. I didn’t blame them, they all looked like deer in headlights; they were just as much fish out of water as I was today. Fingers crossed, they would warm up to me—most people usually did—eventually! Anyway, after the suits were chosen and extra sandwiches made for the picnic, I had Bill and Heather help me load up the car. This in itself was no easy task— remember, the aforementioned ’74 Pinto Hatchback was my auto of choice! We stuffed the kids, and then ourselves, into the Pinto like a pack of wild monkeys in the clown car at a circus! NO car seats—NO seat belts. (Of course, there were no seatbelt laws back then!) But looking back on it, we were stuffed in there so tight that nothing short of a head-on collision could have dislodged anyone of us anyway.

I glanced at my watch as we pulled onto the Highway—almost noon. I had planned to get to the lake by 10:00 AM so that the kids could swim and play a couple of hours before the picnic lunch. Best laid plans, right? As I tried to shift the schedule around in my head, one of the little boys started to cry. “Oh please, no!” I thought to myself, “Hadn’t the day been hard enough already?” I put on my “calm” voice and said, “Sweetie, we are going to the lake, and we are going to have the bestest time ever! We’re gonna make sand castles and have a picnic, and I even brought some candy for after lunch. SO PLEASE QUIT CRYING!” He stuck his thumb in his mouth, stared out the window and the rest of the ride was uneventful. Another note to self—not only does bribery and manipulation work for mamas with their teenagers...they are also a babysitter’s most effective tool in her quest for PEACE AND QUIET!

Once we got to the lake, Bill and Heather tried their level best to help me pry the kids out of the back seat and hatchback. Holding the smaller ones in my arms, having the older ones hold onto the hem of my cover up, and carrying our beach accessories to the water took more skill and precision than the “Flying Wallendas” ever dreamed of! I laid out our blanket and started pulling things out of my magic bag of goodies. I handed out pails, shovels, bubble-blowers and sippy cups. For about an hour, we played in the sand at the water’s edge. Joan’s daycare kids and my kids had melded into one big happy group of kids at the beach! The sounds of excited voices and high-pitched laughter became pretty intoxicating. I started patting myself on the back for how well I had taken charge of a rather difficult situation. Wait, I started congratulating myself a bit prematurely. The little boy who had started crying in the car came up to me and said his first words of the day. “Wanna go home.”

“Me too,” I thought. Feeling rather defeated, I knelt down and gave him a hug. “It will be okay. We are going home really soon. How ‘bout we open this picnic basket and start our lunch. After our sandwiches, there might be candy!” He wiped a lone tear off his cheek and helped me pull out lunch and set it onto the blanket. Whew—crisis averted!

After lunch, the kids wanted to head back into the water, but I thought we should head home. The sun was scorching and the one thing I forgot to bring in my magic bag of goodies was sunscreen. We were all getting a bit pink, so I made the executive decision that it was time to go. In my defense, if we had gotten to the lake when I originally planned, we would have been home before the noonday sun attacked us! Again, we all trudged back to the car and stuffed the kids and then ourselves back into our assigned places—the only difference this time is that we were covered in sand, were hot and sweaty AND feeling the beginnings of a nasty sunburn! It seemed to take twice as long to get back to Deb’s as it seemed to get to the lake. As I pulled onto our street, I noticed a lady going from house to house; it looked like she had just left Deb’s. I could see a pamphlet she had left tucked into the screen door. Sorry, but I surely didn’t have the time or the inclination to deal with an Avon lady that day.

After I got all ten of the kids inside, I asked Heather to grab the Avon lady’s brochure off of the front door. I then bumped up the air conditioning a notch, and got the shriveled children out of the still-wet swimsuits. Oh my! Some of the little ones were really pink...I mean, lobster pink. I rummaged thru Deb’s medicine cabinet and came up with some Aloe Vera lotion to rub on their arms, legs and noses. Heather came in the bathroom and told me she put the paper from the door on the coffee table; she said it was about a missing dog. “Well, we can always give them Wisk,” I sighed to myself.

