Losing Nanny: The Collateral Damage of Addiction

By Dawn Clancy 07/25/19

I can't help but wonder what could've been if my mom's addiction didn't suck up and spit out every relationship and person it touched. 

Older woman smoking cigarette
Like the missing pieces to a puzzle you want to finish but can't. Photo by pragmart on Unsplash

The few pictures I have of my nanny are stowed away in a cardboard box buried in the back of my bedroom closet. And while I don't want to throw them away, I feel no urge to dig them out and display them in a faux-wood frame from Target that has the word family written in cursive ribbons around the edges. Although my nanny wasn't the alcoholic, at least in my life, my relationship with her was just as fraught as the one I had with my mom, the alcoholic. And sadly, it was because of my mom's addiction that my relationship with my nanny became what it did, and ultimately what it didn't. 

Nanny was born Katherine, but the adults called her Kitty. She was thin and never without a cigarette in hand. Her hair was charcoal black and full of thick bulbous curls. She lived on Indian Queen Lane in East Falls, Philadelphia on the first floor of a house she rented and shared with my pop-pop. I don't know if they were ever legally married, but they had five children: my uncles Tim, Mike, and Larry, and my mom. Dot, the oldest, had a different father, which may be why she never became a drug addict or alcoholic like the rest of them. 

Nanny and Pop-pop Drank Heavily and Fought Frequently

According to my mother, when Nanny and Pop-pop were young, they drank heavily and fought frequently, and their public displays of destruction eventually caught the attention of social services. In one fell swoop, my uncles, my mom, and aunt Dot became orphans and were parceled out to stable families. But Nanny fought and got her kids back, which I assume is when she put down the drink for good. Pop-pop, although he retired his fists, died an alcoholic, his tattooed body hijacked by cancer. 

After my parents divorced when I was four, my mom and I moved back to East Falls. Initially, Mom planned to move in with Nanny until she could afford to rent an apartment for us, but my pop-pop objected because he didn't want us, "those two bitches," eating all of his food. Instead, we moved in with my uncle Mike, who lived in an apartment under the Roosevelt Expressway on Ridge Avenue, an eight-minute walk from Nanny's. I recall my mom and I having to sleep on the floor because Uncle Mike didn't have furniture. Instead, he had a refrigerator full of Budweiser.

Eventually, my mom found work waiting tables and Nanny took care of me during the day, walking me to Mifflin Preschool in the morning and picking me up in the afternoon. For lunch, she made ham, orange cheese, and potato chip sandwiches on white bread with mustard. And dessert was a handful of Oreo cookies from the frog-shaped cookie jar she kept on the kitchen table along with a cold, tall glass of full-fat milk. Apparently, Pop-pop was okay with me eating processed cheese and ham; as long as I didn't dare go near his fried steak and potatoes.

By the time my mom pulled together the money to rent an apartment, my nanny had assumed the role of default caretaker. My mom's schedule became an endless stream of barely making it to work during the day, getting plastered at the bar at night, and hanging out with my alcoholic soon-to-be stepfather. Instead of my mom picking me up after lunch, I stayed with Nanny and watched her favorite soap opera, General Hospital, while she sucked backed cigarettes and ironed Pop-pop's work pants. I sat at the kitchen table at night while she prepared dinner and then examined her every move as she scrubbed and dried each pot and plate. After my bath, I'd sit with her on the edge of the bed and watch M*A*S*H, a show about an American medical unit during the Korean War. 

Damn It, Why Do I Have to Take Care of You?

One night she brought in a bowl of black licorice balls and insisted I try one. Never a kid to turn down candy, I popped a ball in my mouth and quickly discovered how much I hated the taste of black licorice. 

"How's it?" Nanny asked without taking her eyes off the T.V.

As saliva filled my mouth, the taste of licorice coated my tongue and slipped between every tooth, reaching the flesh of my cheeks and the back of my lips. Afraid of what would happen if I opened my mouth, I nodded my head yes and walked down the hall to the bathroom. In there, I leaned over the trashcan next to the toilet and spat the ball out. In an attempt to hide what I'd done, I grabbed a wad of toilet paper from the roll and threw it in over the black goo in the can. I don't know why I did it, but when I got back to Nanny's room, I sat on her bed, reached into the bowl, and popped another licorice ball in my mouth. I waited a minute, went back to the bathroom, and spit the ball out, just as I did with the first, covering it with toilet paper. I did that at least twice more before Nanny noticed and screamed, "Are you spitting that licorice out?" Terrified, I nodded my head. 

"Why you doing that?" She asked.

Still terrified to speak, I answered with a timid shoulder shrug.

"Damn it, Dawn!" She wailed. "If you don't like the goddamn things then don't eat them."

Oddly, this was the only kind of interaction I recall having with my nanny. I'd do something typical for a little kid such as trip on my shoelaces, cry when I had to get shots, or accidentally pee on the toilet seat, and she'd scream "Damn it, Dawn!" She'd always follow that up with something like "It doesn't hurt," or "Stop being so dramatic," or "What’d you do now?" 

I've always wondered if what she really wanted to say after “Damn it, Dawn!” was "Why do I have to take care of you?" Looking back, I can't say I'd blame her if she did.

Nanny didn't balk when my mom and I moved in with my stepdad or when they eventually married, even though he was glaringly wrong for her. Under my stepdad's roof, my mom didn't have to work, which meant she should have had time to look after me. But her love for alcohol and my stepdad's penchant for violence made that nearly impossible. 

Chaos, Instability, and Abuse

The three of us lived together for four long and terrifying years, marked by a level of chaos, instability, and abuse that I'm still working out in therapy. I can only imagine how much more screwed-up I'd be as an adult if I hadn't distanced myself from my mom at a young age. And although estrangement has been good for my mental and emotional well-being, it didn't come without a cost. Cutting off contact with my mom meant severing ties with aunts, uncles, and cousins on that side of my family, relatives whose faces and voices I wouldn't recognize today. That collateral damage included my nanny. 

I can't help but wonder what could've been if my mom's addiction didn't suck up and spit out every relationship and person it touched. 

Like Pop-pop, Nanny died of cancer a handful of years ago, but because I was estranged from my mom, I never learned what kind of cancer she had or how long she had it before she passed. I didn't go to her funeral because I knew my mom would be there and likely not sober. Even as an adult, concern for my own safety was stronger than my desire to pay my respects. I don’t regret that decision. 

Regrets and Puzzle Pieces

But I do regret the things I'll never know about my nanny. I regret not knowing her maiden name, or what county in Ireland her parents were from. I'll never know if she finished high school, if she had any aspirations beyond motherhood or if she resented having to take care of me when my mom couldn’t. Maybe these questions sound trivial, but for someone whose family has been battered and divided by addiction, the answers become the missing pieces to a puzzle you want to finish but can't. 

I still have some pieces, though: memories of potato chip sandwiches on white bread, a fat ceramic frog full of Oreo cookies, and a cardboard box of faded pictures buried in the back of my closet that I can't throw away. 

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Dawn Clancy is a freelance writer based in New York. Her work has appeared in the Washington Post, The Fix, The Establishment, Dame Magazine and others. Her website is growingupchaotic.com.