7 June 2012
When my sister and I were very little, we were watched over, on our parents’ nights out, by a lovely girl called, I think, Betty Dwinnell. She was connected somehow to the drycleaners along Palmer Road. She was sweet and pretty, as I recall, and of course she got married and that was that. The rest of our childhood, with few vacations, was overseen by a pair of dragons, Miss Nelson and Mrs Rogers. Or, as we called them, Nelsy and Ra-Ra.
They were not really dragons, but they were certainly the alternative, in unmarried womanhood, to Betty Dwinnell. I’m not entirely sure, at this remove, about Ra-Ra’s “Mrs” — whether that’s how she was known and whether it was meant honorifically. We were told that she had driven amubulances during the First World War. Although Ra-Ra was not seen to drive in our day, this wartime career did not seem implausible. She had lived in the city, too, in Manhattan, and, like everyone who has lived in Manhattan and left it for somewhere else (no matter how close by), she declared that it had become too dangerous for honest people to live in. I didn’t doubt it, because for a very long time, all I saw of Manhattan was Hell’s Kitchen, as it then really was, through which we would drive on the way to parking garages near the theatres.
Also, like dragons, Ra-Ra and Nelsy never worked together. Heavens, the thought! Nothing really unattractive was ever said, but I certainly learned that saying something admiring about Nelsy was an invitation to be looked at as an idiot by Ra-Ra.
The third thing that these ladies had in common — and it was probably the most dragonish thing of all — was that each of them babysat for one other household, a household containing a child or children that each vastly preferred to my sister and me, as neither tired of telling us. In Nelsy’s case, the other household had been broken up: the parents had been killed in a plane crash. (This was in 1955, and I remember my mother rather strangely waking me up in the middle of the night to tell me the awful news. She and the Clearys had been very good friends, and no one we knew had ever been killed in a crash. For years, my parents flew separately whenever they were traveling together.) The children so beloved of Nelsy went to live with cousins in Ohio, where they effectively grew up. Nelsy tried to stay in contact with Maury, but he was really too young, when the awful thing happened, to remember her across a great distance. Nelsy’s gifts, a few of them at least rather too expensive for her budget, had to be put to a stop. I was sure that Nelsy, good-hearted soul that she was, would have sealed us in a barrel and sent us over Niagara Falls if doing so would have reunited her with little Maury.
As for Ra-Ra, her other charge was Randy Paar, whose obituary in the Times I was shocked to read yesterday.
If Nelsy’s regrets about the Cleary children were necessarily mournful, as if they, too, had been killed, Ra-Ra’s reports about Randy Paar could have served Jane Austen as drafts for Aunt Norris. The difference was that we never actually saw Randy. I don’t think that either of us met her once. We lived in a very small village, but it was a village inhabited exclusively by ambitious professional people, and there was enough density for several circles to fail to overlap. My family was part of the business-executive crowd that played golf and bridge at Siwanoy. One heard that a few more artistic people still lived in Bronxville. Brendan Gill of The New Yorker, for example (although by the time I find out what that really meant — who Brendan Gill was — my Bronxville days were long over.) Durward Kirby, Garry Moore’s sidekick, lived around the corner. Jack Paar, whom I don’t think I ever saw live on television, lived in a little red house on Studio Lane, in one of the village’s more Alpine recesses. It was out of the way, oddly situated below street level, and, aside from being red, it had nothing remarkable about it except its owner, who was in any case a mysterious name to children.
Thanks to Ra-Ra, Randy Paar was my first paragon. She was everything that a child ought to be — obedient, diligent, sweet-natured and cute. In addition, she was possessed of a wisdom beyond her years, and routinely turned up her nose at foolish pastimes. (There’s no need to specify, as everything that my sister and I wanted to do was foolish.) In Ra-Ra’s hagiology, Randy was all the more a princess for having no yothful companions; other children did not figure in Ra-Ra’s updates. Randy Paar appeared to spend her life, very happily, among adults. I didn’t understand much about life, but the picture that Ra-Ra painted of an irreverent media prince (going by “Jack,” professionally, was iconoclastic enough; see “Durward Kirby,” above) and his clever handmaid daughter was so luridly exotic that I was never inspired to compete.
My parents didn’t know, and never mentioned, the Paars. Not even Ra-Ra mentioned Mrs Paar. I was free to believe that she was making it all up.
It would seem, from the sequel, that she wasn’t. Randy went off to Harvard and NYU Law, and seems to have done very well as a corporate litigator with actual courtroom victories. Her field, it is true, was hardly sensational: she represented businesses against insurers who weren’t sufficiently recompensatory.