Kinderkare

Meredith Wadley

I. The parents

Absolutely two kinds of parents leave their kids with us, those who appreciate what we do for them and those who patronize us. Although I don’t like being patronized, I won’t punish a kid for the parent’s actions. I hold a Master’s in Early Childhood Education, and I’ve been operating a daycare from my home since the birth of my first daughter. Both girls are teens now. So, I bring a wholesome punch of personal and professional experience to a job I take as seriously as I take myself.

Appreciative parents embrace what we do. They show gratitude for our support in many ways: they dress their kid appropriately for all seasons; they bring outgrown toys, clothes, and footwear for us to use or to pass on to my scholarship clients; on their kid’s birthday, they’ll bring a cake for everyone; and they have their kids craft presents for me and my two assistants—for our birthdays, for Christmas, or to celebrate their final day in our care. I have drawers of drawings, painted rocks, and plaster handprints.

Appreciative parents observe our operating hours.

A patronizing parent rarely asks for my credentials or experience. I give them, anyway, which seems to make no impression. They’ll hand over their kid as if entitled to my services, and I’m to “Yes ma’am” whatever they instruct me to do. In general, they’re not givers. Giving isn’t required, of course, but these folks will arrive on their kid’s birthday with a single cupcake in a bakery box and no candle. Rather than adding to my box of donated goods, they’ll rummage through it. One mother, regardless of the season or weather, insisted I provide the clothing and footwear to keep her daughter warm and dry since it’s my policy to take the kids outside daily. One father, before leaving my house—I operate out of an extension of my home—dumped every drawing and craft piece his daughter made here. “What do I want with that shit?” he barked after I gently confronted him. His daughter’s eyes teared up.

Oh, the poor darlings of parents arriving late at the end of the day. Sitting cross-legged on the floor, facing the door, and hugging a doll (toy tractor, stuffed toy, or blanket), the anxious kid will suck a thumb (pair of fingers, the tip of a braid) or rock back and forth. Meanwhile, the house fills with cooking smells as my daughters prepare our dinner. Share our meal with the kid, and I’m sure to hear a complaint about spoiling an appetite. You can bet a Happy Meal sits congealing in Mommy’s Cayenne, the motor running.

One mother dressed her daughter in Dior. The girl would give us a twirl and say, “My beautiful new dress must stay clean all day!” We’d dress her in play clothes. At first, she’d turn herself into an eel to resist being stripped out of her finery. A beribboned hanger for her dresses calmed her. Along came her six-month-old brother. We’d change him out of his Petit Bateau outfits, too. One day, the girl fell ill. Before the mom arrived to fetch the two, we changed the boy back into his own clothes but handed over the girl still wearing a stained Frozen tracksuit and wrapped in a blanket. The incident prompted the mom to switch daycares. The new place, she informed me, changed diapers wearing rubber gloves, and the midday meals were catered individually. Our tracksuit and blanket were never returned.

Compared to the rubber-gloves place, we’re practical. Where just as high-end—I insist on organics for my operation—but value for money. My assistant Lorna worked at my competitors before joining us. Despite their attention to details, complaints were lodged at the County Commissioners Office. I’ll spare you the specifics Lorna named.

In any case, it’s my wish to provide a safe, wholesome experience for kids, especially for those brought up in toxic environments. Toxins come in many forms, some hardly detectable. I refuse to subject anyone to toxins.

II. The Employees

Confession. Privately, I think of the women who work for me as “the help,” which isn’t polite or proper. I know. But my assistants do help me, are helpful, and are helpers. Monique’s been with me ten years. Her granddaughter Bree was one of my early scholarship kids, which is how we met. Bree’s mom, a widow and Monique’s daughter-in-law, worked shifts, so Monique dropped Bree off before going to work herself and collected her. To the kids longing to touch Bree’s nappy hair, which she wore naturally, Monique offered her own. I lost a few clients because of Bree.

One evening, Monique noticed a boy especially sad and anxious. What could I do? He was always the last, waiting up to half an hour for his mom to pick him up. Monique began staying on, watching Bree and the boy play until the mother arrived—breathless with some excuse. I’d invite Monique and Bree to eat with us, which she did whenever she could. Finally, I offered her a job.

Most parents responded in kind to Monique’s warmth and fairness. Others would speak to her as if she were slow to follow. They’d overexplain themselves. If she looked them in the eye, they’d stiffen or even recoil. Small stuff. But real stuff. Unfortunately, I couldn’t hold these people accountable for their insensitivities, but in our care, their kids experienced alternative behaviors.

The second assistant position has always experienced more turnover than I’m comfortable with—single mothers usually fill the position because they can bring along their own kids. Few have stayed on, once their kids have entered school. Lorna joined, primed to quit, too. She didn’t have kids but planned to start her own daycare. She lives across Airport Road from us. The ranch houses over there were built by the same developer, but with less care and attention to detail. They’re smaller. Most no longer stand plumb on their slab foundations. And their backyard fences have rotted and toppled unless replaced by chain link sturdy enough to enclose the kind of dogs that require muzzles. Old Glories hang from front porch flag poles, yet the pickups parked in most drives have a Confederate flag somewhere, covering the rear window, decorating a license-plate holder, at least in the form of a sticker.

