Mother Figures

Collage of a nanny and two fathers taking care of babies
Ani Dimi, Studio Marmellata, Acalu Studio/Stocksy

My Nanny Showed Me How To Be A Mother

All these years later, I’m so grateful that Eppie taught me how to love.

by Katie C. Reilly
Originally Published: 
Mother Figures

My dad carried our family’s suitcases down the stairs of our childhood home, setting each one in a neat stack by the front door to prepare for the taxi’s arrival.

“I’m going to miss you,” Eppie said, tears gliding past her oversized, ‘80s glasses down her brown cheeks. She was the center of my 6-year-old world. When the cab arrived, I refused to get in.

“I don’t want to go without P-Pod,” I pleaded with my mom. When we were little and Eppie was difficult to say, my sister or I started the nickname P-Pod, which stuck. “I’m not going unless you agree to let me call her and check in on her.”

My parents worked hard to take us on vacation. Long-distance phone calls were expensive, but they eventually agreed before we left. And with a couple phone calls, I survived my first trip away from Eppie.

My mother, an attorney, was given two weeks of maternity leave from her law firm, so not long after my birth, my parents put an ad in the newspaper for a babysitter. Although many women responded, there was an unusually large snowstorm that week in Washington, D.C., where I grew up. And only one woman showed up on interview day.

Eppie didn’t know how to drive at the time. I always imagined her walking down our snow-covered cobblestone street, dressed in her uniform of choice — white cotton pants, button-up blouse tucked in, and polished shoes. Eppie, who is barely 5-foot-2 with skinny legs, a big belly, and a full chest, would be singing either “Purple Rain” or “Amazing Grace.”

“What a beautiful baby!” Eppie shouted the minute she walked into our house and saw me. Or that is the version of the story that my dad would share with me often. And from that moment, most of my days were spent with Eppie until I left for college.

When she was sad, she cried. When she was happy, she sang. When she was mad, she hollered.

Eppie made even the simplest tasks fun. She knew everyone who worked at our local supermarket and spoke to almost every person in the store before we exited. We never left without butter pecan ice cream, her favorite, which no one in our house liked. We pretended to speak a foreign language to each other as we rode the bus, laughing when no one else understood us. Eppie would chase me around the kitchen with butcher knives and I’d shriek in delight, even though it terrified some of my friends at the time.

Every weekday, I looked forward to spending time with her. We spent countless hours watching soap operas, especially The Young and the Restless. “Your daddy looks just like Victor Newman,” she would say (and he did). “I’m going to marry him,” she’d add. Then her boisterous laughter would fill the room while her only dimple peeked out from the creases of her left cheek. The sound was contagious, and I would laugh too.

On special days, we went to matinee movies and Eppie would stock her purse beforehand. During the show, she’d pull out little glass Schweppes ginger ale bottles along with full plates of dinner; each dish carefully wrapped in aluminum foil. She’d comment loudly after each bite, declaring how flavorful her own cooking was.

She was always present in my life. She picked me up from school or sports practice and was my dinner companion on weekdays, and her presence filled our house. With her, there were no emotions that were too big or conversations that were off-limits. Her feelings boiled off her skin the moment she felt them. When she was sad, she cried. When she was happy, she sang. When she was mad, she hollered.

She shared with me that she got her period at 11 and ran home from school scared. She told me she didn’t want to live with a man because she didn’t want to be hurt or controlled. And as I got older, I always spoke to Eppie, about the parties I went to and who I was dating. When I lost my virginity, I told Eppie.

Eppie loved unconditionally. She loved me no matter what grades I got. When I stressed about getting into a good college, she asked, “When are you going to have babies so I can take care of them?” She loved me when I gained weight (“Don’t turn into one of those skinny girls with no butt,” she’d say). She loved me when I had a bad day and every day in between.

Despite how much Eppie gave me, at times I found the situation difficult to navigate. Eppie was not my mother. My parents had hired her to care for me. There was no obligation for her to stay but I could never fathom my life without her in it. When my parents got frustrated with her on various occasions and discussed terminating her employment in front of me, I made ridiculous threats about running away and threw teenage temper tantrums. I used any power I could to protect her and myself, and to assert to them that she was family. When I graduated from high school, I made it clear that Eppie would be invited before the topic could even be discussed.

More than anything else, I’m so grateful that Eppie walked down our street on that snowy day. I’m grateful for the years of love that she gave me and continues to give me.

Eppie ended up working for my parents even after I went to college. Most days, she cleaned the house, ran errands, and was home when there was a delivery or a worker who needed to be let in. One day, a truck driver called my dad. Eppie had crashed into the back of his truck and didn’t know where she was. At the emergency room, we found out that she’d had a stroke, and several before. In the years that followed, I lost my mother to ALS and my father to cancer, but Eppie still lives in the assisted living home that she moved into years ago.

And it took me a while, but I eventually got around to meeting one of Eppie’s requests. At 35, I had a little girl, Fianna, but we live on the other side of the country.

Three months after Fianna was born, we braved a five-hour flight with a newborn to D.C. The minute the plane landed, I couldn’t wait to introduce her to Eppie. As soon as we arrived at the assisted living home, I knew Eppie wanted to hold Fianna. I watched Eppie cradle her, squeezing her chubby thighs the same way she did mine, our laughter filled the room. “Mama’s baby,” Eppie said; a phrase I use now in my mothering.

At one point during the visit, I examined the large mirror that sits on a long bureau, covered with pictures in her room. All of her 10 older siblings have now passed, but pictures of their children and grandchildren are tucked into the creases of the mirror alongside my family. To the left is a framed letter. “Don’t cry. I’ll be back soon,” the words are surrounded by drawings of airplanes. I wrote the letter on the plane on that first long trip away from Eppie.

“We had the best time, didn’t we, Katie? We shared some of the best years of my life,” Eppie said. We did, I told her. Sometimes the years I spent with Eppie don't feel real — a private world with butcher knives, a secret language, and values so separate from my parents.

Of course I have questioned the dynamic of our relationship, and resented the lack of time I had with my own mother. But, more than anything else, I’m so grateful that Eppie walked down our street on that snowy day. I’m grateful for the years of love that she gave me and continues to give me. And when I am with my now two little girls, I’m so grateful that Eppie taught me how to love.

Katie C. Reilly is a writer and attorney based in Oakland, CA. Her writing focuses on women's health, parenting and mental health. She has been published in The New York Times Magazine, Washington Post, The Guardian, and Newsweek, among other publications.

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