For sure, I can remember always being responsible for someone else. I always, always, took care of the Little Kids, and even when it was just Bonita and me, I was in charge, and I made sure she was safe and I took care of her. Even though she was only one and a half years younger than me, somehow she never seemed to catch up to me in responsibility. I rescued her from the 4-H Fair when Black-Eyes dragged her in the dirt.
I took care of other people’s kids from the time I was 10 years old. I got paid for it too, which was proof-positive I was responsible and in charge. Once I overheard Mrs. B say to Mom, “Look how she plays with the kids. She hasn’t forgotten what it’s like to be a kid herself. “
I loved taking care of kids, and I vowed I would never, ever forget what it was like to be a child. How could I?
Of course, I made a lot of mistakes. I was really a kid myself. Still learning. Still sorta inside myself, and full of myself, and looking at the world from one perspective: mine.
My Pal, Frankie, the Little Kid I was most responsible for, remembers some of my mistakes. The biggest one: The Wet Pants and the Diaper.
Frankie must have been almost six, and still wetting his pants. That made me somewhere around 13 years old. Lazy boy, I thought. Of course, I heard Mom when she talked stuff over with Mrs. M, the neighbor lady, over coffee.
“He gets playing so hard, he doesn’t want to come in,” Mom said, “He waits too long.”
“What about school?” Mrs. M. asked just before she took a sip from her coffee cup, peeking out over the top at Mom who probably never even noticed because she got busy studying something at the bottom of her own cup.
“No,” Mom sais “Sometimes he wets his pants as he’s coming up the drive from the bus. He drops his books on the porch and starts playing with Robbie. That’s all he thinks about. Robbie.”
“Robbie never says anything?”
“You know Robbie. He can barely keep track of himself. I have to tell him to go home for supper.”
“Sometimes a heifer’s gotta kick her calf good to teach it a thing or two.”
There goes Mrs. M, telling Mom she’s a cow again, I think.
On Saturday, Mom picks Deanna to go grocery shopping with her. Just one of us kids gets to go. If I stay home and Deanna goes, I’m in charge. Bonita gets to be my lieutenant. ‘Course I like it best when I get to go with Mom, but the next best is when Deanna goes. If Deanna’s in charge, she makes everyone clean the house. She gives me the bloody knuckles if I refuse. When Mom gets home, Deanna always says, “Look what I did, while you were gone.” She gives Bonita and me the evil-eye when Mom looks away.
When I’m in charge, we play games and do experiments.
Sometimes Bonita and I catch the Little Kids doing naughty stuff. We did lots of naughty stuff ourselves, so we promise not to tattle as long as they do what we say, like drink crazy concoctions we make up from the cupboard. Bonita mixes cocoa powder, baking soda and vinegar together and make Julie drink it, so Bonita will keep mum about Julie stepping out of line. You shoulda seen Julie’s face; she looked like an apple-faced doll, all puckered up and sour, with a big black cocoa-ring around her lips.
Little Kids never want to get in trouble, so they do just about anything we tell them to do. Sometimes Bonita and I “catch” them doing bad things that are not even really bad, like stepping over the line into neighbors’ yard without permission.
“You know you’re not supposed to go to someone else’s house without asking.”
“I saw you. You stepped right into Cathy’s and Robbie’s yard.”
“I was just asking Cathy if she could come over here to play.”
“I’m telling Mom on you.”
That’s how the bargaining began. Little Kids always came out on the bottom.
I already had to change baby Johnny’s diaper, I didn’t need Frankie wetting his pants, too. Getting wet blue jeans and underpants off a six-year old was way worse than changing a toddler’s dirty diaper. Frankie should know better and I told him so.
“You’re just lazy. You know how to go potty.”
Frankie just looks at me with his brown cow-eyes. Cow-eyes like Bonita’s. Cow-eyes that make almost anybody’s heart turn to mush. Not me. I know better.
“If you act like a baby, I’m going to treat you like a baby.”
I make Frankie get one of baby Johnnie’s diapers. I pin in on him on the outside of his spanking clean blue jeans.
“I don’t care,” Frankie says. “I like to be a baby.”
“Do you like to go outside, Baby?”
I get sorta mad at Frankie cuz of his back-talk. He never dares to talk back to Mom. He knows better than that. He talks back to me on account of me being a big sister and only in charge while Mom is shopping. Plus, he probably knows I’ll never give him the bloody knuckles like Deanna does to me.
I push him outside, and lock the screen door. There he stands, pounding on the door, begging and crying for me to let him back in.
“I’m sorry,” Frankie cries. “I won’t do it again.”
I tell him that he needs to learn a lesson, and I won’t let him in. I believe I’m doing just what Mom should do.
Years later Marcia, the Little Kid the next younger than Frankie, tells me that after I went to college, Frank and Julie, helped her climb into the tree fort before they removed the ladder and left her there. She swears she was up there, alone, all day long. No one noticed she was trapped
“I was terrified.”
Marcia never quite gets over it. She has the same big brown eyes as Bonita and Frankie. I just want to hug all the pain away from her.
“I’m afraid, even now of being abandoned,” the adult Marcia confides in me.
“I would have saved you, if I was home,” I say. My heart breaks for her.
“I know you would,” she says. “You are the most compassionate of all my brothers and sisters.”
Frankie reminds me about The Wet Pants and the Diaper. I laugh a little and tell him I’m sorry.
“I was just a kid, you know.”
“I know,” he says, his brown cow-eyes getting all glassy. “But I never forgot it.”
We go out for a beer and pizza and reminisce about Frank the Prank, which is who Frankie was as a teenager.
Five years later, when I visit Frank in Texas, I tell him that The Wet Pants and the Diaper, bothers me.
“I brushed you off,” I say. “I am truly sorry.”
My memories of him growing up are dear to me. He’s my favorite. He’s the one I gave piggy-back rides to; the one I dressed; the one whose hand I held so he wouldn’t get lost. He’s my Pal; he’s the one who proclaimed it so. It pains me that I hurt him. He tells me it’s okay; we were both just kids.
Ten years go by. Frank calls me out of the blue just to talk. He still lives in Texas. We talk about his kids, his wife, his job. We talk about Dad and how he taught us to buck up and get over the small things. We talk about Mom who told Frank she did the best she could. We both know it’s true because that’s what we do. The best we know how.
Frank tells me he has something to get off his chest. As soon as he says, “I have something I’ve been holding onto,” I know what he is going to say. Frank forgets he told me before. Twice. Frank forgets both of my apologies.
Frank tells me again about The Wet Pants and the Diaper. I have a hard time listening without telling him he told me before. I tell him I’m sorry again. He says he’s not asking for an apology, he just needs to say that I hurt him. I already know.
I can tell him how sorry I am until the cows come home. That will never undo what I did.
In the world of problems kids have to get over, The Wet Pants and the Diaper is small. Frank knows, even now, he is special to me and I love him. He love me, too. We should both laugh and move on.
Worse things have happened to people. Way worse: child soldiers, abused and abandoned children, children sold into prostitution, children born into poverty and disease. We should thank our lucky stars we had it so good.
I wish I was better at being in charge, that I never made any stupid mistakes, and that I always, always avoided hurting people. Especially people like Frankie, who is so precious to me.
Frank forgives me once again.
I know the scars still hurt. Both of us.