I keep a fleet of second-hand bikes for the use of the other half of the duplex. Flat with wide country roads and little traffic, the island’s ideal for riding. Half an hour brings you to the other end, where the village sits, housing the ferry terminal, the library, the school, the Farmers’ Market plaza, and the best ice-cream parlor in the county. Two hours takes you around the island’s circumference. Once Elise discovered the bikes, she and Bernard headed off on adventures many an afternoon.
One evening, she and Bernard arrived home from a trip to the library while her mother and I were finishing our test of pie-dough recipes.
“I think number three has the right amount of butter,” I said. “One was too moist, and two was too dry.”
“Three was flaky.”
“Guess what!” Elise rushed in. “I’ve got a job! It pays ten dollars an HOUR! Ten! Ten hours, that’s one hundred dollars!”
“Excuse me,” said Sonya. “We didn’t talk about this. What’s the job?”
“It’s babysitting. There was a flier. I was looking at it, and I met the couple, and they liked me! They said I could have the job!”
She pulled the flier out of her pocket and spread it out on the table.
“Do you know these people?” Sonya asked me, pointing to the contact name on the flier.
They were neighbors, a summer family. I’d grown up with the man who was now the grandfather of the children needing a babysitter.
“Do they drink?” Sonya asked.
“Not to excess,” I said. “They’re good people. He’s an architect. She’s a doctor. The kids are cute. Very little.”
“They’re two and four,” said Elise. “You know I’m good with little kids.”
“I need to meet the parents,” Sonya said. “I’m glad you’re excited, but before it’s a done-deal, I need to meet them and give my approval.”
Sonya and Elise talked in low voices as they headed towards the kitchen door. “But it’s so much money,” I heard Elise say. “You know we need it.”
The next day, the kids headed off to pick blackberries while Sonya and I made jam. The Cottage Foods application had been processed, reviewed, and approved. The kitchen next door had passed its inspection, and Sonya and I both received our food handlers permits. We were in operation and busily preparing for Thursday’s market.
“I never thought I’d wish a child of mine to be less responsible,” Sonya said, passing me a jar to fill.
“You mean Elise?”
“Yeah. She’s just got it in her mind that she’s got to take on all our troubles. She’s the one who’s gonna rescue us.”
“She’s a good person.”
“She’s fifteen. She should be hording her money for the mall–or for i-tunes or something. Not planning how she’s gonna cover our grocery bills.”
We worked in silence. The windows fogged over with steam. After we’d jarred the batch, we walked out to the back porch with our tea.
“In some cultures, the eldest daughter typically helps out, financially and with domestic labor,” I said. “And think about my grandmother’s generation, too. That was the norm. I think a lot of strengths can be developed, self-esteem, included.”
“I appreciate your putting a positive spin on it,” Sonya said, “but that’s not really the point. The point is she’s got two parents, alive and capable. And we should be providing for her. That was the deal. I can’t help it if one of us reneged, and the other–that would be me–was totally unprepared. This all helps, the jam and all, don’t get me wrong. But the point is…”
She didn’t finish.
We sipped our tea, looking out at the clouds banking over the lighthouse, and I thought of all the ways she might finish her statement. The point was, they were in need. The point was, for whatever reason, the children’s father, Sonya’s husband, wasn’t meeting their financial needs. The point was, he wasn’t there, and for all knew, from all appearances, he wasn’t coming, and he hadn’t been in touch with them. The point was, this mother, these kids, were hurting.
That was, actually, the main point of it all.