By Gregory Keer
We have this 70-year-old wooden chest that houses bundles of our memories. Inside are photos we have yet to press into books and a handful of art projects from our sons’ early childhoods.
One of the pieces is a handmade photo album of Benjamin (now 9) during his daycare tenure. Glued to the fading colored construction paper are pictures of him showing off his superhero underwear with his toddler friends, building sand castles as if real people were preparing to move into them, and dancing in the middle of circle time. On the cover of the album is a picture of a chubby-cheeked boy and the painted words, “Good-Buy Benjamin.”
The misspelling of “goodbye” is what makes me most wistful, especially now. English is the second language of Sarah, the daycare teacher who assembled that album and helped stack the building blocks of each of our three boys. For the last eight years, she has been the third parent to our sons. With the last of our boys heading off to preschool, I attempt to craft words of gratitude and admiration with melancholy tugging at every keystroke. I do not want to tell Sarah goodbye, no matter how it’s spelled.
We came to Sarah in 1999, after weeks of struggling to find the right care for our precious firstborn. As working parents, we had cobbled together maternity and paternity leaves, grandparent assistance and babysitting options for as long as we could. And finding one nanny sunbathing in our back yard while our son cried his eyes out in his crib was our last straw. Besides, Wendy and I believed in the socializing powers of daycare, so we researched every facility we could before we found our match – less than a mile from home.
From the start, the almost 6-foot tall Israeli was Benjamin’s tower of security at the daycare. She led our son and his United Nations of friends (the children hailed from El Salvador to Trinidad) in arts-and-crafts activities that rivaled those of the best preschools and in imaginative play on a sprawling yard most day camps would envy. Although her prices were modest, she had a tendency to dig into her savings to outfit her place with the latest equipment and for visits by that rock star of the preschool set, Mr. Al.
A year after Benjamin left Sarah’s garden, our middle son joined her band of merry kids. Sarah had to raise her accented voice a bit more with our pinball of a boy, but she and her honey-hearted assistant Efrat channeled him into painting and gymnastics. Adding to all the developmental benefits to our son, Sarah allowed us the flexibility to bring Jacob late if we had a morning off and her keen observations gave us insight into the complexities of Jacob’s nature.
Not long after Jacob’s graduation from daycare, Ari became our youngest child for Sarah’s tutelage. By this time, Sarah was so comfortable as the third parent that she peppered our older boys with familial questions, about their schools and friends, whenever they joined me to pick up their little brother. For his part, Ari walked around daycare like a grinning prince of his mini-kingdom, along with his fellow royal cousin Aaron.
Sometimes, Sarah drove us crazy with her persistent advice about tempering Ari’s tendency to push the other kids around, but we always knew she was hardest on us because we’d become so close. And it didn’t hurt that Sarah brought in the ebullient and funny Ziva to help keep up with our mischievous tike.
Sarah has given so much to our children. She’s taught them and protected them, nurturing them like her own. We are humbled by the fact that, without her, our kids would not be quite as proficient at friendships or manners or even singing (despite Sarah’s famous penchant for warbling off key). Although we will continue to visit her and have her over for dinners, I feel a dull ache as we adhere the last memories into the album of Sarah’s daycare. So, we will delete the “bye” – or even “buy” – from our farewell, because what remains is the “good.”