It sounds pretentious saying I had a nanny as a toddler, but I did. Her name was Brenda. She was from England. My mother needed help. She started having pre-partum syndrome by the time she got to number 6. Brenda could wiggle her ears and we’d tickle one another. She had auburn hair and she’d protect me. There may have been five other kids but Brenda was all mine, and I loved her. Then she left.

My mother hired a woman to watch me in the afternoons for when I got out of morning kindergarten. Her name was Mrs. Smith. There was no Mr. Smith that I knew of. I’d walk the four blocks home alone from Marshall School and she’d be waiting for me, little Timmy, ready to feed me one of two things, either PB&J or grilled cheese. It was almost always grilled cheese. Mrs. Smith would grill it open-faced in the broiler until the cheese bubbled. We’d make chocolate milk mustaches and use funny voices and laugh. She would leave after my brothers and sisters got home from school, and her son Jimmy sometimes picked her up. “I’ll see you tomorrow, sweet prince,” she’d say, giving a hug, and my brothers would make fun of me, calling me “sweet prince” all over the place because they didn’t have a Mrs. Smith.

On rainy days we’d sing “Rain, rain go away, come again some other day.” She taught me how to play cards, like Go Fish, but I called it Goldfish. And we played Memory where you turned over two cards at a time, trying to remember where the matching cards were. I think she sometimes let me win. I don’t remember. We read books, sometimes quietly, sometimes together. I especially liked Hop on Pop. The picture on the cover scared me, though, because the children had pointy feet and they were dancing on their father’s big belly. I thought they might stab him.

One day Mrs. Smith told me we would be going to her house for the afternoon. She left a note for the others to call when they got home and she’d bring me back. She introduced me to her son’s old Mr. Peanut Peanut Butter Maker and showed me how it worked: Fill his head with peanuts, then turn the grinder and mushed peanut butter would come out his ear onto a small plate. It was simple and it was addictive. I couldn’t stop. I was like a lab rat pushing the lever for more cocaine.

Mrs. Smith held me steady as I finished puking up all the peanut butter into the toilet. She swathed me in a blanket and sat me in front of the TV. Bullwinkle was on. Then Mrs. Smith went to answer the phone. I sucked my thumb not understanding a thing that was going on with Boris and Snidely and Natasha. I got up and changed the channel to The Little Rascals.

After a while I went looking for Mrs. Smith. She was sitting alone in the kitchen. I climbed onto her lap and she hugged me and I hugged her back. I didn’t get many hugs at home so I was okay getting these. Someone knocked on the door. It was Mom. The two women spoke for a minute and I saw my mom do something I hardly ever saw, she hugged someone.


I stopped seeing Mrs. Smith when I started going to the same school as the rest of my siblings and we didn’t need her anymore. It was five years later when I was in fifth grade and Mom and I were attending a ceremony for veterans at Meadowland Park. Her boss’s son was being honored with some others. A plaque drilled into a rock was involved. Mrs. Smith was there. She came over to us and asked, “Do you remember me, Timmy?” Of course I did, “you’re Mrs. Smith,” and she gave me her squishy hug. All the memories came rushing back.

She took my hand and led me to the plaque. People were milling around, including Mom. Mrs. Smith pointed to a name: Cpl. James Smith. “That’s my son,” she said. “I don’t know if you remember the time I brought you to my house…” “…and I ate so many peanuts I puked.” We laughed, and she apologized. “I’m pretty sure,” I said, “I should have known enough to stop.”

“I was waiting on a phone call that day. I didn’t want to cancel on your mom, well, actually, I didn’t want to cancel on you.” Veterans, plaque, sons. “You helped me so much that day, Timmy. You instinctively knew I needed comforting, and I can’t thank you enough,” giving me another hug. Then she smiled, and said, “My sweet prince.”

Cpl. James Smith died 14,000 miles away from home in Vietnam, in 1968. I am 60 years-old now and I eat peanuts every night, though not so many I get sick, and I remember my mother ruffling my hair that day in 1973 and the hug she gave me. “You are a sweet prince, Timmy,” she said. I was sad for Mrs. Smith, but I felt good because my mother had hugged me and called me a “sweet prince.”

I never saw Mrs. Smith again after that. Jimmy’s name remains on Memorial Rock at the Duck Pond in South Orange, New Jersey, above where two other names have since been added. Good thing they made sure to leave enough room.

This photo was taken in 2022. Two more plaques have been added to accommodate the 70 names.

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