When University of Baltimore MFA student Terri Steel took her first babysitting job at age 12, she expected fun and games, not bad adult behavior — looking back, she knows she shouldn’t have been too surprised by what happened that life-changing night.
I thought I was made for motherhood. When I played house with my friends I was always the mom, improvising a game plan I was sure would come in handy when I became a real mom. My pretend house was tidy and my pretend kids did cool things and had lots of make-believe homemade treats, like chocolate chip cookies and fresh cherry pie. As soon as I turned double-digits, I sought fiercely for my claim on the babysitting jobs that came to other neighborhood girls, but no one seemed interested in me.
Finally, a new young couple moved in behind us with adorable three-year-old twin boys. I was thrilled when the mom asked me to accompany her on their swim lessons so she could stay dry. I had a blast with the kids in the pool and she rewarded me with a pack of onion rings from the Burger King drive-through. Then our dog, Fluffy, dug a hole under their fence and was caught humping their purebred collie. My parents refused to acknowledge the nine little fat pups born out of the union (with black and white spots exactly like Fluffy), and it put an end to our relationship.
I begged Mom and Dad to take at least one of the pups, but they ignored everything I said, until I mentioned our new neighbor was a cop. Then Mom shot Dad a look and they ran out to the shed. I watched as Dad climbed on top and removed his homegrown weed that was drying on the roof in the summer sun. I was sad to see my only hope for a babysitting job end so soon.
The rest of the parents on our block knew better than to trust anyone who came from my kind of upbringing—the neglectful, dysfunctional, crazy kind.
I was 13 when Mom left Dad and I finally got my first babysitting opportunity. Julie was my father’s new girlfriend, 26, hot and wild. She had two young girls, eight and four. I was thrilled. Not only did I have pizza money for the order we would place that evening, but the kitchen was stocked with popcorn and a full fridge of sodas. I couldn’t get my father and Julie out the door fast enough.
Like my own parents, Julie seemed to have little regard for rules, leaving me to figure things out for myself after she left. The girls and I settled in for a movie, munched on popcorn and chatted. Soon eight-year-old Mattie was telling me all of her parents’ secrets—like how they blew marijuana into the girl’s faces on special nights. This news shocked me slightly. Dad’s pipes and pot were always lying around our house, but he certainly wasn’t going to share his stash and I had never smoked the stuff.
“How does it make you feel?” I asked.
“Good…and, you know, giggly.”
“And they do it to Lilly too?” I asked, thinking it incredible that someone would get a four-year-old little girl stoned.
“Yeah. She likes it. Don’t you Lilly?” Lilly nodded, her thumb in her mouth.
“But,” Mattie continued, “we can’t do it on week nights—only weekends. That’s Daddy’s rule.”
“Oh, I see,” I said pretending to understand. But I didn’t understand. Even with all I had seen go down in my home, this seemed really out there. I decided to change the subject. “Anybody want pizza?”
We ordered the pizza and I started braiding their hair, while they watched the movie. Thirty minutes in and babysitting was everything I had imagined. The kids adored me and thought I was the coolest. I was on my way to becoming a pro, I just knew it.
When the doorbell rang, I jumped up from the couch to grab the cash for our pizza delivery. By the time I swung around, someone had already opened the door. But the mustached man that stood in front of us did not have a pizza.
“Daddy!” the girls cried out wrapping their arms around him.
“Hi girlies,” he said warmly, while glaring at me through the long dark hair that hung over his eyes. “Go get your coats now. You’re coming home with me.”
“But Daddy,” Mattie whined, “the pizza is coming and Terri is babysitting.”
“You heard me now, Mattie.”
Mattie took her sister’s hand and padded off down the hall. I started to go after them and was stopped.
“Not you,” he said. “Who the fuck are you anyway?”
Oh man, I thought, isn’t this just my luck? Figures. I finally get a babysitting job and now this guy is here to screw the whole thing up. I knew it was too good to be true.
“You’re that fuck Frank’s daughter aren’t you?”
The girls had returned and were standing behind him listening to every word, their eyes wide.
“Daddy!” Mattie cried. “Why are you being mean to Terri?”
He didn’t answer her, but turned to me as he shoved the girls out the door. “You too. Follow me and get your ass in the car. I’m taking you home.”
He dropped the girls off first, presumably leaving them unattended until he returned. I never got the chance to say goodbye. In fact, I didn’t say anything at all.
“Yeah, I know who you are, and I know who your fucking Daddy is too little girl, and guess what? I’m gonna kill your daddy. That’s right, I got me a gun and I’m gonna kill your daddy tonight. You hear me?”
I just sat there silent, knowing better than to answer. I had 13 years of experience under my belt, witnessing my mother deal with this kind of male rage from my father.
“What are you a fucking mute? Are you going to say anything or what? You don’t believe I have a gun?”
He picked up the gun lying next to him on the seat and held it up for me to see.
“I’m not a bad guy, but your father has gone too far this time—fucking my fucking wife. Who the fuck does he think he is? Do you understand? He is fucking my fucking wife!”
As we drove down the highway it became apparent that he knew where I lived. When we pulled in front my house, I jumped out of the car as fast as I could and ran up the walk. “Don’t you forget, little girl,” he shouted after me. “Make sure you tell your daddy everything I said. I’m gonna kill that asshole tonight. You hear me? I’m gonna kill your daddy!”
Safe inside, I began to panic and picked up the phone to call everyone I could think of. Dino’s, my father’s favorite bar, was first, but he was not there. I called his friends next, but no one seemed to know my father’s whereabouts. Finally, the last resort, I called my mother and told her what had just transpired through sobbing breaths.
“Aw, honey,” she said. “Is that all? Why, do you know how many people want to kill your daddy?” She chuckled. “I’m sorry, babe. Your father shouldn’t have put you in that position, the damn bastard, but don’t you ever worry about him. You hear? Your father is always going to lookout for himself, and if you’re as smart as he is, you will too.”
Mom’s voice was all it took for me to feel relieved.
Dad showed up later that night pissed as hell. It seemed I had failed at my one and only babysitting job. He and Julie laid the blame squarely on me for allowing her girls to be kidnapped. I tried to explain to Dad, repeating what was said to me in the car.
“Oh yeah? That’s what he said? I hope that motherfucker comes after me. I’ll blow his fucking brains out! You hear me?”
I didn’t answer.
“How could you, Terri? How could you let him go and take her kids? Haven’t I taught you anything? Can’t you get anything right? Jesus Christ! How am I supposed to make this up to her now?”
Julie’s kids were my one and only babysitting job. I didn’t want to be responsible for anyone else’s children again after that night.
Eight years later, I had a child of my own. I was right all along.
I was made for motherhood. All of my woes receded when I looked into that sweet, innocent face. I had gotten everything else wrong. Divorced, single-mom, abuse survivor, college dropout: I had all the negative labels at age 21. It didn’t matter anymore.
He was the one thing I was sure of for the very first time in my life.
Finally, I had gotten something right.
Memoirist Terri Steel is a second-year MFA student at the University of Baltimore. A mother or three, and soon-to-be grandmother of three, she celebrated her 25th wedding anniversary this month in Key West—her favorite writing spot. She currently teaches English at CCBC and is thrilled to have her work published in the Baltimore Fishbowl.