Confessions of a Florentine Pet Sitter


After Dad left us the last time, Mama earned very little money. She worked odd jobs, sewing draperies and slip covers for other shops, sold Diner’s cards over the phone, and eventually began her own decorating business, making draperies and Roman shades, slip covers that fit so well they looked upholstered, and doing regular upholstery. She made sandals, and decorative  fabric linings for baskets, created throw pillows, and of course she designed and sewed most of our clothing. She worked only when she needed money. And many times, a large block of money went for something frivolous like the chaise-lounge for which she blew three-hundred dollars .

She could buy a chaise but she couldn’t buy a new pair of shoes for me. At the end of one summer before my junior year in high-school Mama had a friend named Bill. He was a grandfatherly-looking man with his gray-hair and always had the sartorial attire and demeanor of a gentleman.   One night, it seemed suddenly, Bill showed up at the same Monterey folk dancing group my sister and I attended. He didn’t dance, he just sat smiling and watching the dancers. He chatted some with Mother as she, too, sat and watched us dance. I didn’t know why he was there but felt uncomfortable in his presence.  Why was he there? Why was he interested all of a sudden in folk dancing? Was he there because of my sister and me or because of my mother? I didn’t know. But I felt a vague sense of unease about him.

When I was 16, the year I started with the folk dancing and had begun my junior year of high school, Mama asked him if he could buy me a new pair of shoes. So one day he drove me down the hill to Holman’s Department Store in town and bought me a pair of sleek, sophisticated, black patent leather flats. Wearing them, I felt grown up, but getting them from this old man felt strange. Somehow it seemed inappropriate even though he was Mama’s friend. It was a bizarre experience. I often wondered why didn’t she go with us to the Holman’s?

Bill and his wife built their home in the Carmel Woods area, an old neighborhood of narrow roads winding around the forested hills and canyons with houses clinging to the sides of gullies amidst the pines. It was a lot like Palo Colorado Canyon off the Big Sur Coast highway. Most of the houses at that time were owner-built.  People settled in the Woods area when Carmel was still a rustic coastal artist enclave and land there was cheap, before it became a busy gentrified tourist destination with million-dollar homes.

Before his wife passed away, Bill and his wife were the owners of a successful greeting card business.  An artist, she created the designs and he did the marketing. Having lived in the Woods long enough, they were “old money” and well-respected Carmel residents. They knew some of the same people my mother hung out with—artists, writers and musicians.  Mama liked Bill and his wife; if not liked, she at least tolerated them.

Mother told me he was a humanitarian who supported several Monterey Peninsula Community College foreign exchange students, giving them a place to live and/or paying their tuition. I think Mother was hoping he would do the same for me.

He invited Mother and me to dinner one evening at his home. When dinner was over, Mother got up to leave as if she were going to leave without me. She didn’t say, Come on Susan, it’s time to go. She just got up, put on her coat and started for the door, implying, and I remember thinking at the time, that I was to stay with Bill.  Stay? Oh God, no. Stay? The word lingers in the spaces and traces of my heart-pounding fear. Stay? With this old man?

Mother! Wait! Where are you going?

It felt like she had made a deal—me for the shoes, or possibly me for college tuition. At the time, I was a senior taking all college prep classes; Mom had no money for college, no other resources but what Bill could offer to her. Panic stricken, my heart pounding, I thought she was trying to give me to this old man, or worse, sell me.

Oh God, Mom, please don’t make me stay here. Please don’t make me do this.

To this day I do not remember how the evening turned out. The old man with the gray hair became my nightmare: a bad dream-wound that I can’t heal. Did that really happen to me? Did she really try to sell me? Or give me away? Was she that desperate? Was she doing it for my benefit or for herself? I don’t know. It could just be my illusions. Maybe it was just my teenage mind creating another cataclysmic event. I’m not sure any more.

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