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My baby sitter sent me into the woods with my dog to look for butterflies and tadpoles

I found a lifetime love of nature and a whole lot more.

The writer’s baby sitter, Miss Anderson, in 1957.Picasa

In the late 1950s, back when Republicans liked Ike and I was a third-grader in Haverhill, my parents introduced my older brother and me to Jennie Anderson, our new baby sitter. Her approach today might be considered borderline neglect — but it influenced my life.

I was short, chubby, and unathletic, always the last kid picked for any team. Happily, Miss Anderson had no interest in bouncing balls. Rather, her plan for productive after-school time was to go over pictures in the nature magazines she would bring, and then to send me off into the nearby woods to find this butterfly or that tadpole. Accompanied only by my dog Caesar (no leash or poop bags then), I’d wander the pine forest and wetlands by Round Pond for hours. Maybe I couldn’t catch a fly ball, but I became a whiz with a butterfly net. At summer camp, bunkmates began to call on me when they needed someone to trap a chipmunk for the scavenger hunt.

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Miss Anderson steered me to bigger things than bugs and critters; in the woods, I also found identity and self-confidence. I still have some of the butterflies she and I framed more than 60 years ago, as well as the brass magnifying glass we used to study markings on beetles and other bugs. Miss Anderson set the roots of my lifelong affinity for the natural world.

Thinking about her recently, I dove into Ancestry.com and found that Jennie F. Anderson was born in 1885 in Kent, Connecticut, to a Swedish father and American mother. I’ve been unable to learn much more. She never married and apparently had few relatives. Through high school and into college, she welcomed my visits to her in the single-room apartment she rented in Haverhill until I left Massachusetts for a newspaper job in eastern Kentucky.

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When I went to visit her on a trip home sometime around 1973, the room was empty. A neighbor told me that Miss Anderson had been committed to Danvers State Hospital, a psychiatric institution built, fittingly, where a Salem Witch Trials judge once lived. I made the trek there. “She doesn’t know who you are,” an aide cautioned me. Still, Miss Anderson beamed when I pulled out some of our framed butterflies.

Miss Anderson died in 1975 at the age of 89. She’s buried in Haverhill but I’ve found no obituary, no death notice, nothing to memorialize her. My brother and I remember her, but I worry no one else does. Too often, people who quietly imprint our futures just as quietly become anonymous and forgotten. That was Miss Anderson’s likely fate. And that bothered me.

In almost the same year that she died, the destiny seed she planted in me matured as I bought some mainly wooded land in Epping, New Hampshire, and built a little house deep in the woods. I still maintain the land but I’ve transferred its ownership to the nonprofit Southeast Land Trust of New Hampshire (SELT), thus assuring its undeveloped future for young and old nature wanderers. Recently, SELT asked if I wanted my name on something to acknowledge my donation. Thanks, but no need, I said.

Then I had an idea.

I had already protected this chunk of nature by gifting it to SELT. I’d also written a book about the land’s remarkable former owner, Mary Folsom Blair, another teacher who was an Anderson-like believer in the power of getting kids into nature. Now I had one more dot to connect.

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SELT plans to place a kiosk at the entrance to the Pawtuckaway River Reservation, nearly 700 acres of land, including mine, that SELT owns or otherwise controls along that river. The kiosk is supported by Phil Primack, a sign will say, “in honor of Jennie Anderson, who sent him out to hunt for tadpoles.”


Phil Primack is a writer in Medford. His book, “Put It Down on Paper”: The Words and Life of Mary Folsom Blair — A Fifty-Year Search” (Loom Press) was the subject of a previous Connections essay. Send comments to magazine@globe.com.