Lorna considered budget-brand graham crackers and peanut butter a good snack. She argued that beanies and weenies made a decent meal. Okay, we grocery shop at two different stores, but I get her point. I started my business because I couldn’t find a suitable daycare for my first daughter. I wished for fresh-air activities, healthy meals, and educational games and play. Her vision would suit many folks, so I figure we weren’t so different, Lorna and me: she drives an old Honda Prelude, and I used to own a Prelude. Hers is dark blue. Mine was burgundy.

She said she’d open her daycare as soon as she could secure a loan.

Not so easy.

III. The twins

New kids undergo an introductory week, with a parent alongside. From encouraging the newbies to join our singing and games on day one, we progress until they’ve experienced a full day without a parent. Some kids need to repeat the process.

Zse-Zse and Po-Po (nicknames), our first twins, settled in quickly. The three-year-old sons of a Chinese mother and German father—both medical doctors—the twins behaved gallantly at the craft table, effervescent outside, and were happy to belly-up to their Toy Story lunchtrays. Neither spit out mushrooms, threw a temper-tantrum over a glass of milk, or threatened to vomit at the sight of zucchini.

This is an aside, but the first time I put one of the twins on the diaper table (at first, we couldn’t tell the boys apart), I was astonished by the size of his willy—and I’ve seen all shapes and sizes. When Lorna changed the other twin’s diaper, she gasped. As she opened her mouth to say something, I gestured to stop. I never encourage remarks about the kids, especially in front of them.

Zse-Zse loved toes. When any of us sat for a moment, there he’d be. I told Lorna and Monique that this distasteful behavior was natural. So was Po-Po’s passion for humping throw pillows.

I dispensed with the throw pillows, and we started wearing closed shoes or socks in the house, even in summer. The tactic worked. Since neither of the boys ever touched or tried to touch another kid inappropriately, I saw no need to tell the good doctors about their sons’ strange behaviors. If the boys exhibited them at home, the doctors never said.

Lorna tended to avoid the twins, leaving Monique or me to interact with them.

IV. The snacks

On a sunny day following a week of spring rains, we decided to take the kids to the public park for our outdoor activity hour. Although I’m well equipped for outdoor play—with a top-of-the-line swing set, slide, and two plastic playhouses—the lawn tends to stay soggy after heavy rainfall.

The toddlers walked a là Madeline, in formation and holding hands. Monique and Lorna followed, each pushing double strollers. I pushed a bike-hanger stroller packed with diaper bags, spare clothes, first aid and sewing kits, sunscreen, a quilt, sandbox toys, organic snacks, and beverages (usually an unsweetened infusion made from Monique’s home-grown peppermint leaves).

The twins lead. Zse-Zse picked up something from the sidewalk that looked like a chow-mein noodle.

“It’s a poor little worm the sun’s dried out,” I said.

Grinning, the twins collected every dried worm they came across, ping-ponging shouts at each other, “I got shíshí!” “No! I got shí-shí!”

“What’s shíshí?” Monique asked.

The boys looked nonplussed.

“Maybe you pronounced it wrong,” Lorna said to Monique. At times unkind, she laughed.

At the playground, we spread out a quilt in a shaded spot for Lorna and the babies, who squirmed like brightly clothed night-crawlers. The kids scattered to the swings, slide, and sandbox. Monique cradled our youngest in a baby carrier. She and I helped build castles; the rains had left the sand in perfect condition.

The twins, chatting, squatted together near the teeter-totters, their dried worms fanned out before them. Their mother had told me they had their own language. “It sounds like a mashup of English, German, and Mandarin, until you try to understand them. Complete nonsense.” She spoke in a West Coast accent as if she’d grown up in California, same as me, but she’d grown up in Beijing. “My mother and her sister attended Berkeley. When I came along, both had returned to Beijing and married. Auntie spoke to me only in English—hers was better. My dad taught me German. He’d studied at Charité in Berlin.”

“You didn’t learn Chinese?” Lorna had asked.

“My grandparents immersed us in Mandarin.”

“But not Chinese?”

“Mandarin is Chinese.”

Her husband assured me that his wife spoke German as flawlessly as she spoke English. At some time, she revealed being a quarter Jewish—a grandmother’s family having fled civil-war Russia in the twenties.

“That’s some mashup,” Lorna had later said while observing the twins. “It must be confusing.”

At the playground, Lorna and I fed the babies while Monique portioned fruit salad and yogurt into paper cups. We called the kids over. Outside the circle of toddler smacking and slurping, there wasn’t any movement. We were the only people in the playground.

Two fruit cocktails remained. “Where’re Zse-Zse and Po-Po?” I asked. My sturdy pair, active calorie burners, usually appeared first in line for food.

Lorna stood. “I’ll go look,” she said. “And stretch my legs.”

