Scarvey column: Being a nanny was a perfect test run for parenting

  • Posted: Friday, October 30, 2009 12:01 a.m.
    UPDATED: Thursday, April 29, 2010 12:20 a.m.

We all have experiences in our lives that open us to possibilities.
For me, spending a semester studying in Venice, followed by a summer there as a nanny, was life-changing. Sure, there was Italian art, history and language to broaden my mind, but the most important thing about my Italian experience was how it opened my heart to being a mother.
At 21, I'd done my share of babysitting, but that summer brought my first extended experience taking care of children. After my semester at the Wake Forest house in Venice was over, I signed on to take care of Giulia, the 18-month-old daughter of a Venetian count and countess. I received about 30 dollars a week and got to stay in a windowless attic room in their palazzo on the Grand Canal.
A few things about that summer were less than perfect, including the fact that Giulia's mom tended to treat me like Cinderella. Once, at the height of a rainstorm of biblical proportions, she ordered me to walk a half mile to deliver an umbrella to her husband so he could come home for lunch.
No, we didn't always see eye to eye. Once, as we were on our way to catch a boat to a different island, we were riding together in a taxi with Giulia. It was about 100 degrees, and the car wasn't air conditioned. Giulia was fretting on my lap, bothered by the heat. I tried to roll the window down because she was looking a little greenish. I wasn't feeling so well myself.
"No, no, Ketty," her mom barked at me. I was informed in no uncertain terms that a "colpo d'aria" (gust of air) was extremely dangerous.
What? Fresh air in your face is more dangerous than boiling like a potato in your own skin?
I was not shocked when Giulia finally threw up in that sweltering car. On me. Thanks, Giulia's mom.
Later, I learned that my predecessors had quit jobs with this family because they couldn't get along with her. I persevered. Compared to my previous summer slinging turkeys in a poultry processing plant, this was a lark, and I wasn't about to quit.
Mainly, that was because of my little puppy child, Giulia, who was loud, boisterous, foot-stampingly stubborn, and utterly charming.
We spent a lot of our time hanging out in the square, or campo, just yards from where we lived. That's where this picture was taken at the statue where we could often be found playing the Italian version of ring around the rosie.
One glance at this photo and that summer comes back to me in a rush of memory. There's Giulia, goofy and off-balance in the middle, as usual the center of attention. That's giggly little Martina, on the left, in her trademark scarf. Her nanny, Christien from the Netherlands, was my best friend that summer.
The other little girl is Greta, one of my favorite kids ever. I don't believe I ever saw her, as young as she was, supervised by a parent. Christien explained that her mother was a party girl and basically left Greta to fend for herself.
Greta was clever and sweet and liked to help me take care of Giulia, who could be a handful and was quite helpful in explaining to me the reasons for the disapproving clucks I'd sometimes get from old ladies in the neighborhood if I violated some unwritten law of child care.
Giulia and I spent the last weeks of summer at one of the family's vacation homes on a tiny island populated by fishermen and nuns. Giulia's mother had been off on vacation by herself in Sicily for a several weeks. I had decided by that time that she was one of those mothers who don't want much to do with their children until they're well past the potty training age, and preferably old enough to share a bottle of wine with.
I, however, cannot imagine anything more fun than a child that age. Giulia was so lovely, so fascinating, that I'd catch myself staring at her while she napped.
I think some of Giulia's stubbornness that summer was because she missed spending time with her mother, but she and I eventually bonded, and by the time I left, we were best buddies. On the day I left to fly back home, she seemed to understand that I wasn't coming back.
"Ketty," she wailed. I was crying. She was crying. I felt like I was leaving a body part behind.
For the next two weeks at home, I'd awaken suddenly, panicked that I didn't know where Giulia was. Then I'd remember that she was an ocean away and no longer my precious responsibility.
At that time, my plans for my post-graduation future were nebulous and unenthusiastic. When pressed, I'd mutter something about law school.
But what did become quite clear to me that summer, as I embraced the crazy love I felt for a child I hadn't given birth to, was that parenthood was going to fit me like a comfy pair of jeans. It was something to look forward to, I realized, not to fear.
I believe I began to subconsciously imagine the little girl ... girls? ... who would populate my future.
Those imaginings, I now realize, amounted to a prayer.
Ten years later, as I gazed at my young daughters while they slept, I was reminded that some prayers are answered.
Contact Katie Scarvey at

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