Heather overheard me and started crying, begging me not to give away their dog. “Her won’t eat no more carpet. We promise her won’t!”

How do you explain sarcasm to a 5-year-old? “I’m just joking Sweetie,” I told her.

Then my perpetual cry-boy had tears streaming down his face as he said to me, “Wanna go home.” I tried to reassure him by saying that Miss Joan would be back really soon, and that I knew his sunburn must hurt something awful.

“Let’s rub this on the burn, and then maybe we can all go have some cookies, okay?” I pleaded, once again resorting to bribery. Alarmingly, some of the other kids were starting to whimper too. Help me Lord. At this point, all the voices in my head were screaming simultaneously, “JOAN, WHERE ARE YOU?”

By 2:00, the meltdowns were in full swing. I handed out cups of juice and some cookies—after all, I had promised Cry-boy a treat. Then I announced, “NAP TIME!” Putting the boys in one room and the girls in another, I pulled the shades and tried to slip out of the rooms. “When y’all wake up, I just know Miss Joan will be here!” From my lips to God’s ears, I pitifully thought to myself!

However, that didn’t satisfy Cry-boy. He started wailing. “Wanna go home!” he screamed. He jumped out of the bed and made a run for the front door. I grabbed onto his shirt from behind and scooped him up before he could make his getaway. I was pretty sure I would never hear the end of it if I lost one of the kids. Escape, indeed—not on my watch!!! I carried him back to the bedroom as he kicked and screamed, “Wanna go home, Wanna go home!!!” I laid him back down by the other boys, covered him with a sheet and tried to soothe him. “You’ll be going home soon, I promise, little one.”

The other kids drifted off, one by one...but not my precious Cry-boy. He was now whimpering softly. He looked up at me with the saddest eyes on earth and begged me, “Wanna go home!” That was it. I started crying right along with him. “I wanna go home too,” I whispered. I sat on the edge of the bed and confided to him, “I’m not even supposed to be here. I’m just trying to help my sister out. This is my summer vacation. For that matter, you’re not even supposed to be here either! This is all Miss Joan’s fault.” I looked down into Cry-boy’s face and saw that he had finally drifted off for his nap. Drying my eyes, I quietly stepped out of the room and pulled the door almost shut.

I sat down in the living room trying to mentally assess the damage of the day. Exactly when was it that the wheels had come off this train? Was it when Wisk had eaten enough green indoor/outdoor carpet to weave an indoor arena football field? In my own defense, I had handled that crisis the best I could...(I even saved the thread in a Ziploc bag, because Bill asked if he could take it to Vacation Bible School for Show and Tell...was I a rocking aunt or what?). Or, was it when Joan had descended upon me with a hoard of children that I certainly had not planned on entertaining that day? MY plan had been to take the nieces and nephew to the lake so our first day together would be fun and memorable. Hmmm, memorable—check.

As I continued my self-flagellation, I noticed two police cars outside with that Avon Lady; did a customer refuse to pay for their makeup, or had someone stolen her samples? I wondered if I should go out and see what was going on, but decided against leaving the kids in the house alone. Then—Thank the Lord—I saw Joan driving up. I promise you, I actually heard angels singing the “Hallelujah Chorus” as her car hit the driveway! She burst into the house, apologizing for taking so long. “But you know doctors,” she said.

Since she didn’t ask how the kids were, I thought I would volunteer the news of the day as I walked her back to the bedrooms to collect the kids. “We went to the lake, had a picnic, made sand castles, and oh yeah, we all got a little sunburned. One little boy seemed really homesick. He cried...a lot.”

