We sat on the ground together, huddled in front of the large wooden doll house on a Sunday morning, as she carefully placed her Littlest Pet Shop animals together on the balcony. I realized Wylie’s curly hair was getting longer than mine, and how I had seen it grow since it was only a short, strawberry blonde mop sitting atop her head. Wylie’s parents, Becca and Bill, were out on their usual sunday morning run. It had been almost two years since I began babysitting for Becca and Bill, and Wylie was now a bright four year old, eager to go to kindergarten. Most weekends I’d babysit for them on Sunday mornings, and occasionally Friday or Saturday nights. On our Sunday playdates, Wylie and I would blow up the moon bounce in the backyard that Bill’s brother had mistakenly bought full size. My Sunday visits were normally relaxed, short, and sweet, but it hadn’t always been that way.
The job began after my sister, who had babysat for them only two times, was forced to bail out one Saturday night. After my mom recommended me for the job, I met Becca for the first time. Becca is a tall, athletic woman, whose darker, sandy blonde hair was unlike her daughter’s. That first night, their home was being renovated, something for which she apologized profusely. Both she and Bill seemed eager to leave the house and go out, as she rambled off a list of reminders including “if she doesn’t eat the vegetables it’s no big deal” and “don’t let her bring any of the hard toys to bed”. She finished off her list with a warning: “She has been fussy all day, and so she’ll probably whine about us leaving. If she cries, just let her cry it out.” As the couple moved swiftly out of the back door, the tears came rolling.
It was one of my first real babysitting experiences; I had never dealt with a 2 year old before, let alone a crying one. She began to panic, and her cries turned into screams as her parents drove out of the garage and down the long driveway. Her small, red hands were pressed against the glass of the back door, and she peered out, periodically stomping her feet in anger and confusion. I was frozen. I wanted so badly to say the right thing, stop her crying and have her look at me and smile. Becca had told me to let her be, to not give her the satisfaction, but I caved. I knelt down next to her and pulled her hair out of her face. I frantically shhh-ed her and told her that things would be okay. Like I had feared, she didn’t stop there. She yelled for her mother in a language I can only describe as somewhere between Smeagol and the Cookie Monster. I knew I had to do something, but it was my first time babysitting for this little girl and I didn’t want her to see me as the person that comes to replace her parents and yells at her. I grabbed her a paper towel to dry her tears and told her to look at me. She looked up and focused on me for the first time.
“Wylie, it’s gonna be ok. Your parents are going to be home soon,”
She stared up at me with red puffy cheeks and snot dripping from her nose. She asked me, timidly,
“Wiw dey be home befow I go to bed?”
I looked at her, half shocked she said something to me, half relieved that she wasn’t crying. Becca and Bill had shown me where her diapers were and how to put them on, extensively detailed their tuck in routine, and of course they had told me which setting was correct on her nightlight/ white noise maker. I knew that her parents would not be home before I put her to bed, and yet,
“Yes, they will be home very soon.”
With that, we went on with our night. Wylie calmed down and ate her dinner, got in her PJ’s, brushed her teeth, and I read her favorite books to her. By the end of the night, she went to bed peacefully. I thought about what I had said after I had finally put her to bed that night. Why did I lie to this little girl? What sort of person does that? It startled me how quickly I had said it. I was so ready to please her when I wasn’t even supposed to indulge her in the first place. But she didn’t remember my promise, or ask about her parents again that night. I got away with it, and it felt good.
My visits with Wylie carried on that way. I couldn’t count the many times Wylie has been in a bad mood and I’ve told her what she wants to hear, or the times I’ve said words she’d never heard, and most times I give halfhearted explanations that she misinterprets. These aren’t lies, I reassure myself, they are mistakes that will be fixed with experience. Because roasted and cooked are almost the same word, and she probably won't bring up the time she complained about her parents being gone on a cloudy Sunday morning. But my lies run deeper than she knows. Mine are lies born out of awkward encounters with middle school boys, Christmas gifts that I “didn’t mean to open”, and all of the pretzels I got for free on pretzel day. If you ask my old friends or family who knew me when I was in elementary school what I was like, most would say I lied. A lot. My family makes fun of me now for the things I would say to get myself out of obligations or to get what I wanted. In Tim O’Brien’s “The Things They Carried”, he discusses what it means to tell a true story in war. He notes that often times, the real story of an event is not only less interesting than the one you tell, but sometimes, it is less true. At the peak of my dependance, I would tell elaborate lies purely for the attention I received from the story- something that I didn’t admit the reason to until it was too late.
In first grade, I was at a tiny (20 kid per grade) school in Germantown called Project Learn. The school publicized itself as a free thinking, art-centered elementary school. I was a student there since Kindergarten, and the class size was so small that the teachers could truly get to know and love their students. Similarly, the small grade meant that I had the same kids in my class in every year, and we all grew very close. Jane, my first grade teacher, was teaching us about fables one particular spring. We heard, and acted out the tales of Paul Bunyan and Johnny Appleseed as a class. I loved hearing the stories, and my friends and I would always pick the roles that went together in each reenactment. On one special show and tell, Jane asked us to tell the tale of our weekend, like one of the fables we read. Conveniently, I had just gone to a Phillies game over the weekend, and I was eager to tell everyone my tale. Looking back, I have no doubt that many of the children in this circle made up weekend plans or exciting stories, but I was nearly last student to tell mine, and after hearing the others I knew just attending a baseball game was not good enough. I told my class about the miraculous hit that went straight over my head and into the mitt of the man reaching out right behind us. The man saw me, just a row in front of him, staring at the ball in his glove, and he gave it to me. I was quickly persecuted by my classmates, who chided, “That didn’t happen!”, “So where’s the ball?”, “I saw the game and I didn’t see you catch anything”. These complaints were followed by a call from Jane to my parents, wondering about my amazing experience. My dad told her the real story, and she talked to him about me on a long phone conversation. I was ashamed of what I had done, and angry at my classmates for insulting me. When my dad finally asked me why I did it, I couldn’t come up with an answer.
I wish that I could say that that was my last lie, but there were many more, and there probably will be more along the way. The lies I told when I was younger may be the ones that I regret the most, but I believe that stopping now is pointless. The lies and stories I’ve made up have helped shape who I am today, and I can’t help but be at least a little thankful for everything they have done for me. And so when I sit with Wylie at her doll house on a Sunday morning, and her toy dog falls from the balcony and its head falls off, and she is unable to get its head back on, and I see her eyes start to swell, and she looks in search of her mother and asks me,
“When will mommy be home?”
I know what I’ll say.