Tucked away in the corner of my Christmas decorations’ tub, is a small white cardboard box. Most of my decorative Christmas items have come and gone over the years, but the contents of this box have made every move with me since my sons were small. I never let anyone else pack them, each item is carefully padded with colorful tissue paper. Even so, when I open the box to remove its contents, small bits and pieces fall off in my hands. I can no longer put them on my tree, for fear that they may fall and break, or a helpful dog may decide to take a bite. They are made from salt dough, created and baked 30 years ago on a dark Canadian winter’s night.
Newcomers’ Club came at just the right time. We had moved to Canada with our two small sons to try to plant a new church. Not easy in a metropolitan area of several million people, with no denominational name recognition, no support network, and a limited financial window (a story for another time) Consequently, there was no local congregation or conference structure to welcome us and help us adjust to our new community, and new country. When I was invited to a Newcomer’s Coffee, I felt like someone had thrown me a lifeline.
Many of the women who participated in Newcomers’ were no strangers to the challenges of frequent re-locations. Some had husbands in the military or police, others were part of the professional managerial class who got moved for promotion all over the country. Some were women who stayed at home, others were executives themselves. part of the local chapter\ were part of a transient professional population. These were women who knew what it was like to move to a place where you didn’t know anyone—they open to new people, and terrific about making fast connections.
Over the next few weeks, I learned to play Euchre (badly), joined an aqua exercise class, hiked in the gorgeous provincial parks, and made some marvelous friends. One evening, I saw a younger woman standing all alone, looking awkward and felt my introverted heart go out to her. I introduced myself and discovered that her name was Stephanie, and she had recently come to Vancouver to accept a job as a nanny. The couple she worked for were young, high-powered executives who lived in one of the new upscale housing developments outside of the city. It was a long way out from everything-but the city was spreading out in that direction. As we talked, she told me that not only was this her first full-time job, but it was the first time she had traveled outside of Australia. I was just floored. I couldn’t imagine how hard that must have been.
At the end of the evening, I arranged to take Stephanie out for coffee on her next day off. I had to pick her up—she didn’t have a car, and there was no public transport out that far. I wondered, what did she usually do on her day off? There was absolutely nothing but houses: no café, no park, no movie theaters (pardon me: (“theatres”) no shopping.
It was a bit alarming to discover that there was no provision made for Stephanie to get out on her own—except for a ride to the monthly Newcomers meeting. The company that arranged her employment had, for all intents and purposes, dropped her off—with no orientation, no supervision, no helpful manager to check in to see how things were going. She was as isolated as if she were in the suburban version of the Outback. I began inviting her over for dinner, for game nights, and then Christmas Craft night.
Another friend from Newcomers and her husband were coming over to help make dough ornaments with the boys. Tina and Scott knew they were short-timers to Vancouver. He was part of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, and the newlyweds had already been informed that they could expect to be transferred in the coming year. They were a delightful couple, and Tina was a marvel. I was only in my thirties, but Tina would ask me to show her how to do things as if I were an elderly matron. I was glad to help, but she didn’t need it. There was one time she wanted me to teach her how to do counted cross stitch. Two weeks later, she was designing her own patterns. Tonight, was no exception. I made up the dough in a variety of colors, got out the cookie cutters and laid everything out on parchment paper. As the boys and I rolled out dough to cut with our cookie cutters, Tina had already gone freehand. She made lambs with fleece (who knew a garlic press could be so versatile!), an adorable donkey, and even a camel. After working with our cookie cutter shapes for a few minutes, the boys and I decided we would ask Tina to help us make some like hers.
Stephanie joined us about mid-way through the festivities. My husband had run out to pick her up. She sat at the table for a while, eating a snack and watching the boys carefully ( well, mostly) roll their dough and create their ornaments. She was unusually quiet. After we had made the maximum mess for the evening, and the boys were showing signs of imminent melt-down, I put them down for bed. Tina and Scott sat in the living room to visit, and I put on a coat to take Stephanie back to her place.
Sitting in a dark car, the radio turned off, I finally asked: “You have been so quiet all evening, is everything okay?” Stephanie looked straight ahead, took a deep breath and confessed that she was about to be sacked. At dinner that evening, she had blurted out to her employer that she was feeling so sad and lonely, that she was afraid she might hurt the children.
