Finally! The phone was ringing! I was certain I now had a new cousin. I was already wondering if she would like the nursery my aunt and I had arranged together when I visited that summer. Okay, maybe Aunt Karen did most of the arranging, but I was there, and that had to count for something.
Anxiously, I hovered at the edge of the kitchen. I wanted to be close enough to hear my mom’s side of the conversation, but not close enough to get sucked into washing the cups and silverware that were collecting in the sink.
“Hello,” Mom answered.
“It’s a girl!” I imagined my uncle saying. I had become an expert on imagining the other side of the conversation because Mom never deemed us worthy of all the details. Or at least that’s what I thought then. Now, I know Mom just doesn’t always like to reiterate them all again, regardless of how old her audience is.
“No, we don’t have too much going on at the moment,” Mom said.
Wait. Shoot! No baby. I almost walked away, but what Mom said sounded like there could be an invitation happening. An invitation to what? I wondered. A Halloween party?
“I’m alone with the kids, so I can’t leave right now,” Mom said, “but Beth could. She could call us when it’s time, and we could bring them both back here.”
Who was she talking to? I wondered. Where was I going? I often ran to neighbors to pick up something and then ran back home, but I never had to call first. Was it too heavy to carry by myself?
“I’ll see you shortly,” Mom said and hung up.
Great. I was volunteered for something, as usual, without anybody asking me if I wanted to do it. Typical. Mom hung up the phone and came to sit next to me.
“Beth,” she started. “I need you to do me a favor. Grab your coat.”
I thumped down the stairs and grabbed a thick sweater. Mom looked like she wanted to argue, but decided against it.
“The youth pastor and his wife have to go somewhere suddenly, but Dallas (their two-year-old son) really wants to be a cowboy and go trick-or-treating.” She paused in her explanation and looked at me. “Don’t you want a different coat?” she asked. Maybe mothers just can’t help nagging.
I shook my head, and she continued, “We’ve agreed to take Dallas with us, but he’s still napping and his Mom doesn’t want to wake him up. The youth pastor is going to pick you up and take you over. You sit through his nap and call us as soon as he wakes up.”
“Are you asking me to babysit?” I asked.
“Well, yes,” Mom answered. “But only for an hour. You won’t stay there long on your own. As soon as he wakes up, you need to call us. We’ll come get you and bring you both here.”
“But a real babysitting job,” I said.
“Just an hour,” Mom repeated, as if I was getting a bad idea in my head. “And call as soon as he wakes up.”
“I’m really babysitting!” I yelped.
“Call right away!” Mom said.
Finally. Finally. Finally. Someone was going to call me a real babysitter. I had been watching my brother and sister for years now, but I’d never been thanked (or paid) for it. I’d never actually had a real babysitting job. I was ready for some recognition for the work I was putting in. It was Halloween 1987, and as an eleven-year-old sixth grader at Adlai Stevenson Elementary School, I felt ready to take on the challenge.
The pastor picked me up in his car and drove me back to his family’s apartment. Dallas was asleep upstairs. The pastor’s wife was grabbing together all of the pieces to Dallas’s costume—a bag for treats, jeans, a checked shirt with pearl snap buttons, a bolero, a brown cowboy hat, and a pair of little boys’ cowboy boots that were just a little too big—and stuffing them all into a plastic department store bag.
“Here’s everything Dallas needs for tonight,” she said, shoving the bag into my hands. “The number where we’ll be is on the refrigerator. Thank your parents for me!” Of course, I thought. Thank my parents. I was still stuck on that thought when she and the youth pastor flew out the door, and I was left alone in a dark, cold, very quiet apartment.
I looked around. Sitting down by myself in somebody else’s house didn’t feel right. I stood back up. I didn’t really want to turn the lights on. That didn’t feel like something strangers did in houses that weren’t their own. Ten or fifteen minutes later, I walked upstairs and watched Dallas sleep. He laid so still I had to creep up really close and bend over before I noticed the comforting rise and fall of his chest. Thank goodness! I thought with relief. For one split second I had imagined trying to explain that I had killed the baby on my first babysitting job.
Dallas must have noticed the strange steps because moments later he was up. Luckily for me, he just smiled and stretched out his arms to be held, unfazed that his parents weren’t around and that a kid he only knew slightly was left to look after him. Maybe all pastor’s kids are that way. After all, they are constantly passed between congregants of any given church. He only asked, “Up?”
So I lifted him up, perched him on my hip, and headed downstairs to call home. Dallas chattered happily in my ear the whole way, “And they wear boleros and cowboy boots. Cowboy boots can do anything. You can make a horse go fast with cowboy boots.”
I picked up the phone and dialed my home number.
“You can climb up mountains in cowboy boots.”
Beep. Beep. Beep. Busy.
I hung up the phone and dialed again.
“You can kick bad guys with cowboy boots.”
Beep. Beep. Beep. Still busy.
