On First Jobs and Marigolds

I love the cheery faces of marigolds. They don’t seem to mind the sweltering heat that has decided to stay for a while here in Texas (and I think everywhere else on the planet).

I plant marigolds whenever I can, either as just pops of yellow and gold decoration in a planter, or as a bug deterrent next to tomato plants. It really does seem to work. Pests like whiteflies and disgusting tomato worms seem to not like the strong, peppery scent marigolds give off. They also keep your soil healthy. I am a gardener at heart.

I’ve occasionally eaten marigolds in salads, but always with a slight tinge of guilt. They are our allies, after all.

My very first job at eight years old was snapping the dead heads off of marigolds in front of my father’s downtown office. If you snap off the dead heads, they continue to grow and produce more flowers. The same thing is true of basil, by the way. If you want delicious leaves to add to your meals or make into pesto, don’t let the little white blossom heads linger, just snap ‘em off. The plant seems happier too.

I have vivid memories of taking a large white bucket and wearing a sun hat and working in those front beds in the early morning hours while it was still relatively cool. The clods of dark earth usually had plenty of worms, but they’ve never bothered me. It was relaxing, moving from flower to flower, taking off the finished blooms, leaving the rest to flourish. That peppery scent, the satisfying snap as another dead head came away. I think my dad paid me a dollar an hour, and it seemed as if I was making all the money in the world.

He thought I might be game to pluck the disgusting, writhing bagworms off of our evergreen hedges for the same price, but not a chance. This girl has her standards. Ugh, it still gives me the heebie-jeebies thinking about them.

I had other under-the-table “first jobs” as well. I started out babysitting at eleven and continued that right up through college in Chicago. Back then, there was a “jobs board” in the dorm, and local parents would drive to fetch you so they could have a night out. I think back then the going rate was $7 or $8 an hour.

I had one family who became regulars. They lived in an enormous, rambling house up on the North Shore. The kind that has a welcoming porch and polished hardwood floors and good art. I sat for them for a couple of years. They had three kids. The oldest was a girl named Oona, who was four when I started sitting for them. She had big dark eyes and an old-soul vibe. She told me on our first meeting that she’d told her mother her name in the womb, and that she was the reincarnation of Charlie Chaplin’s last wife. All the hairs on my arms stood up when she told me this. I believed her.

Her little brother was maybe three, and a terror. He was a climber. One time I was making supper for the kids, and I swear he translocated to the top of the refrigerator in less than five seconds. It was a big fridge. I got him down okay, but I think that was when my first grey hair sprouted. Later in life, I had a climber myself, but was ready for it with this early training.

The youngest was a sweet little baby boy, maybe six months old when I first started sitting for them. He always smelled like sweet cereal milk, the last slurp in the bowl of Lucky Charms. He also had enormous brown eyes, but he never got around to telling me if he’d told his mother his name in the womb.

I loved babysitting those kids, once or twice a month, on a Friday or Saturday night if I wasn’t in a show. The dad would come fetch me and make awkward conversation as he drove me up to the house. The mom was one of those effortlessly elegant women who couldn’t have been nicer or more appreciative. I thought of the parents as being old back then, but now that I think back, they were probably early 30-somethings. I’d bring my homework (all analog, no computers yet, you wrote your essays longhand, and then typed them out) to do when the kids were asleep.

The parents would head out around five-thirty. I’d feed the kids dinner, let them play with their toys for a while, and then at 7pm, it was story time. The parents had ALL the books, so we read “Frog and Toad,” and “Babar the Elephant,” as well as the Berenstain Bears, and Dr. Seuss stories. Then came my secret sauce. I’d let them tell me what they’d like a story about, and I’d make a new one up just for them. They loved it, I loved it. I’d hold the baby on my lap, while the other two leaned in on either side of me under a soft Afghan on the big leather couch in their den.

They’d head to bed by 8, not without a bit of a tussle. Water at the bedside, nightlights on, the baby monitor on, doors cracked so that if they needed to, they could call out and I’d be there. I’d do the dinner dishes, and then settle in to do homework until midnight or so when the parents would come home in a swirl of perfume and alcohol. The mom always told me I was the kid’s favorite babysitter, that felt good. They always paid me well, $80 for the night, and then the dad would drive me back to campus, letting out jaw-cracking yawns.

I’ve wondered at times what happened to Oona and her brother and the baby. After graduating, I lost touch with the family. I like to think perhaps the three all grew up healthy and happy, and that they tell their own children stories on big sofas, wrapped up warm and safe.

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