I couldn’t have heard that right. She had said it so matter-of-factly. What could I say to a statement like that? Finally, in the calmest voice I could manage, I said, “Stephanie, you realize that you haven’t given your employer a choice? If that is what you said to her, she has to let you go.” “Yes,” she said, “I know.” She retreated back into her silence. I couldn’t think of anything else to say.
When we got to the house, I asked if she would be okay. She said she thought so. And walked toward the house. It was hard to drive away.
The phone call came less than an hour later. Stephanie was weeping, and I could hear an angry woman’s voice in the background. Could I please come and get her? Her employer wanted her out of the house right now. Then angry voice got on the phone and said that there was no one at the nanny agency available to take her until the next morning. She simply could not have Stephanie in the same house a minute longer than necessary. Would I come?
I hung up the phone and headed out once more for the exclusive neighborhood.
An unprepossessing man, with a slight build came to the door, I could hear a television in the background. He pointed me toward the staircase and disappeared toward the sound of the T.V. Stephanie’s room was at the top and to the left. I could have found it without the directions, due to the ringing female voice pounding down the stairwell.
I saw Stephanie and her aggrieved boss at about the same time. The voice turned to include me as part of the audience. The yelling continued, without Stephanie lifting her eyes from her shoes. When she saw me out of the corner of her eye, she gestured to her suitcase. There was only the one: it was about the size of a studio apartment. I sensed I might have some difficulty moving it past the angry woman on the landing—if I could pick it up at all. Stephanie turned away to gather up her remaining belongings. The woman, having lost the attention of her target, began to address all her anger at me.
Let me just say, at this point, that this was one of the largest, well-muscled women I had ever seen. I’ve tried to examine this memory to see if she was actually as big as I remember, or if her anger made her appear bigger than she actually was. But, whichever way it was, it was clear to me that if she decided to get violent, I was in trouble. My heart was up in my throat, as I contemplated what it would be like to just leave the suitcase and grab Stephanie to make a dash to my car.
And then, I wasn’t. I began to speak to her in a quiet conversational tone—the one I used for small boys who were overwrought at bedtime. She had to quiet down to hear what I was saying, and as she did so, the anger slowly leaked out. I could understand her anger, her frustration. She slowed to a stop and stepped into Stephanie’s room, and reached for the handle of the suitcase, (the size of a studio apartment suitcase) picked it up with one hand, and carried it down the stairs and out of the house, where she tossed it into the back of my car as if it were a yoga tote.
She thanked me for picking up Stephanie, and promptly went back into the house.
When I finally managed to reach someone at the agency that handled the Nannys, I was told that I could bring her to the “Nanny House” at 8:00 a.m. the next day. Except for an emotional collect call to her parents in Australia, Stephanie spent the rest of the evening and night on the couch, silent, in a tight fetal position. I finally gave up trying to get her to lie down in a bed, and covered her up with a blanket. Our friends left quietly, and I promised to update them later. I may have dozed.
The next morning, I headed for the kitchen to make a cup of coffee. Our art projects from the night before were all spread out on the kitchen table—baked and ready for Christmas. Angels, Snowmen, Lambs, Donkeys and Stars. O, Holy Night. I wrapped a few in tissue to send with Stephanie. At 7:30, we headed for the “Nanny” house. It was an older home with lots of bedrooms, that were full to overflowing with young women from countries around the world. They were all so young. I wondered how many of them might be headed for a situation similar to Stephanie’s. I had all kinds of questions: How are these women vetted for this program? Did they have any training? Any psychological evaluations? Why was there no support for Stephanie in the weeks before she hit the wall? Was all this even legal? I never did get any answers.
Over the following months, I often wondered what had happened to Stephanie—and all those other girls. It was around Christmas time that we saw the postmark from Adelaide. Stephanie was doing well. It had taken a while, but she was living with her parents, and had a job. She was hoping to go to school in the fall.
Every year, I take out our dough art ornaments. I can still see all of us sitting in the warm kitchen: Devin is sitting in Tina’s lap and she helps him squeeze out the squiggly dough from the garlic press to fleece his lamb. Jonathan is sitting next to me, methodically pushing seed beads into the soft dough with a push pin to provide eyes and a smile for his snow man. In my mind’s eye, I can see Stephanie too. I still wish I had been able to do more for her that night. I wonder where she is all these years later, and if she too digs out her little dough ornaments, no longer strong enough to be on the tree—but more than sturdy enough to remind her that we are never alone.