“Cowboys shoot guns,” Dallas added. “But they have to do it wearing cowboy boots.”
After the fourth time dialing home and getting a busy signal, I tried to put Dallas down, but he just tried to climb back up, saying, “Cowboy boots are good at climbing.”
Come on, Mom, I silently begged. This kid is getting heavy.
Finally, half an hour later, I got through.
“YOU HAVE A COUSIN!” Mom screamed without saying hello.
“Really?” I shouted back, not so much out of excitement but to be heard over the cowboy boot commentary.
“A little boy! They’re going to call him Joe.”
“Great,” I said. “We’re ready to come home.”
“Daddy will be right over.”
I grabbed Dallas’s bag of stuff, and Daddy showed me how to lock the door on the knob without a key—but only after we’d checked and double-checked that we had everything.
Weekend Halloweens are terrible because you have to wait all day for trick-or-treating. You’re not allowed to break into the candy early or get dressed at noon.
By the time, trick-or-treating was upon us my mom was ready to make ghosts of us all. I can’t remember exactly what I was—probably a princess of some sort—besides angry.
“Put it on or stay home,” Mom said. “It’s supposed to snow.”
“But then you can’t see my costume!”
“You’re going to freeze.”
“What’s the point of dressing up if no one can tell who you are?”
“Fine. You can hand out candy.”
“I can’t! I have to hold Dallas’s hand. After all, I’m babysitting.”
Mom rolled her eyes. “Then put the coat on,” she said.
I grudgingly slid my arms into my thick winter coat from the year before. It still smelled musty since Mom had only just pulled it out of the coat closet—pulled it out while I was wearing the sweater she didn’t like babysitting. She always got the last word.
So we headed out: Dad, my sister Lisa (9), my brother Jon (4), and Dallas. Usually for Halloween, we walked out the back door and stopped first at the house behind it where an older lady lived with her two daughters. The older woman was always looking out of her window and calling my mom if anything seemed amiss. She checked over our gardens, commented on new plants, tattled on my sister and me, and even let the dogs back into the yard when they wandered off. Naturally, we should visit her house before our costumes fell apart and we were whiny. Besides, they always had good candy. After that, we usually headed down one side of Catskill as far as the hill and then turned around and came back the other side. We joined the crowd of coated costumed kids. Batmen, Supermen, Wonder Women, Mario Brothers, all were covered by coats. Only the Pac Men had escaped their mothers’ nagging, if only because the coats didn’t fit. Then we walked down our short little block of Surfside between Catskill and Rainier before crossing and walking back up Surfside on the other side until the hill got steep enough that we began to whine. Then Dad would make us cross the street and head back down toward home. This year, though, I held Dallas’s hand most of the way and helped him up the stairs. I helped him slide back on his cowboy boots again and again. It wasn’t bad at first, but when it started to snow, the swirling flakes got in his boots. Then they melted, and Dallas’s wet feet got cold. So we started home a little early that year.
Truth be told, my legs had been cold since the neighbor’s house on Catskill, and now they were red and itchy. But I would never admit that to my mother, and if I wouldn’t have had to carry my coat myself, I would have taken it off entirely.
I still remember that final walk back to the house. Tiny snowflakes circled around us. Dallas held my dad’s hand with one of his own and mine with the other. His boots were slipping, and his dark eyes were filled with tears brought on by the cold wind. Once he fell. “You made me do that!” he cried to us. “Don’t let go of me! Cowboy boots aren’t so good on hills.”
Walking into the house from the front this time, we all climbed up our steps, past my mom, who was handing out candy, and into the living room. Dad made us separate and dump our candy in front of us. Then Mom closed the door downstairs, and the two of them began to examine each piece for possible tampering. Mom was a nurse, so she’d worked in a hospital and was aware of all the ways kids could be hurt with candy. She scrutinized every seal and flipped back flaps looking for needle holes.
Once everything passed the yearly inspection, we would be allowed to eat it. At eleven, I thought I should be allowed to examine my own candy, but Mom wasn’t buying that one bit. She grabbed my candy and commenced looking over every Necco Wafer, Milk Dud, and SweeTart. Occasionally she’d throw one off to the side. I hoped she wouldn’t throw out too many of the chocolate ones. I loved the York Peppermint Patties and Three Musketeers.
They weren’t done going over everything when the youth pastor rang the doorbell. Dad went down to answer the door, and I grabbed Dallas and his candy while Mom found the plastic bag that now held Dallas’s old clothes.
“Bye-bye!” I waved to Dallas as his dad hoisted him up. Dallas waved back, kicked one foot, and lost a cowboy boot, which my dad quickly retrieved.
“Thanks, guys, for taking Dallas with you,” the youth pastor said. “And thanks, Beth, for watching him at our house.”
He had said them, the words I had waited so long to hear.
I don’t think I could even say, “You’re welcome.” I just nodded. I was too happy to simply be acknowledged.