Please indulge me as I leave my adopted homeland. I'm writing a series called
"Top Ten Things I Would Have Never Said in America"
|Lorraine in the first year she worked for us|
9. My maid knows all of my “dirty little secrets”.
There are two things you can never call a Mexican-American woman: jealous or messy. Both insult the deep identity of la Chicana.
Add this bit of trivia to the fact that I was raised by Jennie Ryan, the Emily Post of my hometown. As the designer of modern etiquette she taught me skills that would take me far: how to be tidy, organized and welcoming to the outside world even in the chaos of normal life. She kept our home spotless with five growing children and made it look easy. As a bonus, her cooking filled our house with delicious smells.
I wanted to be just like her.
I knew what was expected of me growing up. I rose every morning, made my bed and straightened my corner of the world. As I grew I became kind of a neat freak and then I got married.
I kept our house spotless and smelling great (with growing children) for twenty years before I moved to South Africa.
As soon as I arrived in Johannesburg, I was approached (constantly) by ladies who asked me if I needed someone to clean my house. What were they insinuating? I was offended.
Later, it was explained to me that most women have domestic help – maids. The economy of this nation is so unstable that some families can go hungry without much help from the government. It was up to my landlady to encourage me to do the right thing: she provided a set wage for me and encouraged me to employ one of the staff on the property. It was the way this country worked, she explained.
Our property has five homes and one staff headquarters. The “staff quarters” houses two families: Joe’s and Christopher’s. Both men keep the property looking like botanical gardens. Their wives and daughters work keeping the residences clean and the clotheslines filled with freshly washed laundry.
I was given Lorraine, the young mother at the staff house, as a domestic char. She was shy and beautifully svelte with a newborn son, Thembani, constantly strapped to her back.
At first, having Lorraine come over to clean was excruciating. I had to watch her clean my house once a week, agreeing to pay her the American equivalent of fifteen dollars a day. She would scrub the floors, do the bathrooms, wash our clothes and iron them. At the end of the day I was in knots.
I was ashamed of myself for employing her at such a low wage and watching her clean a house that was my responsibility.
“I can’t do this,” I told Mario as soon as she left. “I feel so guilty.”
“We need to give her a job,” he reasoned, like all of the South Africans. “She has a family to feed.”
|Lorraine in one of her favorite outfits|
Lorraine came over once a week for a whole year and I got used to being pampered on Mondays. After all, Sunday was our busiest day and we needed the help. We had Monday morning elders meetings and sometimes visits into the township after that.... By the time we got home we were exhausted and sometimes took a nap.
I ended up falling in love with Lorraine’s servant’s heart – she was a God-send! She made life so wonderful for me by ironing all of my clothes with such care. I loved the way she made my house sparkle.
We ended up falling into the beautiful relationship that most ladies here have with their maids: she became part of the family. When she needed medical care we took her (and paid); when she needed a dentist I found one for her (and paid); when her kids needed school books we ordered them(and paid).
“My Wednesday lady fired me,” Lorraine said one day as she ironed. I was livid. Who in their right mind would fire her?
“Why?” I asked. She smiled at my reaction, happy that I was offended for her.
“She had to move back to England,” she said. I realized Lorraine was not fired; but she was out of a job. Emigration was common and people around us from other countries were always leaving to go “back home.”
“What will you do?” I asked. The other ladies on the property worked full time at the other houses.
Lorraine pieced all of her jobs together to make one salary. Without one day a week her income would suffer greatly.
“Can you hire me on Wednesdays?” she asked, putting the iron down and looking up at me.
I didn’t know what to say. We didn’t need her two days. We also didn’t get paid in South Africa and we didn’t have a lot of money. Still, Lorraine needed work and she was asking me to help her.
“Let me talk with Mario,” I said.
She nodded and continued ironing.
“What will she do?” Mario asked me when I approached him with the idea later that evening. “We only need her one day a week.”
“Maybe she can do things like the windows,” I said, cluelessly. “I don’t know. She needs the money.”
After he agreed we got Lorraine two days a week. My sheets were always fresh. My linen cupboard looked like a showcase. My refrigerator was always scrubbed. The silverware was always sparkling. Our windows looked like Baccarat crystal.
After awhile we hardly washed dishes on Sunday and Tuesday night. Lorraine would be here the next day, after all. Sometimes I would bring home the church tablecloths and she would wash and iron them. I would ask her to use less laundry soap. I would tell her to be more careful with the glasses.
In a few years I grew spoiled and used to her service to us. I hated when she was gone to her native Zimbabwe on vacation. I had to do my own laundry and ironing!
As time went by we grew accustomed to each other and she knew everything about us. She knew that I never cleaned my hairbrushes and I could tell she thought that was disgusting. She knew how much wine we drank; how much food I wasted; how much I read the Bible vs. how much time I spent on the computer.
She shook her head at the amount of books I left lying around the house. She thought I used too much toilet paper. She rolled her eyes about the organization of my living room. She even knew which shelves the cups went on and was irritated if I put one away in the wrong place.
Once when I took her to the dentist she told me that I would need to pay for better pain killers than the ones I got last time.
I felt myself getting irritated with how she was taking me for granted.
When my friend, Beth, moved here from England she stayed in one of the cottages on our property until their house was ready. She met (and loved) Lorraine and kept employing her even when she left for her new house by the church.
One day Lorraine’s aunt died and she came to my back door to tell me she was leaving for Zimbabwe for the funeral. I hugged her and went to get dollars to give her (Zimbabwe uses American dollars at the borders).
“Let me take you to the bus station,” I said.
“No,” Lorraine said, brushing away tears. “Christopher is taking me to Beth’s house. Beth will help me get the bus ticket.”
Lorraine told me of Beth’s generosity to provoke jealousy in me – a tactic used to up the ante. I was supposed to insist on helping Lorraine with more money than what Beth would be giving her. I didn't take the bait.
"Oh, okay," I said.
Lorraine looked at me, then sighed. I felt bad for her, but we were not rich. I had no other money to give her. If I had, Lorraine would have possibly felt perhaps a bit more valued. We ended up saying goodbye awkwardly as she left for Beth's - her new benefactress.
In a way, I was a little jealous of Beth. I missed that feeling I used to have when Lorraine came around. I missed the way I would sigh in beautiful, luxurious, pampered satisfaction of a spotless house at the end of the day. I missed that genuine admiration that Lorraine used to have for me and the ministry I was involved in. I missed how we used to regard each other in the early days before I got used to her hard work ethic and she realized I wasn't such a saint.
I have grown to be messy and jealous… and I can blame it all on Lorraine, if I wanted to.
Last month we told her we were moving “back home.” I remember the day very well and the sadness in my heart as she looked back and forth to me and Mario, incredulously.
“Where will you live?” she asked. Lorraine knew we sold our house to come here. She knew we stayed with friends when we went to visit. She knows we are not wealthy people.
“We will have to find a place,” I said. “There are many options.” She looked at me closely and she knew I was speaking in faith. She knows how I look when I am speaking in faith.
She knows most of my secrets now.