June 25th, 2007
At thirteen, I was the babysitter for several families. The Adams family with their two affable boys, huge record collection, and never-ending snack supply were my favorites. Chuck Adams, the father, was something of a reformed hippie, mellow and easygoing, the kind of man I wished I had for a dad. In the spring of 1975, when Chuck told me he recommended me to be the full-time summer babysitter of his friend Georgia’s six children, I was filled with dread. The largest family I ever babysat for had three children, and six seemed like an impossible number. I didn’t want to disappoint Chuck and told him I’d think about it, but I was only buying time while looking for a gracious way to say no. Then Chuck took me to meet Georgia, and my objections evaporated.
Georgia was not a typically beautiful woman but I found the contrast between her hardened voice and fragile spirit fascinating. From the start, Georgia stirred me in ways I could not fully comprehend. I felt an overwhelming desire to help her, protect her, and smooth her path.
Georgia’s small three-bedroom house was just short of a disaster. Rooms were overrun with clothes, dishes and toys. The kitchen floor was sticky from half-washed spills and the countertops were invisible under piles of pots and plates. The bathroom was coated with soap scum and dried toothpaste. The patchy lawn was littered with bikes, Big Wheels, and hundreds of plastic soldiers.
The Manguso home was in disarray, but love was evident in the chaos. Children’s crayon drawings covered the refrigerator and spread out to the kitchen walls. Framed school and family photos filled the living room and Georgia’s bedroom.
Georgia’s sweet-tempered baby girl and five rambunctious boys were the light of her life. Her drawn-out divorce from the children’s father was, she told me, the end of years of physical and emotional abuse, and the start of a better life for her and the children, but also the start of a war. Her ex-husband, she said, was a wealthy contractor, remarried and living in Utah, and he threw his money into making Georgia’s post-marriage life miserable. He paid child support late or not at all, and he swore to continue fighting in the courts until he stripped Georgia of the thing she most valued – her motherhood. Perhaps it was this fight, or maybe all that preceded it, that lent Georgia her hard edges and vulnerable spirit.
Georgia was struggling, and working full-time, but she showered her children with affection. She seemed to be an easygoing, patient, and humorous mom. She was dating a man named Jerry, a kind man from all appearances, but she was not interested in remarrying any time in the near future. She wanted time to heal, to become her own woman, and to experience life on her own terms.
Georgia spoke to me as if I was an adult and a friend. Her voice was low and hoarse, and her laughter contagious. I was always apprehensive, especially around adults, but I swallowed my nervousness with Georgia. Our long car rides from my house to hers varied between solemnly tearful and joyfully riotous. When a particularly painful subject arose, Georgia would bite her lower lip and clench the steering wheel until her knuckles whitened. Her eyes brimmed with tears, but they rarely overflowed. Eventually, Georgia would let out a long breath through pursed lips and then shake her head as if to cast off whatever sad thing we had discussed.
When the talk was happy, Georgia drove with one hand while the other gestured effusively, with or without a cigarette. Georgia was the first person I knew who could really make me bust open with laughter. Sometimes, unable to stop and howling in my seat long past the punchline, I worried that Georgia might think me simple-minded, but she would only smile and call me a goofball as she playfully pushed my shoulder or punched my arm.
I quickly fell in love with Georgia and her children. In my house, cleaning was the highest expression of care. A well-vacuumed or mopped floor could sway my mother into a smile on occasion, and cleaning was the one way I knew how to show my love for Georgia. It was a tangible expression, made all the better because Georgia’s time was stretched, her house was in desperate need, and I knew she’d appreciate the help.
I let the boys, ages three to eleven, in on my mission and made it a game for them to find the stray dishes and gather the jumbled toys. I bought candy treats and other small rewards, and invented contests in which there were no losers. The quickest, the most thorough, the ones who tried, and the ones who entertained the baby while the rest of us cleaned all got treats. Soon, the boys were coming up with exciting contest ideas of their own, and room by room Georgia’s house was became neater and more orderly. In between contests and meals, I read stories, played with the baby, and helped the boys build backyard forts.
Georgia was amazed at the transformation, and I loved to watch her expressions as she walked from room to room admiring the effort me and the boys put forth. She tried to give me extra money a few times, which made me uncomfortable because I had to argue against it, and I did not have the words or the confidence to fully say what was on my mind. I knew her cupboards were spare, her gas tank near empty, and her bills overdue. Georgia’s continued affection and happiness with my performance was far more important to me than an extra two or three dollars.
