This photo of me was taken on Sunday, 2nd August 1998, just one week shy of my 27th birthday. I was at Melbourne International Airport, surrounded by my family and closest friends, about to embark on an overseas adventure that would change my life. I was off to Connecticut, USA for a year to be an au pair for two little kids I’d never even laid eyes on. I was excited, nervous, and soon to find out that I had absolutely no fucking idea what I’d signed up for.
I also had no idea that twenty years later all four members of that family would still be in my life. That they would all hold a very special place in my heart and that I would love them all as much as I do today. They are my second family. Twenty years ago they invited me into their home, but since then they have invited me to remain in their lives, and for that I am eternally grateful.
My year in Connecticut was amazing, but it wasn’t easy. Most of the other au pairs were young girls. Teenagers, just out of school. I barely made the upper age limit, just scraping in by three days. Unlike the others, I wasn’t a pliable adolescent. I was a fully formed, strong-willed, independent woman suddenly living under the roof of two very powerful personalities. Understandably, there were a few sparks, especially in the beginning. My second week on the job, following a run-in on the tennis court, I hid in the garage so no-one would see me sobbing in despair. Cursing the mistake I’d made, missing my family back home and wishing I was still in Melbourne. I could have pulled the plug at any time, but I chose not to. I chose to stay. One of the reasons was to test myself. To see what I was capable of withstanding. That moment in the garage was a milestone in my life. It was the moment that I made the choice to grow up. But mostly I stayed because of the children. Daniel and Holly had already became the loves of my life. I didn’t want to be assigned to another family. This was my family, and I was going to work shit out.
One of the reasons I was hired to help with the kids was that Tim, the dad, was often away on business. So most of my time was spent with their mum, Kate. It is an understatement to say that she and I had a complicated relationship. We grew, during the span of that year, to really love and respect each other but we did it through a minefield of power struggles and emotions. Frankly it’s a miracle that our friendship survived, which makes it all the more precious to me.
My relationship with Tim, on the other hand, was a relatively breezy one. While Kate had to deal with the difficult au pair on the daily, he would just swoop in from his trips, larger than life, filling the house with his exuberant presence. He would cook and sing and bellow heartfully. Of course it must have been hard for him to be away from his family for so long, but one benefit of being absent is not having to deal with the day to day shit. You get to come home, and be king. And we all loved it when the king was home. Things were easier for me when Tim was around. I didn’t have to do as much around the house, and I was always invited to spend time with them off-duty, as a member of the family. They were never obligated to include me, but they always did.
I’ve always looked up to Tim. He has a commanding quality about him, and his personality always fills the room. He exudes a confidence and positive energy which is intoxicating, and fun to be around. I’ve never really thought of him as a full-on father figure, but there might be just a tiny grain of truth to that allegory. I have just one single memory of him acting in the role of patriarch, back in Connecticut. I’d had an argument with Kate one evening because I wanted to go out and she didn’t want me to take the car. I was in my room, fuming, when Tim knocked on my door and asked to come in. As he sat on the edge of my bed and explained why he and Kate weren’t letting me drive the car in the ice storm (oh, did I forget to mention the ice storm), I felt like a little girl being unfairly grounded by her father. But in that moment, he wasn’t just my boss. He was my Dad’s surrogate, acting on his behalf, looking out for me.
Like I said, that year was a life changer. It had ups and it had downs. It was an incredible year in my life, but I was definitely relieved when it was over. I was super sad to be leaving the kids, but I was so happy to be going back home to Melbourne, to my own family and friends. It felt like the shedding of a great load, and I’m sure they enjoyed having their lives back to themselves too.
After lustfully relishing my freedom for a while, I started looking back on my year abroad through a softer lens. With a lot more appreciation for the remarkable experience I’d had. And of course, I started to miss them all. I missed getting the kids up for school every morning. And waiting for them by the side of the road at the end of their day. I missed their hugs, their silly jokes and laughter. I missed the house, and my space in it. I missed the four distinct, and very beautiful, seasons of Connecticut (ice storms and all). And I missed my second family on the other side of the world. After a couple of years, I reached out to them and, happily, they reached back. We reconnected, in a new way. A better way. No longer bound by our employer/employee shackles, we were able to explore each other as real friends, and wonderfully we discovered that we all still liked each other. In fact we liked each other more. Over the years we’ve rendezvoused around the world, meeting up in California, London and a couple of times in the south of France, where Tim owns a cottage. Several years ago Kate and Tim divorced but I keep up with both of them, separately. They may no longer be together, but they are still my family and, amazingly, it seems that I am still theirs.
Over those same years I’ve watched the children grow from my beloved poopies, to self-assured teenagers and into the beautiful young adults they are today.
As some of you know, in 2016, Daniel suffered a major heart attack and almost died. The whole family has been to hell and back over the last two years. Which is why when David and I got an invitation from Tim and Rachel, his partner of five years, to attend their wedding in France, I was ridiculously overjoyed. What wonderful, happy news. All I’ve ever wanted for my crazy au pair family is for them to be happy. If I can be a part of their happiness, that’s just icing on my cake.
And so David and I went to France. The wedding was, of course, absolutely beautiful. If you ever have the chance to go to a wedding at an 11th century château in the south of France, I’d highly recommend it. It was a glorious setting to celebrate the beginning of a new chapter in Tim’s life. And here’s where things get emotional for me. Why? Because on this very special and intimate day, Tim wanted me to be there.
Years ago, in a black cab on the way home from a boozy art exhibition in London, I drunkenly whispered to Kate that I hoped to one day meet a man just like Tim. And I meant it. I’ve never met anyone like him before. He eats life up. He charismatically brandishes a wild streak, while remaining as steady as a rock. He is an all-round awesome human being. I’m pretty damn lucky that I did find my own awesome fellow, not long after that night in London. And Tim and Rachel are both lucky to have eventually found each other.
During dinner at the chateau, just before dessert and after many bottles of wine, I had a….. well, I had a moment. I looked around at the other guests, the room aglow with merriment, and I was just blindsided by how lucky I was to be there. It hit me that everyone at that table was either an old friend or a family member. Oh yeah, and me, the former au pair. I felt proud, and honoured, and just bloody grateful to be in that room on that very special night – my place at the table revealing the place I must hold in Tim’s heart.
Tim caught me looking at him all starry-eyed, and winked at me. We both smiled. He was happy, his new bride luminous by his side. I glanced over at Daniel and Holly, and my heart filled with love. We have been on a unique and incredible journey, the Brittons and I. I don’t know where we are going next, but I will move mountains to be at all of their weddings, all of their anniversaries, all of their celebrations in life. And as long as they keep inviting me, I promise you, I’ll keep turning up.