Sunday, February 24, 2019

The Bag Lady is mortified

I've had a housekeeper every other week for the last 29 years. At first, I was a single mom raising two boys. My first housekeeper was the mom of one of the other kids on my younger son's soccer team. Kathy spent her housekeeping money on the care and feeding of her three horses. Kathy kept my first Washington house pretty well maintained.

Then, for three years, right after Art and I moved to a bigger house to accommodate all of our children - the ones who lived with us and the ones who visited on Tuesdays, Thursdays, and every other weekend - Art's daughter Melissa was our housekeeper. Her husband was deployed in  Bosnia and she was taking prerequisite classes for pharmacy school. She studied and slept in our motorhome at the rear of our property, and, for her room and board she cooked twice a week and cleaned our house once a week. Melissa was fabulous and conscientious.

Then we found another housekeeper, Jenny, who still keeps our house in order when we're home in Seattle. I met Jenny through the church we both belong to. She is a single mom wanting to work just part time.

Seven years ago we started spending our winters in Tucson, living in a 55+ community, in a park model (trailer). Our place here is much smaller than the one in Washington - just 620 square feet. Still, after a few weeks of keeping it clean myself, I put a "housekeeper wanted" ad on the community bulletin board. The next morning I got an email from a man who'd read my request. He said, "Contact Ana. She and her sister Isabella have been cleaning for me for several years. They are wonderful."

So I emailed Ana. She said she and her sister would be at our place the next Tuesday at 2, if that was acceptable. I said of course.

Ana and Isabella are a powerhouse housekeeping team. They arrive on time, every time, dressed in pretty matching blouses and slacks. We exchange pleasantries - in English for several years, since I didn't know Spanish - and they get to work. There is no chatter between them. They bring our little place back to clean and orderly in just over an hour. Sometimes I'm there when they arrive and leave, sometimes not. We see Ana and Isabella every other week between early November and late April. This is the seventh year they have been our housekeepers in Tucson.

This season I have been volunteering on Saturday evenings at a refugee shelter. Between listening to the Spanish speakers at the shelter and spending a few minutes each day online with Duolingo, I have now been described as a "pidgin Spanish speaker". I can string words together and, while often not grammatically correct, can usually make myself understood by our guests at the shelter.

Last week, when Ana and Isabella arrived at our place, I greeted them in Spanish. I told them I was excited to be able to use the language, even if not very well. I had told them last year I wanted to learn Spanish, but this was the first time I had used it with them. They were as pleased as I was. I told them I volunteer at the refugee shelter at St. Francis in the Foothills. Isabella said she might be interested in helping out, and I told her to give me a call if she wanted to find out more about it.

Last night we arrived at the shelter for our 5-to-9 shift. A smiling woman with long dark hair gave me a hug. I knew I had seen her before, but I didn't remember where. She said, "Do you remember me?" I hesitated. She said, "I'm Isabella."

This woman had been at my house 50 times in the last seven years, and I didn't recognize her out of her work clothes, with her hair down instead of pinned up. I was mortified, and said so. Isabella smiled and said, "It is not a problem."

Then Diane, the refugee project coordinator, said "Isabella arrived this afternoon with two of her boys. She has saved my life today with her work and her Spanish interpreting. And her boys have played all afternoon with the children here, teaching them English and how to play Uno. I really hope she will come back often."

Isabella stayed for an hour longer and we talked. Away from her work, she is a vivacious woman, interacting with our guests the other volunteers with ease. She and John, another regular Saturday volunteer, agreed that she would help him with his Spanish and he would help her with her English.

I knew that Isabella was a young widow with four sons, and that she had come to the US from Mexico.

I didn't know - until last night - that in Mexico she had been a social worker.

Mortified again.

Isabella said that in order to work in her field here in the US, she has to pass a difficult English test. That is her goal.

I pride myself on knowing the people in my life. How could I have missed this for seven years?

You probably know why. I had stereotyped Maria and Isabella.

Mortified. I have volunteered at a refugee camp in Greece five times. I spend every Saturday evening at a refugee shelter in Tucson. But in my own home, I had been oblivious.

I deserve to be mortified. Such a lesson. I hope I have learned it well.


Nancy/BLissed-Out Grandma said...

We all make mistakes, sometimes big ones. The trick is to get back up, admit what we did, and work on not letting it happen again. In the anti-racism training I have been taking we call it “failing forward” and we learn that it’s better to keep doing the work and making mistakes than to just quit. That said, The Bag Lady has generated an excellent and classic story of how our privilege fails us!

Anonymous said...

I am so touched by this transparent and true story you have shared. I read it outloud to my husband. Thank you for this reminder that we all have our stories and have value, and for opening our eyes and hearts to the blindness that we can easily fall into!
Charlene H

Sally Wessely said...

Nancy sums it all up well. We do pigeonhole people so easily. I’m sure Isabella isn’t feeling resentment towards your lack of seeing her for all she had to offer the world. You have given us all a very powerful lesson. I work with an Iranian refugee who was an attorney. Now she hopes to get enough skill in English to get a job doing any kind of menial work. Thanks for sharing this story.

Linda Reeder said...

Thanks for sharing this lesson that we can all learn from.

Tom said...

Yes, you stereotyped Maria and Isabella, but people do look very different in different contexts. Give yourself a break. And besides, now you've made a real connection.

Arkansas Patti said...

I have seen people out of context and could not place them. The good thing is now you know, have taken the time to learn and you have a new friend. What a learning experience for us all.

DJan said...

I have made similar mistakes with people I see in a workout setting, and then being unable to figure out where I know them when I see them in other settings. It's wonderful that Isabella is now able to help because of your intervention. It shocked me to realize that it's been seven years that you have been going to Tucson! :-)

Misadventures of Widowhood said...

I think it's common not to recognize people when they are out of place and not in the uniform you've come to know them by. This is a wonderful story, though, of how we can't stereotype domestic workers. I've had house keepers for the past few years and I always chat with them, something I've been told most clients never do. What a wonderful resource your conversation with Isabella brought to the shelter! Love this feel-good-post.