12/10/2012 06:36 pm ET Updated Feb 09, 2013

A Touch of Mothering for a 'Mother's Helper'

Long before Ann Martin wrote her bestselling series The Baby-Sitters Club®, I was a baby-sitter on Long Island at age 12. Looking back, I continue to be amazed that a family -- a mother -- would trust me to take care of three children (one an infant) at that age. It was the '50s, and I was paid 50 cents an hour in a far more innocent time. I loved the family, enjoyed the kids. I also remember I tried one of the mom's Lucky Strike cigarettes -- cough, cough! Not good.

At age 16, I babysat for the Lachman's five kids. They owned the local bakery in Saugerties, New York -- mini-Danish, Hot Cross buns and eclairs. So good! I adored Kathy Lachman and the kids. I would start my baby-sitting evening by teasing Kathy's hair before they went out. Then, I'd check out the pastries they had for me in their refrigerator and try to control their gang of five. The youngest, Robert, was an infant. I don't how she managed working at the bakery part-time and all those kids! Ralph Lachman got up 4:30 a.m. to bake every day. I don't how he managed, either. I try to imagine what happened in their household when a few of the kids had a cold at the same time! A nightmare! But, Kathy had the most wonderful attitude. She taught me to drive. And, before I had my license she often drove me to my after-school waitressing job at a local hamburger place.

So, many years later, after I had mentored interns at Ms. magazine and young women who worked at my PR company, I had my first child at age 43 got to hire a "mother's helper" for Jonathan's first summer, which we were going to spend in Woodstock. I was taking time off, handling a few freelance projects and I wanted (needed) a helper!

After my mother died, I remained close to several of her friends and so I asked her local network for suggestions. That's how I found Tera Doty (now Tera Doty-Blance) through my mom's sweet friend Pat Reppert, founder of the Hudson Valley Garlic Festival.

It was the summer before her junior year of high school and Tera was 16. I remember that among the first things she told me was that she wanted to be a veterinarian. She was extremely bright and like my other relationships with younger women, I was more interested in her future plans than her qualifications. I don't remember asking very much about her qualifications although she had them, including baby/child CPR and babysitting training in the Girl Scouts.

But our main preoccupation that summer was to stay cool! It was an extremely hot summer in upstate New York. People didn't have central AC in those days because it was generally only unbearable for part of August. We were in a constant search for air-conditioned places and spent a lot of time at the mall and local Grand Union. We took Jonathan to parks, beaches (the upstate variety, no white sand). We went sight-seeing in Woodstock, Kingston and other local spots. Whenever possible, we were on or near water.

And, we went to New York on the train because Tera had never been on a train before. She had not spent much time in New York City and we had a loft right by City Hall. We went to the South Street Seaport and we walked around Lower Manhattan. We were like two friends out together with a baby. It was all pretty informal and fun.

By August, I was ready to give up on breastfeeding. I couldn't handle it in the heat any more. No matter how hot it was, Tera was always ready to hold Jonathan and tried to keep him cool. She'd blow on his hair and it always made him laugh! There was something about his laugh that was so infectious. We loved it. He wasn't exactly sitting up on his own that summer, but I wanted a photo of him sitting up. So we put him on the bed and she put pillows on the floor. She crouched down behind him and held him up with one of her hands out of sight. He looked like he was sitting up on his own! It's a great photo and was used a year later when I worked on the Donahue show. He was featured on a program titled: "Ugly Baby, Pretty Baby." He was the pretty one. Now he's handsome and almost 25!

Then in her senior year, Tera (and me) became very involved in trying to get her into Cornell -- the most competitive veterinary program in the U.S. She came so close! We got references for her from people who had gone to Cornell, but she did not get in. We were as disappointed as she was at the time. She did go to university, but not in that field.

As it happened, she married at a young age and I would receive photos of her daughters on a fairly regular basis. The years passed and her life took several turns. She married Dan Blance and as her girls (18, 17) are ready to enter college, Peter (4) will be in Kindergarten. Along the way, Tera developed an impressive career in the Tech area -- in multimedia development, training and teaching at Broome Community College.

When we reconnected on Facebook it seemed so easy, as if no time had passed. Of course, it has and suddenly, she was diagnosed with breast cancer. She asked me if I could help find a doctor in New York so she could get a second opinion. I cried after I got off that first phone call with her. We did find a NYC doctor who confirmed her local doctor's diagnosis and treatment plan. Tera will have 7 chemo treatments (she's done 5!), followed by surgery...

I know some healing strategies for coping with the chemo treatments because my mother had breast cancer. I've given her a little advice to get through this stage, including a relaxation CD created and produced by Debbie Franke Ogg -- a remarkable cancer survivor who was the subject of a TV movie many years ago. I've come to believe that relaxation techniques and visualization are powerful healing mechanisms for those undergoing chemo. Travel books helped my mother too by taking her to far away shores on difficult days.

For me, this moment -- like baby-sitting -- is about mothering. Caring for an infant or touching someone's life as she (or he) is growing up is about loving care. Supporting a young woman's goals and dreams are vital especially in our culture. Being generous with support even if they change paths or do not measure up to some idealized version of what you thought they should become. It is about letting them find their own way, but remaining a touchstone.

Mothering In the Middle, a blog for new midlife mothers.