My dad and I were driving one night after taking my babysitter home. The car was a royal blue Plymouth Roadrunner with white vinyl upholstery. Creedence Clearwater Revival’s version of “Susie Q” played on our 8-track tape deck. At age four or five, I just assumed this song was about my babysitter Susie. I figured the whole world knew about this beautiful, smart high school girl. Her cheerful “okey dokey” made everything right in my world.
Dad let Susie behind the wheel of the Roadrunner for driving practice. “Wow, Mr. Hall, are you sure? My mom doesn’t even let me drive over the bridge.” She tossed her hair over her shoulder, a gesture I would strive to emulate with my own stringy tangles that I never brushed because my hair was so fine that brushing was excruciating.
Susie was blond, long-legged, beachy, funny, and got very giggly about Joe Namath. Her poker straight golden mane of hair was on the cutting edge of chic in the early 1970’s, like Cher and Peggy Lipton and Susan Dey. She stepped right out of what I dimly perceived of the Age of Aquarius, the colorscape of Peter Max murals that permeated décor and advertising. She was very different than my petite brunette mother who was a Jackie Kennedy clone, her dark bob carefully teased and sprayed into a helmet every Friday at the beauty parlor.
Susie represented a seismic shift in style, but more importantly, a seismic shift in attention. My parents were extremely sociable and generally out all weekend. I was an attention sponge, and I curled up, dry and whiny around the edges, if I didn’t get enough. I don’t write this to discredit my mother. She did important things like teach me to read and take me to my first library. I got every book or toy horse I ever begged for. But she tended to set things in motion, then step back. I had to have a major meltdown before she would really stop to bolster my ego.
If you’re lucky, you are blessed with a caretaker who is generous enough to give what birth parents sometimes cannot. Like Aibileen tells little Mae Mobley in The Help, “You is smart. You is kind. You is important.” They convince us that we deserve that level of love. The trick is staying convinced when these people are no longer in your life.
Susie was really my first friend. She never made me feel like she had somewhere better to be. We played a Black Beauty board game by the hour, read Artie the Smartie over and over, ate Beanie Weenie TV dinners, went to the beach, walked in the orange grove and down by the river. I started writing and illustrating a comic strip featuring the Pink Panther, Susie, and me.
“Look at this, Mom,” she told her own mother, Marilyn. “She’s writing and illustrating her own book! She is so smart.”
“Hmm,” said Marilyn, echoing my own mother’s blasé attitude. My mom thought of course I would be able to read, write, and tell stories by the time I was in kindergarten. It was kind of expected.
Susie bragged about me. This was something my mother made a point of never doing, ever, because she hated listening to other people who boasted about their kids. Later, after I was a children’s librarian for a decade, I saw what good parents act like. They are almost insufferable because they talk about their kids nonstop. But their children glow with a quiet self-confidence.
When my brother came along, he naturally took his share of Mom’s love and attention. And to be fair, my brother was a troubled, difficult spirit who needed extra tending. My mother had her work cut out handling his darker energy. But my brother didn’t win Susie over, and that was important.
One day, Susie, my brother, and I walked on the beach. His diaper got wet and dirty, and he marched along naked, pointing his tiny tinkler at cars and squirting them. Susie and I laughed and laughed, complicit in allowing this undignified spectacle. We both knew my mother would have stopped it pdq.
When we got home, I overheard Susie’s mother, Marilyn, say, “ You let him walk home that way? You don’t pay as much attention to him as you do her.”
“I like Mimi better. She’s more interesting.” That is all I wanted my mother to say. Of course, she never could or would.
While I needed attention, Susie needed something else. She needed to bust out of our small town. As I drove around with Susie and her girlfriends in Marilyn’s old Plymouth, the restlessness was palpable.
“God, Mom is driving me crazy!” said Susie, backing out of the driveway, friend in the front, me in the back. The girls’ purses bulged with bright wallets, gum, and hairbrushes to groom those long manes. Their big girl stuff announced that they were adults ready to join the world and get the hell out of Dodge. If it didn’t happen today, it was going to happen one day soon. Driving around town was just orbiting until they achieved escape velocity.
I went to Susie’s high school graduation. My parents must have been busy that weekend because I spent the night at her house. In her bedroom, she and a couple of friends got ready to go party. I put my pajamas on, watching her squeal as she unrolled a huge poster of Joe Namath. When Susie left for the evening, I knew it was the beginning of goodbye. Marilyn checked on me as I drifted off to sleep.
Susie left the beachside periwinkle that she shared with her mother, went to college, met a nice guy from up north and moved to Manhattan. She learned her way around that urban island with the same sunniness that illuminated my young world. She went on to have a brave and interesting life, and is mother to a beautiful, accomplished daughter.
“You were my practice,” Susie told me years later. I just didn’t know it was practice. I never really got that kind of concentrated attention again. Without knowing it, I’ve subjected every single good friend and partner over the years to the Susie-test. Do they like me enough so that I feel safe basking in their light?
A few years after she left for college, Susie brought her boyfriend to Florida and married him. My dad performed the ceremony in his office. Apparently I was there, but I don’t remember a thing. Nothing. Not what I wore, what I said, not what Susie or her husband looked like. Recently, I saw a photograph of this day, and I realized I completely blocked this event from my memory. My face looks wan and defeated, as close to gray as a five or six- year-old’s can get. I looked like a kid who just lost her best friend.
The notion that I had any special abilities or deserved to be loved that much faded gradually. I started to discredit my own memories, and any notion that I had been a special kid made me roll my eyes with the same disdain that I reserved for people who checked The Velveteen Rabbit out of the library.
One day at work, I got an email from my long-lost friend and babysitter. She reminded me of what a bright and beautiful kid I’d been. I went in my office and cried because I thought I’d imagined the whole thing.
The happy coda to all this is that Susie is as funny, bright, and loving as I remembered her. My first friend is still my friend, and her wonderful partner Nancy is now my friend, too. Susie became a spiritual counselor and minister, and she performed our wedding ceremony when I married by husband in 2011.
So, people, not only love your damn kids, but also tell them you love them. Tell them all the time. Tell them in front of other people. Make everyone suffer through it. Who else is going to boast about your kids? Most families don’t have a super-babysitter to do it. Even if you secretly think your kid’s coloring page is average, tell her it’s wonderful. A kid with average talent who is comfortable enough to make art is the one who becomes an artist: not the kid with loads of talent who is too self-critical and scared to paint anything at all.