The legs of that girl. Her high metabolism, goodness. She ran nightly with her two Dobermans and finished several marathons every year. No matter the season, she wore short, short skirts and flip-flops—and hated having to wear socks around the house because of Zse-Zse.

Me, I favored leggings. If it weren’t for showering, I’d hardly know the shape of my own legs anymore. I looked down at my feet in their hideous hiking sandals and noticed a spot of whitish toenail, a fungal attack. Three days a week, I swam laps and warded off the Senior League Swim Team coach’s offers to join his team. No amount of foot spray kept me from getting fungus, and my soft skin wrinkled too early. Not too long ago, I visited a museum, and the young man at the ticket counter asked to see my ID for the senior citizens discount. When I looked baffled, he repeated himself, louder and slower. A woman rushed over and rang me up a regular ticket. If she couldn’t tell by my wrinkled face that I wasn’t a senior citizen, she could by my shocked reaction.

“Snack time!” Lorna called.

“Snack time!” “Snack time!” “Snack time!” several kids echoed.

I reminded Monique to reapply sunscreen once the kids had finished eating, and she gave me her slow-eyed nod that said, “Yes, dear, I know the routine.” Monique is the genuine senior, but with her smoother skin looks younger than I do. I suspect she dyes her hair. Dying my hair would be no coverup for me.

Lorna stood arms akimbo.

“Check the gates,” I said, the grounds being fully fenced.

Each was properly closed.

Monique and I exchanged glances. Should we be worried?

A cat bolted from some shrubbery. It jumped the fence, startling Lorna, and several kids laughed.

“Check the slides,” Monique called, pointing to the little hut perched at the top of them.

Lorna climbed the narrow ladder and out popped the twins. She slid down behind them; her hips still small enough to pass.

Monique tsk-tsked her tongue. Perhaps, like me, she’d pictured herself stuck fast on the slide.

The boys ate but didn’t gobble their snacks. I touched their foreheads.

V. Heading home

We headed home by an alternate route. Parents would be arriving soon, so the kids were both tired and boisterous. Zse-Zse and Po-Po collected more worms.

Where were the worms they’d already collected? I turned to Lorna. “When you found Zse-Zse and Po-Po at the top of the slide, did you see their worms?”

“What worms?”

“Dried worms they’d collected off the sidewalks,” Monique said.

“Yuck.”

Monique eyed the boys. “Those boys wouldn’t have eaten them—”

Oh, but through the years, we’ve had the cigarette filter swallowers, the bird poop lickers, and (always, always) the playdough nibblers.

“They need to see a doctor,” Lorna said.

“Their parents are doctors,” I reminded her.

She shuddered. “Man, fucking chinks’ll eat anything.”

VI. A safe environment

Lorna needed educating, clearly, but her education wouldn’t be coming at the expense of my kids or my business. I fired her on the spot, only allowing her to say goodbye to everyone before going.

Zse-Zse and Po-Po’s dad said dried worms wouldn’t kill them. “But I’ll keep them under observation,” he reassured an alarmed-looking Lorna. He asked her about her reason for leaving, setting my heart to pounding. Had he heard what she’d said earlier that same day, he wouldn’t have asked. She, naturally, spoke of her daycare plans, and he offered her his contact details. “If I may help you get your ideas off the ground,” he said, adding, “This town has a real need for economical daycares.” Monique and I, both firmly middle-class, nodded. A daycare in Lorna’s part of town would hardly be competition.

I found the man’s decency admirable. Lorna’s deception not so; astonishingly, she reached out to take his business card.

I snatched it away, and Lorna stormed off, not even saying goodbye to Monique or the remaining children and their parents.

“What’s this?” the doctor asked.

“I don’t think Lorna’s suitable for your charity,” I said. “She made a racial slur against your boys.”

The doctor gave a sharp nod, and I returned his card.

The following Monday, Monique brought in her niece Nicole.

To be honest with you, I hesitated to hire a second Black assistant. Monique already suffers differential treatment from clients. Did I wish to subject another employee to the same? What with the mess of White privilege and all that, I’m lost.

I interviewed others, but in the end, I hired the person I wanted to work with. Nicole has studied early childhood education, and she’s a blithe baby whisperer. Toddlers follow her like kittens follow a twitch of yarn. With her help, maybe Karen’s KinderKare will continue to provide kids what some parents can’t, a sincere chance to knit themselves a kinder and more inclusive understanding of the world.

Now, about those rumors of me using the “chink” word? Folks on both sides of Airport Road can guess where they’re coming from. Please. Ignore them.

END

Meredith Wadley lives and works in a medieval microtown on the Swiss side of the Rhine River. Her most recent longform fiction appears in Collateral, Line of Advance, Longleaf Review, and New World Writing. Pieces from her series of idioms reimagined as flash fiction have appeared or are forthcoming in several publications, including Bandit Fiction, Disquiet Arts, Fiction Kitchen Berlin, Fudoki Magazine, Gone Lawn, JMWW, Lammergeier, Lunate, and Orca Lit. Visit her at: www.meredithwadley.com. She tweets at: @meredithwadley.

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