When Barbara Ostroth, Realtor Extraordinaire, sold us our first little Cape Cod, she set us up with everything from painters to play groups. She told us about the school system and the lottery system to get into the town’s camps and classes. She knew the best barbers and babysitters, attorneys and accountants. Along with the keys to that that little blue house, she gave us everything we needed to navigate the town of Teaneck. For over twenty years she’s offered me invaluable advice. But the best tip of all was the one that was right around the corner and up the hill from our Broad Street starter home.
“You HAVE to meet Claire Preschel.”
When we moved in, we only had Molly; Max was on his way and Leo wasn’t too far behind. I was working at CNBC and didn’t know much about raising kids. The babysitter came every morning, I went off to work, came home, cooked dinner (because in those days I still did), fought Molly as she begged to stay awake, cleaned up the day’s mess and went to sleep.
I had plenty of friends at work and didn’t really think I needed more. Still, I would push the baby carriage up the hill, passing the Tudor on the corner with the inviting pool and yapping dogs in the backyard. Every other year a new blue stork popped up to announce the arrival of boy after boy, Harrison Ray and then Noah Daniel, joining proud brothers Ian and Zack. Now and then I’d catch a glimpse of the blonde-haired mother; we’d wave politely and I’d stroller on.
“Why aren’t you friends with Claire yet?” Barbara demanded year after year.
The truth was, Claire was way out of my league. After all, her mother was the first woman mayor during a turbulent time in Teaneck and Claire exuded that same kind of confidence that scared the living daylights out of me. So, I simply admired her from afar and waited for the right time to worm my way in.
The opportunity came when Molly went to first grade. The bus stop was on Claire’s front lawn and we had no choice but to make niceties every morning. Our seven collective children covered seven different grades in school and soon seamlessly fused into one big brood of brotherhood. With one sister.
Max was going through his ferocious fours just as he became obsessed with the Preschels. Claire swooped in at the perfect time, promising that Max didn’t give her a lick of trouble. So, every day, his pudgy little legs would power him four houses up the hill and Claire would call when he arrived safely. He’d stay for hours. I quickly learned the power of a play date. Especially when it’s at someone else’s house.
Clarie was everything in a mother I was not. She was good in crisis. She didn’t shrink from blood, or vomit or runny noses. She praised loudly and meant it. She didn’t set limits on food or television or over-priced sneakers. She loved her kids fiercely, protectively and unconditionally. And she loved mine too.
The way she opened her heart and her house to other people’s kids floored me. She fed them. She entertained them. She took them to movies and malls and Chuck E. Cheeses. She sat by the pool and watched them swim for hours and hours and hours. She fed them again.
There was no reciprocating with Claire. No one wanted to come to my house where I cringed when kids carried grape juice in coverless cups, flipped out when they left their toys in the middle of the living room floor and made them ask before they opened the refrigerator.
When Claire helped me pack for our move to a bigger house on the other side of town, we were both teary-eyed. We knew a mile wouldn’t make a difference in our friendship, but we also knew it was the end of an era.
Our new house had a big finished basement and a big backyard. It had a basketball net in the driveway, a gigantic attic bedroom and plenty of rooms in which to run and hide. It had more than one bathroom and more than one television. It had a deck out back and a porch out front. It had everything but Claire around the corner.
And then, the strangest thing happened.
The kids started coming.
They came in droves. They came for dinner. They came for days. I fed them. I transported them. I helped them with homework. I helped them get ready for the prom. I watched their games. I watched their dance shows. I took care of kids with single parents. I took care of kids with two working parents. I took care of kids whose parents didn’t care. I took care of kids whose parents thought I didn’t mind.
The kids came for years and years, and they still come, whenever my own kids are home. And, sometimes even when they’re not.
I’ll never forget the speech the great Andre Cox made at a football dinner (that Claire and I undoubtedly organized), explaining why he continued to coach the kids.
“I do it because someone did it for me.”
I realized that’s how it all starts. You do it because someone did it for you. And the more you do it, the more you care, until one day you do it just because you can.
When I moved away from the comfort of Claire, things changed. I didn’t worry so much about the mud prints in the living room. The crushed Cheetos in the basement. The cabinets slamming in the kitchen. I welcomed the kids, the chaos and the commotion.
Yes, it takes a village to raise a child. But sometimes, it also takes a village to raise a mother.