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The Nanny Diaries

I was in a meeting with a colleague when my cell phone rang; I didn’t recognize the number, but I picked it up anyway. It was the head of the home-owner’s association of my complex of townhouses. He is an older gentleman, owns a big Dachshund, is relentlessly jolly, and never calls me. He began what at first seemed to be a casual conversation, “how are you, sorry to bother you, by the way, are any of your windows open upstairs,” and turned out to be a conversation about the fact that my Russian nanny, Albina, had stepped into our yard to throw away a diaper, and the wind had blown the door closed behind her. Now she was outside, locked out, and my one year old was inside, awake, at large in a world we’ve really been meaning to baby-proof, really. She had stood there for a while, trying to figure out what to do; the baby crawled to the glass door and smiled, trying to figure out what game they were playing. Then she left the yard, and the baby inside, and ran to get help. We all kicked into action, and, five minutes later, they were inside, and I was 45 miles away, still on the phone. I heard the baby screaming, and heard Albina pick her up and soothe her. There was nothing for me to do, so I hung up, felt my legs turn to jelly, took some deep breaths, and went back to my meeting, systematically ignoring the relentless images of what could have been.

When I was growing up, I had a Jewish Russian nanny. My parents helped her daughter and grandson get out of Russia. Genya had been happy in Russia. She taught German at the university level. But her only daughter had wanted to immigrate to the United States with her young son, and had applied for a visa. Genya and her husband could not imagine living apart from them, and so they applied for visas, too. In a move typical of the Russian government at the time, Genya and Jack were granted Visas, but her daughter, Simona, and grandson, Artur, were not. In the early 1980s, if you were Jewish in Russia and received a visa to the United States, you emigrated. So when I sat on my father’s shoulders at rallies at the Russian compound in the Bronx, everyone around me chanting “Free Sharansky Now,” I was shouting “Free Simona and Artur now!” Eventually, they received their visas, and the family was re-united. My family is still in close touch with theirs, though Genya stopped working for us when we moved to Israel, in the late 1980s. She danced at my wedding with me; I cried with her when her husband passed away.

When we returned from Israel, my family hired another Russian woman, Zeena. Zeena was hard-working, and helped raise my younger sister; she was part of our family for ten years. One afternoon, my mother went upstairs to a locked drawer in the attic where she kept jewelry and other valuables, and found that it was unlocked, and empty. After a lengthy investigation, it emerged that Zeena was culpable, though she was never officially convicted. My mother’s diamond engagement ring was gone. A charm bracelet her grandmother had lovingly compiled for her was gone. Cash was gone. And Zeena was gone, a sniffing cop and rancid after-taste in her place. I was working in Russia at the time, running a summer camp. The day I heard about what had happened at home, a basketball was stolen from the counselor’s room. Poor campers, poor staff. I called camp to a halt. I gathered everyone together outside, under the trees. We sat there in silence. I was mourning the trust that had been broken between Zeena and my family. I was mourning a world in which you didn’t know whom you could trust, and what was safe. Then I talked for a long time about the basketball.

On the evening after Albina was locked out of our house, when I told my husband what had happened, I watched him respond. He knew that our baby was by now sleeping soundly in her crib. First he wanted to know all of the details – how long was she outside? How long did it take them to get into the house? Then he wanted to know why I hadn’t called him. Then I watched as he became angry. “We could fire her over this. She should have made sure the door was unlocked. She should never leave the baby’s side. She should always carry her cell phone.” Then the “what could have beens” swarmed around him, and he sat down.

How can you trust anyone with your children? Yes, we read resumes and look for CPR certification and check references, and watch, during those first few days, like hawks. Some go so far as to install video cameras in teddy-bears. Ultimately, though, trust is a decision of hope, a delicate sheet of ice thinly coating a roaring river of unknown.

When I got home day, I hugged my baby tight, and Albina broke down crying and hugged me, and I hugged her, and then the baby’s diaper needed changing, and then I had to make dinner, and before Albina left I reminded her to come early the next morning, so I could catch my train and go to work.

–Maya Bernstein