Had I posted a classified ad when I was searching for a nanny for my kids, the copy might’ve read something like this:
Wanted: Delightful woman to impart kindness, manners and respect to my children. Infectious giggle a real plus.
And wouldn’t you know it? That very person knocked on my door, arriving a few months before my second son was born. She stayed for 20 years.
Pat’s few shortcomings as a nanny (she could be a dangerous laundress and a mystifying cook) were far outweighed by her loveliness. I remember calling my house from my office to hear her answer the phone with her charming Guyanese lilt and perfect enunciation: “Hello, good afternoon, may I help you?” she’d trill. It was all I could do not to hang up and call back just to hear her say it again.
Pat had endless patience for rambunctious boys and a true appreciation for games. She actually enjoyed playing Chutes and Ladders, while I only pretended to do so. She declared my children both geniuses and gifted artists. (They were not.) And while she was raised in a culture where animals lived only outside the house, she adored my quirky terrier, even inviting Lucy to share her bed.
The more we got to know her, the more apparent it became that Pat’s love of God was just as ingrained as her good nature. She was deeply religious, praying every morning and night, attending an evangelical church several times a week and tithing part of her earnings.
But despite her seemingly implacable spirit, Pat’s perpetual smile belied a life filled with hardship and pain. Caught in the densest tangle of red tape imaginable, she has been waiting for her green card for more than 25 years. That has meant limited opportunities for employment beyond childcare, despite technical experience working for a telecom company in Guyana and a keen aptitude for higher math. It has meant not seeing her extended family since she left her country in 1989, never meeting many of the nieces and nephews to whom she devotedly sends birthday and Christmas gifts. And it’s meant struggling sometimes to stay afloat financially, all without a complaint or an ounce of self-pity. To hear her tell it, her strength is all about her faith.I’d been too angry or sad over my loss to reconsider my depiction of God until this gentle woman encouraged me to think differently.
The irony was that a woman with such deep religious beliefs ended up working for a family with virtually none. I’d left religion behind long ago, having never truly connected to it in the first place. Once my mother died at age 49, I slammed the door for good on the God that let that happen to her and to me. At the time, my understanding of the way God worked was as an uber-puppeteer, manipulating mankind and nature at His whim. With that viewpoint, I couldn’t accept a God that would allow or even cause suffering in the world. I reckoned that if a benevolent God were running the show, we’d have no holocausts or hunger or cancer that kills moms. The upshot for me: Either God doesn’t exist, or He is one mean dude.
My husband was raised with no religious training so, as we started our lives together, our faith, or lack thereof, was a non-issue. Over the years, I haven’t missed religion itself but I have missed the family gatherings that revolved around religious holidays. As my grandparents’ and then my parents’ generations died out, those celebrations became fewer and farther between until they ceased altogether. I’m sorry my children didn’t experience that particular aspect of having religion in our lives.
Despite my ambivalence, it upset Pat that we were raising our children without religion. She wouldn’t have cared if our faith were based in Christianity, Judaism or Islam. She simply wanted the kids (and my husband and me) to experience what she perceived as the benefits of belonging to a church community and having a relationship with God. And while she never proselytized, she told me she how she felt, which led to a deeper discussion about my impression of God.
“God is not a puppeteer,” she explained. “He doesn’t make things happen. God’s role is to guide and comfort us in the face of whatever life puts in our path. When I pray to God, it’s not for specific requests. I pray that He will help me make good decisions, stay strong and find peace. When I pray to God for you and your family, it’s to help you do the same.”
This was something of an “aha” moment for me. I’d been too angry or sad over my loss to reconsider my depiction of God until this gentle woman encouraged me to think differently. I’d felt abandoned by God, yet Pat feels buoyed by Him, no matter how difficult her life may be. I didn’t find religion as a result of our heart-to-heart talk, but I did find some modicum of peace in the notion that maybe God isn’t a meanie after all. And I felt gratified that out of respect for one another, Pat and I – women from different races, cultures and classes – made a real point of trying to understand each other’s take on faith.
One winter Sunday, that sense of respect motivated me to load my young sons into the car and head to the far reaches of Brooklyn to attend services at Pat’s church. As the boys poked and punched each other in the back seat, I got totally lost in East New York until finally locating the small brick building that housed her tiny congregation. We found our seats, the boys sitting stiffly in their button-downs and khakis, taking it all in. There couldn’t have been more than twenty people, yet their small number didn’t dampen their joy as the parishioners sang and prayed. After the service, Pat beamed at the opportunity to introduce her two families to one another. As everyone hugged us, I’m not sure who was more moved, she or I.
Pat hasn’t worked with us for more than five years, but we still keep in touch. At her request, my sons, now in their 20s, met her for dinner with the two little boys she now cares for. Again, it was important to her that the people she cares about connect with each other, as if the force of her love could build bridges between strangers. It’s that generosity of spirit that drew me to Pat 25 years ago and makes me smile today. I’m still not sure I believe in God, but I’m certain I believe in Pat.