Every Tuesday and Thursday afternoon like clockwork, our baby sitter, Ilse, would climb the hill from the bus stop to our home, wearing a flower-print dress and large sunglasses with white frames that hid her lively blue-green eyes and sun-worn face.
There was never a time when I did not welcome her shrill, familiar voice, greeting me when I got home from school with a sing-song, “Hello, hello!” Like my mother, Ilse came from the Baltic country of Estonia, and to me she was family – not our mother, aunt, or grandmother, but some new category of relative all her own.
Often, the sweet, slightly singed smell of freshly ironed clothes hit me as I walked in the front door, and I’d clamber down the eight wooden steps to the basement where Ilse was pressing pillowcases and my dad’s white undershirts. I’d practice the piano for awhile, just to be near the comfort of her big, soft body, and the neat stacks of warm laundry.
Sometimes, I’d stop playing and stand beside her to watch her leathery hands, browned from years of gardening, one hand pulling the material taut and the other guiding the iron. Finishing one side of a garment, she’d set the hot iron upright for a moment, warning me not to touch. “I-r-r-run,” she pronounced it, rolling the “r” off the tip of her tongue.
Later, I’d sit across from her at the kitchen table with a Hostess cupcake and a glass of milk. While my brothers watched cartoons upstairs, Ilse would deal the playing cards in a circle for the old Estonian card game we loved to play. I’d tell her every detail of my school day, like how at recess I’d won a clear blue marble that resembled the surface of the moon when you held it up to the light. Ilse would listen as she dealt the next hand, and I knew she had nowhere more important to be than right there with me.
Her colorful use of language – whether German, Estonian, or English – never failed to delight me. “Kuule poiss” (Hey, boy), she’d often say in Estonian, to quell my little brother’s teasing, “don’t pester your sister.”
In quieter moments, Ilse entertained us with tales of her mischievous grandson. Taking a huge breath – enough to hold the entire story – she’d recount all of the boy’s latest escapades, accompanied by animated gestures, before coming up for air.
At day’s end, Dad or Mom drove Ilse home, and I’d often ride along, knowing that, if I was lucky, I’d get to go inside for a treat.
While Ilse’s ecstatic little poodle yipped at her feet, and her husband nodded a greeting from his recliner, she would take me into her kitchen and root around in the pantry. Then she’d present me with a Fig Newton, or a Lorna Doone, or a Nutter Butter Sandwich Cookie, and like those stories of hers, each told – remarkably – in one long breath, that small treasure would last me all the way home.