Near the end of July and my end as full-time babysitter, Georgia asked me if I thought I could babysit for a whole weekend. Jerry had invited her to someplace out of town, but she hesitated to be away from the children. She was afraid her ex-husband would find out and use the trip as ammunition against her. At the same time she was sorely in need of a break and a good time.
I urged Georgia to go, have fun, and not to worry about the kids or me. I assured her that we’d be fine. If her ex called, I would say she was shopping or working, and then I’d call her hotel so she could call him back. He would not find out from the children or me where she was. I would not tell anybody.
Georgia left on a Friday night, slowly, and only after much reassurance. And that weekend, the boys and I went on an all-out mission. We cleaned the windows, and hosed the outside of the house. I mowed the lawn and the boys raked. I washed all the bed sheets and blankets and dusted all the picture frames. When Georgia called to check on us, we told her we were just hanging out watching television, not doing anything special. On Sunday morning, we walked to the store and bought Calgon bath oil and a big Hershey candy bar. The boys wrapped the presents with comic strips and made signs welcoming their mother home.
When Georgia returned late Sunday afternoon to welcome signs, seven excited kids, presents, and a sparkling clean house, she was overcome to the point of tears. Oh my God, she kept saying, Oh my God, I can’t believe you kids did all of this. My spirit soared, and the boys were full of happy pride as they clamored to share their individual accomplishments.
After the presents were opened, Georgia went to her bedroom closet and retrieved a black and white checkered bag. She asked me if I enjoyed bowling. I said I’d never been, but thought it looked like fun. Georgia handed me the bag and laughed as my arm fell with the weight. “It’s my bowling ball,” she said. “I was a pretty good bowler in my day. I want you to have it so you’ll always have something to remember me by. I want you to go bowling one day real soon and have a good time.”
I was puzzled and pleased. A bowling ball seemed like such a strange gift, and Georgia’s comment about remembering her seemed out of place. Did she really not know, after a whole summer, that I would never forget her? Didn’t she know that I loved her, and the kids, and wanted to be part of their lives for a long time to come? I wondered in awkward silence, but at the same time I was thrilled. Georgia had given me a part of herself – an object engraved with her name – and one that had brought her happiness in the past.
I babysat for Georgia a few more times and then she quit calling. I asked Chuck if he had heard from Georgia lately, or if she said anything to him about my babysitting. I worried that she didn’t like me anymore. Maybe she really wasn’t happy that I’d cleaned, maybe she found it offensive. Maybe she thought I didn’t do a good job, maybe she found somebody better. Chuck didn’t have any information and I was too afraid to call Georgia on my own and take the risk of rejection.
In late August, I opened the morning newspaper and learned of Georgia’s suicide. Consumed with grief and depression, Georgia drove into the woods and shot herself. Her husband had recently won permanent custody of the children.
Georgia was judged on many levels, both in life and in death. Many people called her selfish, or blamed her for not trying hard enough, or fighting hard enough. Many people also said ”if only I knew.” But most of them did know that Georgia was struggling. She was very open about her feelings and her pain. And it may be that no one could have helped Georgia, but we will never know. In polite society, we simply do not pry into the affairs of others – we wait, instead, for them to come to us asking for a specific kind of help. Yet we know, really, that the most truly depressed or challenged people will not cry out, much less impose upon strangers and acquaintances with their problems.
Humans are imperfect, not always strong enough to handle life’s tragedies, and there are probably few among us who do not have their own “final straw” story.
We all know someone who is facing tremendous difficulty. Someone whose human mistakes or health or history has cost them dearly. Maybe it’s our neighbor, or one of our children’s friends, or the friend of a friend, or someone who sits at the desk next to ours. Maybe she’s may be the quiet type, hesitant to share the details of her home life, but whose eyes light up when she talks about her children. Maybe he’s the single young man without a family to lean on, who is struggling to find his place in the world.
Today, close to the anniversary of Georgia’s death, I want to encourage people to think about others in their life who may benefit from their help. Maybe an encouraging word is all you have to give, but please think about giving one. Lend an ear, be a friend, share some coffee and care. There are literally thousands of ways to give and all of them have meaning.
I bowled a 110 at Bryant Lanes tonight for you, Georgia. And that ball is still heavy.