Saturday, September 3, 2011

Ms. Everest and Mrs. Barbara

When I read Winston Churchill’s My Early Life, I found the first chapter quite poignant. Churchill obviously loved his parents deeply, but his father Ranolph was an extremely stern taskmaster, and his mother Jennie Jerome was so distant from him that he described her as being like “the evening star.” Neglect by his parents was notable even by the standards of that time.

Perhaps his biggest childhood influence was his childhood nanny Elizabeth “Womb” Everest. He describes telling her of his “many troubles” (Editorial comment: Dude, your grandfather is Duke of Marlboro and High Commissioner of Ireland. How many people wouldn’t want to trade places with you?). Her role in his childhood is hard to exaggerate. He kept a picture of her in his bedroom until his death. When he read a quote in the memoirs of William Gibbons, author of Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, which read “If there be any, as I trust there are some, who rejoice that I live, to that dear and excellent woman their gratitude is due,” he thought of Mrs. Everest. “It shall be her epitaph,” he promised.

1895 was a tough year for Churchill. In Jan his father died shortly before Churchill was due to graduate from Sandhurst, the British military academy, so he never got to prove himself in his father’s eyes. The elder Churchill had died after a long bout with tertiary syphilis. That June, when Mrs. Everest’s sister wrote him that Womb was ill, he hurried to her bedside and was holding her hand when she died. Churchill not only organized the funeral, he paid for the headstone (she was from a family of modest means). Just recently, I learned that the day Churchill died, almost seventy years later, he had a picture of his beloved nanny in his bedroom.

I thought of this because a very dear friend of mine operates her own daycare center in San Diego, where she manages to provide an environment for preschoolers, which strikes me as ten times more fun than Disneyland could ever hope to be. There are numerous kiddies, tricycles in the backyard, good-natured doggies, and all kinds of treats coming from the kitchen. I recently heard that her retired Marine drill sergeant husband had to pinch hit for her, and at the end of a six hour ordeal his reaction was “Just shoot me now.” That’s the amazing part of Barbara’s ability with children: she makes it look easy.

Caring for children is like dropping a very big stone into a large pond—you never know how far the ripples will extend.

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