Joan nodded and smiled, “Sorry ’bout that, but that’s how kids are at this age!” She then laughed and told me not to worry about a thing; she would explain her role in the day’s craziness to all of the parents. After we woke the girls, she walked them one by one into the living room. Joan went back for the boys while I went to retrieve the mesh bag I had put the wet swimsuits in. Joan marched the boys down the hallway as I stuck my head into each bedroom for a quick check. Uh oh, she forgot Cry-boy; no way is she leaving him with me, I thought to myself. I rushed back into the boys’ bedroom and woke him. “Miss Joan’s here for you.”

I called out to Joan in the living room, “Hey, you forgot one.”

She turned around and looked back at me in confusion and said, “He’s not with me.”

“What do you mean he’s not with you?” I said, incredulous. “YOU brought him here this morning!”

She adamantly shook her head and said, “No, I only have the six kids here. Remember when I walked in, I told you that you sure had a housefull, didn’t I?”

“I had a housefull AFTER you got here. Before you came, it was just me and Deb’s kids,” I shrieked back at her!

I remember thinking I was going to pass out. My brain was going a mile a minute. I tried to replay that morning in my mind. Who was this kid? Think, Think! Wait a minute—the police cars, the Avon lady walking the streets, the notice that Heather got off of the front door. Heather had said that it was for a missing dog.

I ran to the coffee table and picked up the flyer. Sure enough, on it was a picture of a dog...and a little boy. MY CRY-BOY! (Although to be fair to Heather there was no way she could have recognized him since in this picture he was smiling, and WE certainly had NOT seen that expression ALL DAY!) Above his picture was one word: “MISSING.”

OH LORD! Had I been holding this little boy hostage all day? AGAINST HIS CRYING LITTLE WILL? Lord! Help! Me! Please!

I took Cry-boy by his hand and ran out to the street where the police cars were, yelling at the top of my lungs, “Here is your little boy!!! I have your little boy!!!” His Mom saw us and ran to him, gathering him in her arms. They held each other tightly as they both continued crying; I wondered to myself if prison jumpsuits came in vertical stripes, as they would be more slimming. Maybe with time off for good behavior, I would be out in time for next year’s pilgrimage to St. Pete.

Seeing the Mother and son embrace, I was in turn frightened, relieved, and confused. How in the world was this ever going to make sense to her and the county’s finest without the aid of graphs or flow charts? I was there and I didn’t even have a firm grip on how this happened. Just then, Joan, her daycare kids and my kids spilled out onto the driveway. I was vaguely aware of questions being asked and questions being answered.

As chaotic and discombobulated as Joan could be most of the time, she seemed to be doing a good job relaying to the police officers the innocence of what had occurred. They all theorized that Cry-boy (excuse me, then, he had a name) had wandered off from his yard, joined Joan’s daycare kids as she unloaded them from her car and he then just walked into the house with them. Joan had thought he was with me; I thought he was one of hers. My stomach started to unclench a bit. Then I vaguely recall seeing Heather show the Ziploc bag with the green thread in it to a female officer as she proudly announced, “Aunt Wisi pulled this out of my dog’s butt today. Her says we can take it to Show and Tell at church!” Stomach re-clenching! Then I saw Joan and the officers laughing and hugging their sides. Well...that had to be a good sign, didn’t it? Maybe they all saw this as the screwball comedy that it was!

The more they talked and smiled, the more confident I became that everything was going to be all right. I breathed a sigh of relief and started to gather my nieces and nephew by their hands, ushering them into the house. Then, I heard the one line that no one would EVER WANT TO HEAR. The little boy, who at best had only uttered three words at a time up to this point, now lifted his tear-stained face to his Mom and wailed at the top of his lungs as he pointed his tiny finger at me, “She promised!” he screamed, “She promised if I just quit crying and did what she said, she would give me candy!”

It was at that exact moment with all eyes on me and the police officers no longer laughing, that I realized this particular beach of a day was still not quite over, and I sighed to myself, “Yeah, vertical stripes would be nice.”

Lisa Love, a talented and insightful writer with a skewed sense of humor, looks for, and often finds the absurd masquerading as the mundane.

©Copyright 2009 Bridgital/SouthernReader. All rights reserved.