Ladies of the House

We got the Sylvania in 1970. It felt big in all ways, a monolithic cube of wonder to ten year old eyes. Until the television arrived, crossing the threshold of our suburban split-level like jetsam from a futuristic ship, we were happy enough with the standard appliance in the corner of my parents’ bedroom, even if you had to nudge the antennas every third minute to clear out the picture. But this bit of technology promised more than we ever thought could emanate from a machine in our house. We were part of progress. We had a color TV.

Its predecessor went to the basement. The Zenith, a black and white. MaryJane lived in the basement. She was the second maid to live there. Not housekeepers, but maids. There was a distinction, I presume, but I could not define it then. Betty was the first, hired two weeks before my mother and I both began kindergarten, she as a teacher and me, a student in puffed sleeves and tennis sneaks. One of Betty’s hands was missing fingers, but she could tie shoelaces and attach safety pins and chop whatever needed chopping for dinner. Betty lived in our finished basement from Sunday evening until the following Friday, when she left by taxi to go somewhere, home, maybe. Three decades of black women followed her, making the weekly trip from a New York borough to Westchester, by train or bus, or both, earning money to send to family in “the islands” or elsewhere. Sons, daughters, husbands, in-laws…we never quite knew, or knew why.

MaryJane worked in a beer factory before moving to New York to clean houses. It think it was Milwaukee. She was in her twenties, slim and efficient. We played games in a spiral notebook after school sometimes, word hunts, mainly, in ball point pen. The basement was a large rectangle, with a trapezoidal alcove cut into one of the walls, long enough for a twin bed, wide enough for a dresser. My mother had provided bolsters for the bed, so it could pretend to be a couch during the daytime. The Zenith sat on a gold metal stand, with wheels and a basket underneath. On the front of the set, MaryJane taped a square sheet of pliable plastic, striped in a rainbow of colors. The black and white images behind it turned yellow or turquoise or green, but without regard for what they were. A person’s face could have been half-purple, half-red. An apple, orange. An orange, blue.

MaryJane wasn’t part of the progress, I sensed, then, in my wood-paneled cellar in New Rochelle, New York. But she wanted to be.

It wasn’t long that it began to bother me that maids, and only black maids, worked in our home, a liberal home, an intellectual home. I didn’t like that they ate meals after we did, by themselves. I didn’t like that they never used the phone. I started to go into the kitchen, early, and help them prepare, and afterwards, clear as many plates as I could carry. I learned their daily schedules and hurried to make my bed and straighten up my room before they came upstairs. No toothpaste hit the bathroom sink. I didn’t like that the women served me, and I didn’t like that the women were black. My parents didn’t choose them because they were black, clearly. They just were. All of them were, lined up in chairs against the wall at Mrs. B’s, the domestic agency in Larchmont where Mom went to pick them up their first day.

I’ve come to realize that my notion of race and equality was formed early, in my childhood house, and because of the presence there of Betty and MaryJane and Winnifred and Annie, women who straddled culture and class and burned in me, a white child from an affluent family, the necessity of respect.

The ladies who lived in my house–the employees, companions and quiet witness to our family dynamics–served my psyche, I know now, more than anything else.

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One response to “Ladies of the House

  1. Ruth Rich

    Not every kid growing up the way you did would have looked at the situation the way you did. Most would have accepted black maids as just “the way it is.” Your story made me think about nannies who take care of children for middle class families these days. Where I live, I lot of nannies are from the Philippines. We drove a woman to the bus stop yesterday. She works for friends of ours taking care of their little boys while they work. She stays in their home 4 days a week and then goes back to her apartment for 4 days. But to where? I didn’t want to ask her where she was going once she got on the bus, didn’t want to pry into her life and she didn’t seem to want to share it.

    Many nannies leave their families behind in their poorer home countries like the Philippines or Afghanistan – including some who leave their own children behind and send money back there, hoping to bring their kids to Canada. Someday.

    I guess things haven’t changed much, really.

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