From The New York Times, I’m Anna Martin. This is Modern Love. And that’s my sister Emily. Do you remember Ms. Dina?
Ms. Dina took care of me and Emily when we were young, and she’s this totally mythical figure to us. Our memories of her are full of color. I remember her hair is like fire engine red.
No. In my memory, she’s wearing a red tank top — v-neck — with low-rise pants.
We spent a lot of time with Ms. Dina. So many snacks and neighborhood walks and books read out loud. When I asked Emily what she remembered the three of us doing together, it was those everyday things that still lingered.
I remember going to the Bed Bath and Beyond and descending down the massive escalator and just looking around at our crew, which was me, you and Ms. Dina. And we’re in Bed Bath and Beyond touching towels, trying out the beds.
But I think that’s also because we were young, and our sense of her was totally determined by the amount of time she spent with us. What stands out to me about Miss Deena is that we do have these memories of her, whether we can explain the specific time and date of what we were doing. It was hazy, but the lasting feeling when we talk about Miss Deena is always joyful.
It’s warm memories. That’ll last for forever. It’s so tainted gold, even though I can’t tell you more than five stories.
Emily’s right. The specifics, they’ve blurred over time, but that’s how growing up works. We’re left with impressions and colors and feelings. And those feelings last.
On her last day with us, Ms. Dina gave Emily and me these picture frames, her photo and ours. On the back she wrote, “I’ll love you forever.” And talking to my sister, I realized it goes both ways. We love Ms. Dina forever too.
This episode is about the secret world that lives only between babysitter and babysat. Our essay today is called “The Manny Diaries,” written and read by Kevin Renn.
I was 24, relatively new to New York City, working a day job I hated, waiting tables at night and writing plays in my bedroom during any spare moment. But money was getting tight. With few options left, I decided to fall back on one job I knew it would be a sure thing: babysitting.
Most of my jobs when I was growing up in New Albany, Indiana involved working with children, including seven years as a “Kinder Camp” counselor at my local Y and a summer theater teacher. Everyone told me that nannying was one of the best jobs for a starving artist — playing make believe, diving deep into a child’s imagination, the laughter, the joy. Until the child is hungry, angry and having a meltdown. The question, though, wasn’t whether I would be a good nanny, but if anyone would let me be a nanny as a Black man who is over six feet tall.
Lucas’s parents did. Walking into their apartment that first day, I was greeted with an unexpected hug from a small, white, 4-year-old boy with a wide smile. His parents, John and Mark, were in their early 50s, slender and tattooed, one with a sleeve. They were cool, hip and showed me that it was possible that I too could have it all one day.
The idea of having children was something I had always imagined, even more than having a partner. When it came to sex and relationships, I was a late bloomer. While college friends were busy boozing it up at house parties, I was in rehearsal for a Tarell Alvin McRaney play, and having my first kiss with, yes, a woman. Mainly because the script said I had to.
I bloomed late all the way through college in Indiana and during my early years in New York. With Lucas, I almost felt as if we were growing up together. For two years, until the pandemic interrupted our routine, I took him through the same daily paces — pick him up from school, help him do his homework, feed him a snack, take him to the park, then taekwondo, dinner, bath, bed.
Things didn’t always go smoothly. One day, as we were leaving the playground, Lucas had one of his witching-hour meltdowns, crying and pushing me away. A particular middle-aged white woman tried to intervene. I calmly explained to her that I was his babysitter, but she wasn’t backing down, figuring I was kidnapping him or something.
Finally, she said, “Should I call the police?” I lost my calm and said, “Do it. I dare you.” Everybody froze, and I whisked Lucas away, fighting back tears of my own.
Another year passed. Lucas was now 5 as we encountered a second white woman who felt entitled to play hero, all because I was holding hands with Lucas finding directions to the museum on my phone. She approached him saying, “Are you OK, sweetie?” Then turned to me with a look of concern, she added, “What’s going on here? Do I need to call someone?”
Lucas, having remembered the stressful encounter from a year earlier, looked at her and said, “Do it. I dare you.” Growing up before my eyes! Soon enough, he had gone from 5 to 6, from Sesame Street to Star Wars, from symbols to statements, from chit chats to conversations.
Most days, I did the best I could to be a supportive friend to him while trying to remain a strict adult. He already received enough of that at home — a hot and cold environment of Mark’s exhausted laxity and John’s anxious expectations of well-behaved perfection. To them, I was no longer just a nanny; I was family.
Christmas gifts, invitations to Sunday dinners, birthdays, baptisms and more. This was a problem, though. I was waiting for an opportunity to get out, but the closer I got to Lucas, the harder it would be for me to leave. Lucas knew I was leaving New York for the summer, traveling to go work on my plays, entering into the biggest summer of my career thus far — back-to-back residencies and even a national new play festival.
