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(Photo courtesy Susan E. Gunter) Park City resident and Westminster College professor of English…
Susan E. Gunter, a Park City resident and Professor of English Emerita at Westminster College, traded teaching classes and grading papers for changing diapers, heating baby bottles and pushing the stroller.
From August to December, Gunter spent four months being a nanny in San Pedro, Calif.
Granted, the baby was Gunter’s infant granddaughter, Abby, but the experiences had a profound impact on the recently retired, 63-year-old scholar, insomuch she published a book “My Vacation at the Beach.”
“My son and wife are teachers in Los Angeles,” Gunter said. “Their jobs are very demanding and my daughter-in-law did not want to put Abby in childcare. So I volunteered to go down.”
Gunter initially planned to go with her husband, Bill, a consulting geologist, who worked part time at the local liquor store.
“He went back to work full time last summer, after I had agreed to go to California,” Gunter said. “I had already made plans and arrangements before he went back to work, and I couldn’t disappoint anyone, especially my daughter-in-law who needed a lot of help.”
Upon arriving in California, Gunter began to feel the weight of nanny-dom.
“It was a shock at first,” Gunter said. “It took a few days to get used to the routine. There’s a lot of lifting and bending. While I was used to carrying my books and planners, it wasn’t like carrying a baby. When I bent to change diapers or lift Abby out of the carriage, I thought my back was going to go out.”
Gunter was also
accustomed to having deep intellectual conversations with her students and fellow professors.
“I was used to having that reputation as a scholar and writer,” she said with a laugh. “Sometimes the baby would listen to me, but mostly she didn’t. Since I wasn’t grading her or giving her exams, she didn’t have to listen, which was funny because I was used to people listening to me. Seriously, my students, whether or not they thought what I was saying was important, had to pay attention to my lectures.”
Writing kept Gunter from having a breakdown due to the culture shock, she said.
“I’ve been a writer all my life and always used writing as a way to cope with feelings,” she said.
Initially, Gunter wanted to start a blog, but after feedback from friends, she decided to send two emails a week.
“People in my age group aren’t into the blog thing,” Gunter said with another laugh. “So I would send my ramblings to 60 people on this list, and before long, I found out people loved what I was doing and gave me a lot of positive feedback. The other grandmothers and mothers on the list told me they couldn’t wait to read about what I would do the next day. So I decided to publish these writings as a book.”
As Gunter described her feelings, she began seeing the world from a different aspect, she said.
“Whether we like to think so or not, we do have a social-class structure in this country,” she said. “When I became a nanny, I became a working-class member, and it was interesting to see how people perceived me.”
Gunter found the people who were most kind were those who maintained the building she lived in, the people who ran an Italian deli in the neighborhood and the homeless.
“There are a lot of homeless in San Pedro,” she said. “They liked to smile at us and talk to me and the baby.”
While Gunter made connections with these people, she found others ignored her.
“There were many times when I walked the baby, people would see me as a non-person,” she said. “It was like I either wasn’t there, or I was a nuisance. There were times when I would cross the street with the stroller and someone in a car who was in a hurry would glare at me for taking too long.’
Some businesses, like the local thrift store, wouldn’t even let Gunter bring the baby stroller into the building.
“They thought I was going to steal something,” she said. “It was very different for me.”
One of the incidents that will stay with Gunter throughout her days was taking Abby to the library for storyhour.
“It was pre-Thanksgiving and I went, thinking we would have a Thanksgiving story, but the librarian told me they don’t do that because the pre-schoolers who attend the storyhour live in the homeless shelter,” Gunter said. “The librarian told me these kids had no real concept of Thanksgiving, so we talked about ladybugs that day.”
Although her book is called “My Vacation at the Beach,” in reality, Gunter only made it to the beach three times in the four months she was in California.
“I naively told my girlfriends here that I would be at the beach every day with the baby,” she said wryly. “The first day I took the baby to the beach, which is a little more than an hour round trip from where I lived, the baby buggy broke.”
Reflecting on her experience, Gunter said she would gladly do it again.
“I ended up loving it all and was heartbroken when I had to come home,” she said. “I went back over Easter and can’t wait to go back, which surprises me. I had my own children, but I didn’t feel like I had any particular attachment to little kids, because I work with college students and college professors. But I am crazy about this little girl.
“I’ve heard from many people that you should do something different when you retire,” Gunter said. “This was very different.”
“My Vacation at the Beach” is available at www.amazon.com . All profits will go to Abby’s college fund