Housekeeping Hints

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.


About middleagecranky

The Middle-Age Cranky blog is written by baby boomer Howard Baldwin, who finds the world, while occasionally wondrous, increasingly aggravating.
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4 Responses to Housekeeping Hints

  1. Cynthia says:

    Howard, as a “homemaking author”, I get the question frequently: “Why does my wife clean up before the maid comes?” Underlying assumption is that by hiring household cleaners, you’re REALLY hiring a mommy, and isn’t it Mommy’s job to do it for me?

    Nice try, but no go. As you’ve pointed out, a cleaner’s job is to CLEAN, not tidy up–and trust me, no 3-hour cleaning session is going to make up for a week’s worth of dropped socks and unwashed pans.

    What seems to help my readers understand the issue is to adjust the nomenclature. I believe that if we get the labels straight, it will help all concerned understand the line between neatening and cleaning, between a maid and a cleaner and a housekeeper.

    In an ideal world, adults in a home tackle “neatening” on a daily basis. They toss empty soda cans into the recycling bin, clear their pocket change off the bureau, and put dirty clothing into the laundry basket. When someone tells you they’re going to go clean up before the housekeeper arrives, it’s these chores they’re talking about–not dusting, vacuuming, or scrubbing the sink. That’s “cleaning”, and it’s what the cleaning service does.

    So what do you call the folks who come to your home to clean? “Maid” is a term best left to soft-corn porn; it implies servitude and submission, not professionalism. Cleaning services, like you’ve hired, send “cleaners”. Cleaners come to your home to wash surfaces, dust and vacuum, and they can’t do their job if the house hasn’t been neatened, first.

    Housekeepers are another thing entirely. I have one. Unlike cleaners, a housekeeper works independently and does much, much more than just clean surfaces. A housekeeper handles laundry and grocery shopping, checks supplies of softener salt, polishes furniture, changes air filters, and does seasonal deep-cleaning. Having a housekeeper frees me from these necessary, but time-consuming, chores, making her an second home manager with discretion and distinct areas of responsibility far beyond weekly cleaning.

    Getting the language sorted out, there’s no longer a problem. You neaten before cleaners come to clean; your housekeeper handles high-level management. Easy!

    Because when you put the question, “Why does my wife neaten before the cleaners come?”, the answer is obvious: you’re paying them to CLEAN.

  2. gingerR says:

    I refer to the woman who has come to my home to clean for the past 15 years as a “Housekeeper” because she’s more to me than a “Cleaning Lady.” As Howard notes, she’s kept our household together all that time by causing up to stop arguing about who isn’t doing anything and get down to the business of pick-up socks, putting laundry away, gathering up dirty laundry, laying out clean sheets, clearing out the sink and the dishwasher and doing something about the mail and library books that are all over. I might be willing to re-title her “Household Catalyst.”

    She’s a one-woman wonder! Need leaves raked, rooms painted, something old hauled away? She knows someone.

    I have the utmost respect for her. She came her from Central America, tended the former owners children and got herself citizenship. She works every angle and has another job with the County cleaning schools. I don’t want to know how it is she gets away to do our house. My experiences with her have conviced me that we need more immigrants like her because she sees opportunity and makes something of it.

    Just recently I discovered that her son-in-law (mind you she has 5 boys) works at Toyota and will fix that broken window motor for about half of what the dealer wants. What would I do without her?

    • There is nothing I love more than the look and smell of the house after the cleaners/housekeepers have left. Sure, the pictures on the walls are sometimes askew because they’ve banged into the floorboards with the vacuum cleaner, but it’s a small price to pay. I couldn’t live without ’em!

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