But he didn’t know I wasn’t coming back. Sitting on a bench in J. Hood Wright Park, I did my best to tell him the truth. I bought him ice cream to cushion the blow, fearing that hearing me say, “I’m not going to be your nanny anymore” would break his heart. As I said it, though, he was calling out to nearby pigeons.
“Aw, little pigey. Come here, little pigey.” He was barely listening, or so I thought. I promised him that I would always be around, that I would always be his friend. And then, for the first time, I told him I loved him.
He became distracted by two boys riding a child’s motorcycle. “Oh, you’ve got to get me that for my birthday,” he said.
“I won’t be here for your birthday,” I said.
“I think I already knew that.”
“You did?” “Yeah,” he said. “I’ve got a good memory, dude.”
I laughed. But soon, I was sitting still with heartbreak.
I realized that he was only trying to tell me what he ultimately wished for: a motorcycle and me.
The months turned to days, and days turned to hours as I counted down my last moments with Lucas. Memories flash through my mind — peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for lunch. Spaghetti and meatballs for dinner accompanied by the sounds of Sammy Davis Jr., Dinah Washington, Louis Prima, and his favorite, Dean Martin.
The time he saw a Black Lives Matter sign hanging outside of a church and said to me, “Your life matters.” Teaching him the universal sign for choking, which would later save his life when he got a snack on his throat, made the sign, and I gave him the Heimlich maneuver. There were so many things I still wanted to teach him, but his youth stood in the way.
On my last day, I said my final goodbyes to John and Mark and asked Lucas my routine parting question: “What are you going to do while I’m gone?”
“Listen to my parents,” he said. We had taught each other so much, grown up together, laughed and learned to stand our ground against strangers and their assumptions. He gave me a tight hug, and then I was off.
That evening, as I was walking through Washington Heights on my way home, I began to cry, already missing his wide smile staring back at me and his tiny hand holding mine.
Remember me, Lucas. I promise to remember you.
And be sure to keep your heart open as it is right now. Do it. I dare you.
After the break, a rainy day play date at Lucas’s apartment.
It’s only been about a year since Kevin stopped babysitting Lucas officially, so their connection is still strong. The colors are still vivid. But they’re in this interesting place, where their relationship requires effort to upkeep. Kevin comes by when he can, takes Lucas to the park or to a show. Before, Kevin was just always around. Now, his visits with Lucas are more rare, more special.
So a few weekends ago, Kevin and I got buzzed into this big Manhattan apartment building. And as we approached a unit on the second floor, it was totally obvious which one was Lucas’s apartment.
Kids describe themselves through their stuff. So when Lucas was giving us an exhaustive tour of his bedroom, he was introducing himself to us.
As soon as Kevin sat down, Lucas immediately climbed into his lap. Kevin wrapped his arms around Lucas and for the first time since we arrived, Lucas relaxed. The thing that struck me was how natural the two of them looked. Their affection was still instinctual, immediate.
Sitting there across from Kevin and Lucas, I thought about the many, many nights I spent curled with Ms. Dina on my own couch, her reading out loud to me. Sometimes, I’d fall asleep and I’d wake up, and I’d still be in her lap. I remember feeling so safe.
When Ms. Dina left, I felt that way a lot less often. That unadulterated trust, that calm — knowing there’s someone older and wiser to hold on to. There’s beauty in leaning on someone in that way.
And then, Lucas wanted a snack.
In the kitchen, I wandered over to the fridge, which was covered in these Polaroid snapshots of the two of them.
In each photo, Kevin looks pretty much the same. He’s got a different shirt or his hair slightly different, but he’s smiling the same giant, infectious smile. But Lucas — in each photo he’s a different version of himself.
In the earliest one, he’s almost impossibly tiny and his wispy little hair is pulled up into a bun. In another, his smile is a constellation of baby teeth and the spaces left when they fall out. And in the most recent one, his hair is long and floppy, and there’s some grown up teeth coming in.
Lucas is growing. He’s changing at the alarming rate kids do. The memories associated with these photos, they’ll fade. And soon, it will just be the photos. In 20 years, I imagine Lucas looking at this Polaroid the way I look at my picture of Miss Deena.
Maybe he won’t remember any of the details. But maybe, like me, he’ll see beyond the picture, and he’ll know there’s someone out there who loves him even though all the rest has faded.
On the next Modern Love, a mother and a son go for a walk on the beach, and the mother lets her son in on a secret. That’s next week.
Modern Love is produced by Julia Botero and Hans Buetow. It’s edited by Sarah Sarasohn. This episode was mixed by Dan Powell, who also created our wonderful Modern Love theme music and all the original music throughout this episode. Digital production by Mahima Chablani and a special thanks to John and Mark, Lucas’s dads, who graciously welcomed us into their home.
The Modern Love column is edited by Daniel Jones. Miya Lee is the editor of Modern Love projects.
I’m Anna Martin. Thanks for listening.