From just after World War II until the day she died in 2003, my mother’s best friend was a woman named Anne Johnston. They had a lot in common. They met when their husbands – who both went into real estate – attended graduate school. They each had children about the same time. Both of them were down-to-earth, no-nonsense, practical women.
There was one big difference, however. My mother’s father came to America speaking little English and eventually worked as a coal distributor – honest but dirty work. Anne’s father built a business and then sold it to Reynolds Metals for multiple millions of dollars back in the days where multiple millions of dollars really meant something.
But Anne never acted wealthy. In fact, the only thing she had that my mother didn’t was a housekeeper. Not live-in, you understand, because of all that practicality, but someone who came in and cleaned on a regular basis. In fact, many was the time that Anne would end a social evening by saying, “I have to go home and clean up. The housekeeper’s coming tomorrow.”
We always thought that was a strange thing to say. But now that we have our own housekeepers, I understand. The housekeepers’ job is maintenance, not clean-up. They’re there to clean the sink, not wash the dishes and scrub the pots. They’ll make the bed, but they won’t put away the clothes strewn on top of it. They’ll vacuum the floor, but they won’t move the shoes that have been dropped there first. If you want the work done right, you’ve got to get the junk out of the way first.
Let me preface this by saying that I’ve long hesitated talking about having housekeepers when other people my age are having trouble literally keeping their house, much less keeping it clean. But I must tell you that when two people have full-time jobs, and no children on whom to fob chores, having a maid service goes a long way toward eliminating arguments about whose turn it is to mop the floor or dust the knickknacks. (As far as I’m concerned, you should never tell someone ‘I love you’ until you’re willing to do their dusting.)
It’s impossible to think of Anne and the contrast to my mother’s life without also being reminded of the contrast between my life and the women who clean our house. Sometimes I wonder what our housekeepers – some of whom, like my grandfather, don’t even speak English well – think about us, this couple without children, with lots of bedrooms that no one sleeps in. I wonder how many people share their living space. There’s that twinge of embarrassment, barely assuaged by the knowledge that I’m contributing to their income.
I really wish I could tell them about my grandfather (or my father-in-law, a non-native speaker who came to America even more recently). I know how to say mi abuelo but that’s about it. I wish I could tell them that the great thing about this country is that it’s not only the children of multimillionaires who do well. Sometimes it only takes a generation or two to make the shift from not speaking English to living the American dream. I wish I could explain to them that I am their grandchildren yet unborn.