Friday was a special day for me, my husband and Miss A, the lady who has kept our house clean for almost 17 years. Yes, she came to work for Tom just before we married and it was totally by accident. You see, caller ID was a new tool and she had called Tom’s house to say that someone from that number had called her home but left no message. No, Tom said he had not called her, but who was she? Maybe one of his children had made the call. She told him that she was a retired telephone operator who liked to iron and clean houses, so she thought maybe he had called about that. That got his attention and the next thing we knew, Miss A was coming to his (soon to be our) house weekly to keep things tidy. When we moved into our larger home, she timidly asked me what exactly I wanted her to do as far as cleaning went. That was a good question and one I had never thought about much, for throughout my adult life I had cleaned my own home, and I had never lived in a place the size of the one I was now expected to manage. So I just looked back at her and replied in a voice as timid as hers, “Uh…I don’t know. What do you think?” I left the entire decision in her hands hoping to glean guidance from her years of experience. She gently reviewed the obvious cleaning needs of the home and asked if there was anything else I wanted her to do. I just stood there, mouth breathing, for several uncomfortable seconds before she smiled and said, “Well, things will come up. You just let me know.”
For years I only caught glimpses of her, for often I was already at my office before she arrived and she was already gone by the time I got home. However, twice a week, like a fairy godmother, she evidenced herself with fresh bed sheets and clean bathrooms. During my busiest seasons at work, she took pity on me and left a pot of beans or a roasted chicken on the stove. Every Christmas she presented to us a treasure chest of homemade pralines and assorted fudge. She made the peanut butter ones special for me because she knew that those are my favorites. After I finally retired from my professional position, I had the honor of actually spending time with this woman. Initially, we were both a little concerned that we would get under each other’s feet with me being around the house so much, but it never happened. Instead, our friendship grew into a gentle partnership of maintaining and improving what we had begun years ago, then detached from each other. Before I knew it we were trading books and chatting as she did her work and I did mine, often in the same room. We traded books, recipes and concerns about family and friends. She never uttered an unkind word about anyone or anything and she never invited gossip of any kind. Occasionally, one of us would quietly shake our head as the other joined in this dance, but neither of us cracked the door that is so easily slid open to a place of mindless toxic chatter. As the months crept by she began to have health problems that come with age. The stairs were becoming more difficult. The physical demands of the job were becoming more of a challenge. I kept assuring her that we would accommodate her in any way she needed. If she wanted to limit her chores or the hours she worked we could do that. If she only wanted to come and do one simple task, she could do that. The point was that as long as she wanted to work for us, she could. The truth was that I was not ready to see her call it quits, for I had grown to love her as family. The details of her duties could be addressed, but the warm conversation she offered me could not be replaced. Ever. Sadly, the day came recently when we had to face reality. She walked in the kitchen looking full of trepidation, as she told me that she had decided to “give up” our house. She made it sound like a sacrifice. I told her that I understood and we both expressed gratitude to the other.
One month later on her last day at my house, she gazed into the dining room as she swept the hall. “Oh! It looks beautiful! You must be having a party tonight! The table looks beautiful. Girl, you know how to do it! Those flowers are just gorgeous! How do you do it?” I just nodded and kept on with my own business. A few hours later around noon, Miss G, the lady who would be taking over her duties, stopped in to ask her a few practical questions about the house. Miss G had the big stuff under control but declared that she needed clarification on where certain things were kept in the dining room so together, they entered it. Before Miss A had a chance to comprehend the scene in front of her, a small group of guests seated at the table, including her daughter, erupted in a jolly, “Surprise!” Miss A stared ahead for a minute before her eyes filled with tears as she laughed through them. She couldn’t say anything. She just smiled as she sought me out for a hug. “You. You! I love you! I do.”
The luncheon was one of the most perfect I have ever hosted. Camellias, homemade shrimp salad, cold asparagus, pound cake with strawberries and cream all taking curtain calls on my finest table cloth. I seated Miss A at the head of the table and we all enjoyed a festive meal complete with stories, some that were new even to me. As the party grew to a close, Miss A gathered her things and bid the other guests farewell. She then offered to help me clean up.
“No, no. Today is your day. You are my guest. I will get it,” I assured her. She looked me straight in the eye and corrected me. “ I have never left this house a mess and I am not going to start today.”
So together, we washed and dried my wedding china and my mother’s silver. We giggled and then she hugged me and my dogs before we all walked to her car. We were each sad, but we both knew it was the right time for this transition. She waved goodbye to me through an open window as I shouted to her, “ Call me! I will bring you some books! I will!” And that is the truth. I will.