Juan (pronounced Ju-an) walked into our living room where my parents were sitting at the table. My mom and dad knew right away that she would be the one. She was wearing jeans and a Barbados T-shirt. She had brown hair, brown eyes, and brown skin. My sister, Emily, was two at the time and I was not yet born. Emily walked up to Juan and shook her box of Tic Tacs.
“You want one?”
Juan smiled and shook her head. “No thank you, Emily” Juan had a look on her face that said, I think I’m going to like this kid. Emily gave her the same look right back.
Then Juan sat across the table from my parents. When the interview was finished Emily walked up to my mom and said, “Mommy, I like that lady” She was only two years old but even then she knew that Juan was going to be our babysitter.
Juan took care of Emily until Emily was five. Then I was born and she would take care of both of us. Juan sat in the waiting room with Emily and then an hour after I was born she came in and held me. I have a picture that the nurse must have taken for my mom of Juan holding me.
From then on Juan and I were as close as we could get. She sang songs to me like “Oh My Darling Clementine,” and songs that she knew from when she was growing up in Barbados. Even now I remember her voice clearly singing them to me. I remember one day very clearly. We were in a park (I can’t remember which) and I had stubbed my toe and was crying. Juan picked me up and sat us both down and rocked me like a baby She sang those songs to me and it calmed me so much. Juan or Juju as I liked to call her was like a second mother to me.
“How long do I gotta stay with you, girl?” Juan would often ask in a joking manner.
“’til college, Juju!”
She would laugh and then kiss me on the head.
Our family always said that Juan knew our apartment building better than we did. Because later on in the years that she worked for us she was mainly alone in the house with our dog, she was able to do laundry and hang out with all of the staff’ that worked in our building. When she and I were going somewhere and we saw someone new that worked at our building Juan already knew their name.
“Hey Pablo!” she would shout from across the lobby “How’s the wife and kids?”
“Sharon is good, so are Benny and Samantha,” the doorman or maintenance guy would say Then they would pause a minute and be happy that Juan remembered. “How are Harry and Kenny?” (Juan’s husband and daughter).
“They get by,” she would say with that great smile. “See ya later! Stay sweet!” Pablo (in this case) would walk away with a happy feeling, while I would walk away feeling bad that I didn’t know Pablo’s name until then.
I used to, and still do, go over to Juju’s house for sleepovers. Juan and I play dominos there. She makes me barbecue ribs for dinner. She lives in Brooklyn so every so often Juan and I take the train to her stop and walk the couple of blocks to her house. Along the way we can’t get a block without running into someone that we know. Juan will say hello and introduce me.
“This Natalie, I babysat her since the day she was born.”
Her neighbor or friend would widen her or his eyes and say, “This is Natalie?” They would look shocked. “The one you don’t stop talking about?” Juan and I would smile shyly “Well,” they would smile back, “it certainly is a pleasure to meet you.” They would stick out their hand and I would shake it.
When we finally got to Juan’s house we would relax and talk to Kenya, Juan’s twenty-three-year-old daughter. She always had stories about college and questions about my school.
Soon Harry, Juan’s husband, would come home. He was a doctor. He would ask me how I was and join the conversation. Then Kenny would go do homework, Harry would watch a baseball game or the news, and Juan and I would go into the kitchen.
I sat at the kitchen table while Juan made me drool with all of the great smells of her cooking. She would make the best barbecue ribs ever. She usually made peas and corn along with it too.
When I asked her once where she learned to cook so well she would smile and say, “I’m from Barbados,” as if that would explain everything.
“I remember one day when I was about eight Juan and I were walking hand-in-hand on our way down the street. Two men stared at us with hatred.
“Why don’t you take care of kids your own kind?!” they yelled at us. I could see a tear spark in Juan’s eye.
“You don’t talk like that to me and my girl!” Juan yelled back and just like that we continued walking, but in silence. Me being Caucasian and Juan being African- American never seemed like a problem to me but apparently some people really needed to grow up.
Emily and I just finished doing the dishes when our mom called us into the dining room. We sat down, thinking our parents were going to tell us the plans for the weekend. We were trying to be shocked when my mom told us that it was time to have Juan stop working for us, but we knew that this conversation had been coming up.
Juan had been our family’s babysitter for thirteen years. She came to our house every weekday morning at seven-thirty and left at six o’clock to go to Brooklyn where she lived. She babysat my sister since my sister was two and now my sister is sixteen. We loved Juan and it seemed impossible to live without her. But the truth was that we didn’t need her anymore. I walked to and from school by myself and went places after school with my friends. And my older sister did almost everything on her own.
The last day she worked with us was the saddest day of my life. I sat on Juju’s lap as she stroked my hair and told me that we would still see each other all of the time.
“Natie, don’t you worry” a tear fell down both my cheek and hers, “I will always love you and I will see you very often.” She held me tighter. Right then I thought about how she always asked me how long she would stay with me and about how my reply had always been ’til college. I always knew that it would never happen but I had secretly hoped she could.
But after all of that Juan was right. We see each other all of the time. She got a job babysitting in my building and I see her every morning and sometimes after school.
Juan will always be there.