Column: Fleas, Flies, Frank And the Almost Failed

By Susan Parker
Tuesday August 29, 2006

Over the summer we halted a flea invasion by taking the dog to the vet and hiring an exterminator. We removed the rodent population by cutting down a vine and carefully placing poison in humanly inaccessible places. We foiled a fly infestation by discovering the source, removing it, and scouring the house. We survived a trip to the emergency room and the follow-up recovery by administering antibiotics through a PIC line at home. We thwarted the return from jail of an unwanted visitor by calling the cops and taking out a restraining order.  

We went to the funeral of our dear friend Cleo Liggons, and to an 80th birthday party for the father of a good friend. The party was held at The V.I.P., a beach club along the Long Island Sound owned by a man of Italian descent indicted on tax fraud. While there we were entertained by a Frank Sinatra impersonator singing “Fly Me to the Moon” and “Strangers in the Night.” We did the Hokey Pokey, the Macarena, and the hand motions to “YMCA.” We stood in a circle and sang “Kum Ba Yah.”  

As usual, our 16-year-old friend Jernae spent her summer vacation at our house. She got a volunteer job at the Emeryville Recreation Center, the same Leader-in-Training position she held last year. Everyday she walked to the rec center wearing a white and blue Leader-in-Training T-shirt and a plastic whistle around her neck. She spent evenings talking non-stop on the phone with her friends and perusing My Space on the computer. Occasionally she acknowledged that my husband and I existed.  

It was, by our modest standards, and despite fleas, flies, and the Frank Sinatra impersonator, a good summer.  

And then it turned bad.  

Jernae came home from the rec center at noon one day and announced she’d been fired.  

“What happened?” I asked.  

“Nothing,” she said, closing the bedroom door and thereby signaling that our chat was over.  

“My door, my house,” I reminded her. “We need to talk about this.”  

It was not a fun discussion. From what I could gather, Jernae had misbehaved in a way unbecoming to a Leader-in-Training. She felt awful. I felt awful. She needed to go to bed, and so did I.  

I felt I had done something wrong, as if I was a failure at parenting, even though I’m not Jernae’s parent. She’s just a friend, I reminded myself, and a kid who made a small mistake, so why should I suddenly feel like Jeffrey Dahmer’s mother?  

But I couldn’t help myself. I was suffering every parent’s nightmare: guilt by association.  

I called Jernae’s supervisor at the rec department and left a message. Two unpleasant days went by before I was able to speak with him. I thought about the bad things I’d done as a teenager that must have made my parents feel like losers. How could I have caused them so much undeserved pain and anguish? Was this the payback?  

I was sure that Jernae’s dismissal was somehow my fault; that I was to blame for her inability to hold down a volunteer Leader-In-Training job. What would happen to her in the future? What would happen to me? Would she have to return the whistle?  

“It was a kid thing,” explained the supervisor when we finally spoke. He instantly became my new best friend when he added, “It’s no big deal. Jernae needed to stay home and chill for a few days. These things happen. It’s part of growing up, of learning how to take on responsibility.”  

“You mean she can come back?” I asked.  

“Of course,” he said.  

What a relief. I wasn’t a bad mother after all! Then I reminded myself again that I wasn’t a mother.  

Mother-in-Training, maybe. And I still have a lot to learn.