In the summer of 1997, my mom drove my sisters, Molly and Annie, and me to the Lexington Town Pool each Thursday for our weekly swimming lessons. I dreaded swimming lessons. The crowds at the pool were loud and big and soggy and always in a rush. I had anxiety about the water and anxiety about all the scamper-y pool-goers. Attempting the backstroke made me feel like Jim Carrey in The Truman Show: arms flailing; struggling to stay afloat; acute, visceral fear of straying too far from the edge of the pool (or the boat in Truman’s case).
Each week, I complained about going. But each week I got in the car and went—partly because there was an ice cream truck that came to the pool every day but mostly because our babysitter, Molly, would sit in the front seat telling us stories on our drive to the pool. She told stories about being invisible and about flying. She told stories about made-up animals and about growing up. They were stories to distract me. And they worked.
On one afternoon in August ’97, Molly sat in the front seat but didn’t tell any stories. She held two pieces of mail and turned around towards my sisters and me while opening the mail.
Molly, your teacher for fourth grade this year is…Mr. Henaghan. I think I’m pronouncing that right. Hee-naa-han. Oh, and it says who’s in your class. Wow. Only 6 girls. And 18 boys. Wow.
Alright, Will. Your teacher for first grade is…Ms. Sha…penis.
I was six years old, and my teacher had penis in her name. You couldn’t manufacture more guaranteed laughter for a first-grade boy.
That summer, we had moved from Ithaca, New York to Lexington, Massachusetts. I missed a lot of things: our old house, my old friends, my old school, the old wooden playground in town, my old bedroom (with its creaky sink where I brushed my teeth then danced around my room spilling toothpaste on my face and pajamas). But I didn’t miss our babysitter, Molly. That’s ‘cause Molly was our babysitter in Ithaca and then our babysitter in Lexington. Molly grew up in Cambridge (a couple years behind that charming janitor from Good Will Hunting), is the daughter of a great family friend, went to Cornell while we were also in gray Ithaca, then came back to Boston after college right when we moved to Lexington. Molly remarkably, seamlessly was our babysitter in both places.
We called Molly by her first and last names—Molly Warsh— not out of formality but as a way to differentiate her from my older sister—also named Molly. MollyWarsh became this funny paradox: a first and last name icon who held the same celebrity gravitas (deservedly so) as a one-word Prince or Madonna—and yet she felt like family.
She took us to historic Old North Bridge in Concord where we reenacted the whole one if by land two if by sea thing, which evolved into epic games of hide-and-seek. She hopped on tandem bikes with us, made up almost fable-quality backstories of strangers we saw, and set the bar impossibly high for entertaining people watching. She was 20% Mary Poppins, 30% Miss Frizzle, and 50% a young Maude from Harold and Maude.
I came across this old photo of us last year when I was throwing together a slideshow for my big sister’s wedding. It brought me back. It reminded me of Molly Warsh storytelling, of her capacity to captivate anyone through imitation and a very physical, eyebrow-and-corner-of-the-mouth-heavy comedy. More broadly, it reminded me of the role of storytelling, of its necessity as an in-person, interpersonal art form. Molly Warsh never let the truth get in the way of good storytelling; her storytelling was always connecting, entertaining, and generous.
Molly Warsh came to my sister Molly’s wedding last year and sat at a table with her husband, Piotr, and my parents’ closest Lexington pals. During the reception, I went to each table and toasted everyone (
even people I didn’t know especially people I didn’t know). When I saw Molly Warsh, I gave her a big hug. Here’s to Molly Gibbons and Molly Warsh! And Ms. Sha-penis!
She taught me not to remember the child I had been but to nourish the child still alive within me. –Jan Steward (about Corita Kent)