How do You Talk About Your Help? How do You Talk to Them?

01.15.14

When my husband leaves for work at 6.45am and returns home at 10.30pm I do not tell him how tired I am. I make him a plate and sit with him to keep him company if he looks like he needs company or give him time alone if I suspect that’s what he needs. As a rule his office days are much longer and more taxing than mine but the endless cooking, cleaning, driving and organizing is a job too. I work two jobs, one begins at 3pm when the school day ends. I don’t complain about it because we’ve all chosen our lifestyles. I enjoy the choice I’ve made.

I have help. I have someone who helps me with the house, though not every day. I have a gardener and a pool guy and a quarterly window washer. I’m perfectly content to plug away at things on my computer to pay for these luxuries and when I do the math it all makes sense. I earn more than the pool guy so an extra hour of work for me each month pays for an hour of pool work each week (it only takes him about 20 minutes but it takes me about an hour to do that stuff).

In business I outsource everything I’m not good at doing. I don’t do well with keeping up to date on financial things so I have a business manger. I toss all my receipts in an envelope, stick it in the mail and they magically become my tax returns. People get paid on time and all is well with the world. I have a part time assistant because I don’t wish to be working when my children are home. Perhaps this is a luxury, perhaps this is good business. I just want to raise my own kids and if I have to hire people to get the other stuff done then so be it.

Today I ended up in an offline discussion with a woman I respect about the strange and sometimes beautiful relationships we have with people who employ us or whom we employ.

ramiro gomez art ramiro gomez watch

This is a nice way of saying that I spoke to a lady about my relationship with my housekeeper and before that with my housekeeper from childhood. Women who are very important in my life but would never be present in a family photo.

Ramiro Gomez is a Los Angeles based artist who makes us look at these complicated relationships.

Maybe they aren’t complicated relationships? Maybe it’s only complicated for me because I want to see myself as more down to earth than I ever really could be. Maybe it’s only complicated for me because I want to believe that Barbara who took care of all of us from the time I was 4 until we entered adulthood really loved us. We loved her. Maybe I want to believe that when my housekeeper brings me tamales or posada soup it’s because she enjoys me and not because she knows that I’ll give her a tip. Maybe I want to fool myself into thinking these relationships would exist without the transaction.

They wouldn’t.

I wouldn’t know about my window washer’s brain tumor or his 12 year old child. I wouldn’t know that my gardener and my housekeeper are from the same region in Mexico. I would never have sat with the pool guy and talked about his fondness for camping had he not “intruded” on me one Tuesday afternoon instead of the Thursday afternoon he is scheduled for.

I never use my pool when my pool man is supposed to be here. I’m ashamed of the hours that I don’t work. This is, of course, all absurd. The pool is currently 84 degrees, he must know that someone is using it. Why would I not want to be seen in my own swimming pool? Why pretend that I don’t enjoy a swim every day around lunch time?

I catch myself talking to my housekeeper and while she’s working with her hands around my house I’m working with my brain around this computer. Sometimes I tell her how overworked I feel. Unlike conversations with my husband I don’t censor myself. The feeling of being overworked might lend itself to kinship I think. I’m probably wrong. I find writing to be exhausting and I find my workout to be exhilarating. So why not wash my own door frames and fire the Pilates instructor?

I don’t have an answer to that.

I don’t live a life of obscene privilege. I have quite a bit less help than many of my neighbors and a bit more than others. We’re sort of in the middle.

The relationships are sticky. I know that my housekeeper loves my kids. I also know that she loves my son more than my daughter. My housekeeper was here the day my son came home from the hospital. She wasn’t a babysitter for him but she did love rocking him to sleep and during the time when my Grandmother was dying she would sing him a song and put him down for his nap. I asked her how to sing the song because he loved it so much and she told me I’d never know it because it’s Spanish. I then upped her to 4 days a week. She was the minister of naps and she knew it.

Sometimes I would hear her accidentally call my son by her son’s name. He is a year older than my boy. This made me feel safe and sad all at once.

My daughter used to stare out the window holding her shovel (a spade really) and wait for the gardener to arrive. She’d look outside longingly and ask “When does My Pedro come?”. Since he was the only Pedro she’d ever met I think she used Pedro like one would use Uncle or Cousin. Pedro has more of an affinity to my daughter than my son.

I think of these relationships as being equal though I know I’m just fooling myself. There’s nothing equal about an employer employee relationship no matter how much you need that canción for your baby to sleep. I’ve been to my current housekeeper’s home and as a child I would sleep over at my mom’s housekeeper’s house. It’s not like hiring someone for your office yet it’s not exactly a family tree even when they feel like family.

When I looked at this piece of art by Ramiro Gomez I gasped.

window washing

I spoke to a friend whose grandmother and great grandmothers were both domestic workers and heard tinges of disappointment when the employers didn’t seem to care much about their personal lives. This shouldn’t sting in an office environment because that woman wouldn’t be the one who hand washes your fancy bra. But things are personal when people work in your home. And they’re not personal too. These are blurry lines, difficult relationships and always unequal.

The saddest irony is that as much as I adore Gomez’ work I’m not sure I would buy it. I would be afraid that my housekeeper wouldn’t see the beauty in it and she might be offended.

 

The Saddest Story Ever Told

06.21.12

My housekeeper and I have a strange relationship. I fire her, she refuses to leave. She misses a day for something totally legitimate like a doctor’s appointment or a school meeting and I feel abandoned and freak out that the house won’t be clean on schedule or ever again. We share each other’s joys and commiserate when times are tough. It’s an odd relationship, because of the balance of power (she seems to have all the power) it has to be.

My housekeeper brings her own lunch. She neatly packages everything in Tupperware and if it’s something I enjoy like birria or nopales she will bring some for me. I always know what she’s had for lunch because in the afternoons when my kitchen is glistening and the sink is spotless and dry her discarded Tupperware sits there waiting for me. I used to talk to her about it. Now I just wash the dishes, it’s my kitchen after all.

When I get done changing the radios back to English Speaking stations I flip the TV on and find the Novellas. They’re actually interesting to me and my Spanish has improved since I started watching them though I still resent their presence on the DVR and wonder where she finds the time. Occasionally I find dusty shelves and I know where she finds the time. If I were the one doing the dusting I’d probably miss a shelf too, that I can shrug off, the dishes are still crazymaking.

Yesterday I went to prep our dinner in the mid afternoon. I was grilling a steak so I wanted it to reach room temperature along with the marinade. I was digging around the freezer and the refrigerator for ingredients when I spotted her Tupperware in the freezer. I popped the top off of it and it looked like something with nopales. Annoyed I tossed the Tupperware in the sink so it could defrost and then be sent down the drain.

After prepping dinner there was a huge stack of bowls and silver to wash. I pulled on my rubber gloves and settled in to wash the dishes. The very last one was the housekeeper’s Tupperware. I flipped the lid off of it, dumped the contents down the garbage disposal and then screamed.

It wasn’t her leftovers. It was mine. It was a full order of drunken crab out of it’s shell from Crustacean, one of my favorite meals. I watched the crab disappear down the drain and had this moment of wondering if I could grab it in time, soapy gloves and all. Just one bite…