Who’s Your Nanny?
No one knew when the secrets began. Not until Mabel entered the nursing home did she tell.
Living alone in the upstairs apartment parallel to our house, Mabel had only two caged parrots for companions. On hot summer evenings when the windows were open, their cackle chorus of “Mabel, Mabel!” disrupted the peaceful orchestration of the grasshoppers welcoming sunset.
Our home, with ten children, bustled with activity. From her darkened, upstairs living room, Mabel could look directly down to our busy family life. Sheer curtains served as flimsy guards of privacy. Come the long winter nights, shades not drawn, Mabel’s view was even better, as lights were turned on to break the bleak darkness.
Aware of the shrouded figure next door, Mother voiced no objection, mindful of the Bible verse of “Be not forgetful to entertain strangers, for thereby some have entertained angels unaware” (Hebrews 13:2).
Daily living provided little opportunity for Mabel and my mother to exchange pleasantries. As neighbors, they were always civil and polite. As children, we were often sent next door with a piece of homemade pie or other treat.
Perhaps tired of her name being screeched by the parrots, Mabel asked us children to call her Nanny. “I am not your grandmother nor granny. Just call me Nanny, but let’s keep that our secret.”
We paid little attention to the veiled upstairs figure. Nanny was simply there. Only grocery shopping prompted Mabel to leave her apartment, backing her car out of the long driveway separating the two houses. We welcomed the arrival of snow, as clearing Nanny’s driveway brought us shiny silver dollars for payment — but never an invitation to visit inside the apartment. How our necks would stretch as Nanny opened the door for pie or payment, hoping to catch a glimpse of her feathered companions.
Winter also brought Christmas. Artificial trees had not yet entered the market. Part of our Christmas magic was the bringing in of the tree, the fragrance of the balsam heralding the holiday. Dad would string the lights on December 23; Santa would decorate late Christmas Eve. Color television was a technology still two decades away; for us the Christmas tree lights soloed in bringing color into our world. And Mabel looked on, in the darkness of her flat, a silent sentinel.
Not until returning home from Midnight Mass would my mother bring out the dusty boxes of Christmas ornaments and start decorating the tree. Then came the tedious task of hanging the leaded silver icicles, the clock ticking the time to Christmas dawn. When the last box of tinsel had been hung, Mother would turn on the tree lights, basking for a few moments in the silence. And from her window, despite the time of night, Mabel watched.
Only one small voice exclaiming “Santa was here” proclaimed an early start to Christmas Day. Ten piles of gifts were arranged strategically in the living room. No money had been spent on frivolous, fancy wrappings in that era. The lights of the Christmas tree yielded its own magic kaleidoscope. And Mabel watched from her window, enveloped in that volcano of Christmas love.
Years passed. Ten children eventually left home. Old age silenced the squawking parrots. No longer able to care for herself, Mabel found it necessary to leave her isolated haven.
Mother, always civil, always polite, visited the nursing home. Not until then did Mabel confess witnessing the child rearing and the Christmas joy. Not until then did Mabel confess her secret of asking to be called Nanny. Although for years they had been simply neighbors, the two women were linked at last by the sharing of secrets. Reflecting on those days, they wept together — and neither felt alone.
Ken Neuser, a grandfather of nine, is a retired school psychologist and a freelance writer.