Miss Jo: More family member than sitter

February 22, 2004|by LYN WIDMYER

"Please excuse Nick and Molly early from school to attend the funeral of their former babysitter".

Former babysitter. The phrase is so inadequate for someone who cared for our children three days a week, 12 hours a day, 50 weeks a year for 10 years.

Just like the other 28 million working mothers in our country, I needed reliable daycare after my son was born in 1985. You think finding weapons of mass destruction in Iraq is hard? Try finding dependable day care.

I returned to work part-time after three months of maternity leave, but my daycare problems lasted for two years. One evening I arrived home only to have Babysitter #4 announce she quit. She handed me my son who was covered in icky, red blotches.


I rushed him to the Emergency Room. As I sat there sobbing hysterically, the doctor assured me it was only a skin rash. I didn't have the nerve to tell him I was crying because my husband was in the middle of the corn harvest, I had a big meeting at work the next day and my babysitter just quit.

I finally solved our caregiver crises by having a second child and taking another maternity leave. I was about to initiate the dreaded search for a babysitter when Mary Jo Carter dropped unexpectedly into our lives.

Miss Jo's husband had just died and she was at loose ends. A mutual friend suggested babysitting might help overcome her loneliness. Miss Jo was 70 when we interviewed her. Leery of hiring an elderly babysitter, I suggested a trial run to see how things worked out. Miss Jo ended up staying with us for almost a decade.

Mary Jo Carter did not drive and she could not balance a checkbook, but when it came to managing a house and caring for children she was extraordinary.

I would arrive home to find the living room in perfect order, the kids squeaky clean and dinner in the oven. One Valentine's Day, we enjoyed a rice casserole topped with a heart fashioned from string beans and filled with paprika.

The children had the perfect babysitter and I had the perfect housekeeper.

Mary Jo did have a few quirks. Deeply religious, Miss Jo informed the kids that Halloween was a satanic ritual. This prevented my son from going Trick or Treating one year.

My daughter, on the other hand, refused to embrace any religious principle that precluded collecting bagfuls of free candy.

Taking Miss Jo to watch the kids in school performances was always interesting. Whenever Nick or Molly performed, Miss Jo commented to everyone within earshot how talented they were. Performances of other children were second-rate and Miss Jo never hesitated to express that opinion. Loudly.

As Miss Jo approached 80, she began to have health problems and retired. She died last month at age 87. When Miss Jo's son called to tell us of the funeral service, he said the childhood drawings and artwork of Nick and Molly still decorated her refrigerator.

The vocabulary of child care fails when it comes to describing someone like Miss Jo. Words like babysitter or caregiver or day care provider are too impersonal. The role Miss Jo played in our family cannot be captured by such sterile terms.

"Please excuse Nick and Molly early from school to attend the funeral of Mary Jo Carter. She loved them with all her heart and nurtured them for 10 years. Miss Jo made it OK for me to be a working mother. We are thankful she was part of our family life."

Lyn Widmyer Is a Charles Town, W.Va., resident who writes for The Herald-Mail. Contact her at

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