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Baby sitter became a role model for us all

I first met Joan when she came for a job interview to be my children's fifth baby sitter.

I was caught in a vortex of activity in those days, constantly whipped in circles by the conflicting demands of a career and the needs of small children. The first three sitters were all pleasant women, but each left as I changed the terms of employment by adding another child. And the fourth? The children complained that she twisted their arms on what became her last day. I had three days to find a replacement.

My mother helped me interview that weekend and was impressed with Joan, although I was not. She seemed too preternaturally cheerful and pillow-soft to be a fit caretaker for four small children. She won me over, though, as she shared her life experiences.

Joan was raised by her grandmother before becoming a mother to seven children of her own. She had been through all of the travails of parenting, including single motherhood when she was left a young widow. She had even buried a daughter, lost to cancer in early adolescence. Still, Joan had a cheerful spirit that could not be quenched by life's tribulations.

My children did not appreciate Joan's fine qualities, at first. They only knew that yet another sitter was coming and I would not be staying home with them. They plotted to force her out and thereby force me in. The three eldest ran circles around the house, and swore at her and each other. Joan told me later she felt like a warden in a penitentiary, having confined each to a different bedroom while she sat in the hallway forbidding them to open their doors.

Weathering the children's attempt to eject her, Joan became indispensable. She was a nursemaid, laundress and caretaker of all people who came into her purview. When my father-in-law came to live with us, he, too, became one of her charges, and she listened with genuine interest to the stories he told in his own special language of mixed English and Yiddish.

In the five years she was with us, between the birth of my fourth child and the arrival of the fifth, Joan read stories, checked homework, drove to violin camp and watched wrestling with my father-in-law. If she spent the day mediating a fight or coaxing a child to bathe or fielding a complaint from a school bus driver, she never mentioned it when I came home, rumpled with exhaustion.

Joan retired, but stayed in touch. Her sorrows multiplied as she lost yet another one of her children and her fiance, Orland, the love of her life. Still she remained strong in spirit, enjoying a new marriage and volunteering on the board of her community's senior center. When life's inevitable problems found their way to my doorstep, I found, in her, a role model.

Without knowing, she helped me cope with my husband's serious illness, a child's disappointing choices, the scattering of my retired friends to new homes around the globe. She seems determined to squeeze some drop of pleasure out of each day, and I have learned to do the same.

Joan did one more wonderful thing for me. Without comment, she made a scrapbook of my children's early years that she thought I would like now that she is moving. While I was busy worrying about their future, she was recording their present. Here is my eldest as princess, regal in a tinfoil crown; my curly haired middle daughter, sucking one finger; and my eldest son dressed in a red dog pajama, barking at his baby sister. They were all innocent then, but so was I. And thanks to Joan, I have the memories to prove it.

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Cynthia Balderman, who lives in Buffalo, is eternally grateful for her former baby sitter.