Mrs. Katherine T. Gregory. When I was quite young, I couldn’t pronounce her full name. All I could say was “Eggie”, which changed later to “Greg”, the name everyone in the family came to know her by for eighteen years and beyond. Greg was the source from which all things kind, rational, fair and safe flowed for us kids. We were lucky. Having known many of the other nannies in Palm Beach at the time, I can say with confidence that our Greg gave us affection and protected us in ways the governesses did not with their charges. I can remember distinctly the sensation of gratitude to the heavens above that she was ours and not Shirley’s nanny, Madamoiselle, who seemed so detached. Some of the others put on airs and were more concerned with their own comfort than that of the children they cared for. Surely some were, in fact, great gifts to their families, but I can only speak for our Greg. She was our miracle. And most specifically, she was mine.
There exists a home movie, a super eight, taken by my father in Mamaroneck, in which my mother is trying to jolly me up for the camera. I am maybe a year old. My mother is almost violently tickling me, bouncing me, trying to illicit a smile. My mother frowns as I fuss unhappily, arms outstretched to Greg, reaching for the place I’d rather be. The brief moment on film sums it up for me. My mother felt uncomfortable to me, even before I could speak.
This statement in itself might ordinarily seem like an outrageous fabrication, if it were not for the facts at the time. Our mother rarely touched us. All the duties of motherhood- diaper changing and bottles, pram-pushing and playtimes, every band-aid and comforting touch after a fall, along with every bath time and tucking in- even the last kiss goodnight- all were left to Greg. I do not write this to lay blame on my mother. I learned later on that she had wanted to care for us herself, but my father had said no. He wanted her to be there exclusively for him. His true motivations are not entirely clear to me. On one hand, it is entirely possible that this story is true. My mother might have felt she was up to the task. It would also make sense for my father to have had the good sense to prevent her, knowing intuitively that she lacked the temperament needed for motherhood. This was certainly true; my mother had not one maternal molecule in her body. Raised essentially by her older sister in a struggling and strained immigrant household during the depression, how could she have come out unscathed? Perhaps others might have, but she did not. Indeed, neither of my parents were responsive to the psychological needs of children. It was this stoke of luck or genius, perpetrated by my father, that spared me this fate. As it was, Greg was an excellent mother, far surpassing anything I might have hoped for otherwise.
She was kind and constant, empathetic and sensible. Greg understood children and sincerely cared about us. When we were naughty, she scolded us and even delivered a swat on our backsides on occasion. But it was always her disappointment in us that stung more than our rear ends. She protected us too, neglecting to reveal some of our biggest acts of misbehavior to our parents, whose punishments would have been much harsher. She did this, not as a traitor to my parents. We had no doubt she loved and respected them. She spoke highly of them consistently and often. Her silence on the subject was a quiet omission for which we children were grateful.
When we were clever, she was proud of us. When we were funny, she laughed with greatest delight and appreciation. When we were sad, she would do anything to make us laugh, including slipping her lower denture out of her mouth so that the teeth protruded, eyes wide, looking like some sort of big white haired gremlin with a serious underbite, sending us into sniffly giggles which dried our tears.
As I grew older, I felt protective of Greg. Whenever my parents had guests and we children were expected to make an appearance, it was also expected that she would accompany us. Anticipating the arrival, Greg would scurry around dressing each of us and brushing our hair. It was then she would rush to put on a fresh uniform herself. She would replace her everyday beads and earrings with something nicer, comb her hair carefully and apply some rouge and lipstick.
It was a these times, I began to notice that my parents friends virtually ignored her and seemed to view her as just an employee not worthy of much conversation. She would stand somewhere in the background and listen, or if seated, she would be on the periphery of any group, minding us and keeping what she must have considered a respectful distance. No one commented on how nice she looked or asked how she was doing. As a teen, at an age when young girls are so sensitive to rejection, my feelings were stung on her behalf. But nothing was ever said between us. What could I say that wouldn’t point out the very thing I wished was not happening? I comforted myself with the thought that I knew how very special she was- how dear, and loving in ways I was sure any of them were incapable. I felt there was nothing I could do but suffer the rise of resentment in my throat as I watched by sideways glances now and then and sidling closer to her.
My mother’s attitude toward Greg seemed to spring from a tolerance born of necessity and a burning desire to feel superior. For my mother, nothing fed that need like having someone around to follow her every instruction. This was her right as lady of the house. Of course, she was always cordial to Greg. After all, Greg was an integral part of the household and made it possible for her to have the freedom to focus exclusively on my father. It hadn’t been long before it was Greg who managed the entire household with all the other employees too, carrying out the wishes of my parents with care and forethought. To be unkind to Greg in any way would have caused an unwanted cascade of events. It became obvious later on, after my father’s death, that my mother had little affection for her. In fact, she suffered a deep seated jealousy for our affections. The jealousy never did, however, spur her to be more kind or more engaged with us children. It was as if she felt she deserved our allegiance without having to do anything for it. Too bad, really, because we children had plenty of love to spare, especially for our parents, whenever they had a moment to share with any of us. We children longed for a show of the love from our parents, as all children do.
My fathers feelings for Greg were an entirely different story. He and Greg got on like old friends. They seemed to genuinely enjoy each others company, often lingering at the breakfast table, chatting and comparing life histories. This was natural, as they were closer in age than anyone else in the house. Greg was his senior by less than ten years.
Their senses of humor were similar, and there was a real simpatico between them. Had Greg been younger and more beautiful, there is no doubt my mother would not have tolerated her for long. As it was, Greg became irreplaceable and so the years passed uninterrupted with Greg as a well loved, if not integral part of our household.
Greg got one week of vacation per year and she worked every day all year long without a day off. When I think of it now, it seems almost abusive. More amazing still, when I was old enough to understand that she was going away for a whole week, I became inconsolable, and so, Greg took me with her for the week rather than watch me suffer separation! The thought of staying at home with my parents was a powerfully frightening thought for me. They were foreign and scary, and the idea of being alone with them was unbearable. While Greg was mild, they were not. Where she looked the other way at small infractions or mistakes, my parents did not, and punishment was hard and swift. My mother, who would have to fill Greg’s shoes had little patience for small children, and in this respect, my father was no better.
From then on, I went with Greg every year when she went to be with her two daughters Edith and Margaret and her son-in-law Van in Queens.