The Cleaning Lady
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The Cleaning Lady

The Cleaning Lady

Lessons from a move halfway across the world.

by

She stood in my doorway, six feet tall, with short hair, broad shoulders and a take-no-prisoners attitude.

"Hi, I Erika," she said in a Hungarian-accented English, extending a firm handshake. Her eyes swept across the expanse of my living room and kitchen. "Mees, your house ees a mess!"

I quaked in the face of her Eastern European contempt and, shamefacedly, showed her to the cleaning supplies.

I had had other cleaning ladies before -- young and old, some who liked to chat with me, others who liked to talk on their cell phones. Some had been slow and meticulous, others slap-bang efficient. But I had never had anyone like Erika.

She washed my floors and cleaned my bathrooms, yes, but she also re-organized my closets and repaired my appliances. She was old enough to be my mother, yet she carried three heavy loads of laundry, stacked one atop the other, down two flights of stairs to my basement with frightening speed. There was nothing she couldn't do, and I was terrified of her.

All my inadequacies were exposed to my cleaning lady.

"Gila, isn't this what we're paying Erika for?" my husband would ask as I feverishly swept through the house on Tuesday nights, picking up every stray speck of dirt on the floor. But he didn't understand. He didn't have to undergo her silent inspections, to see her raised eyebrow as she encountered a kitchen still full of dirty dishes from the night before. All my inadequacies were exposed to her, and I felt the need to utter periodic comments about my kids, shaking my head in exasperation as we’d enter a bedroom full of dirty laundry on the floor.

I also made constant reference to my work, to helpfully remind her that even though Wednesday was my day off, I did work other days of the week, and it only looked like I was home all day and still couldn't manage to keep my house straight.

But we both knew that I wasn't fooling anyone. I was sure that if I walked into Erika's apartment, I would see color-coded closets and garbage cans you could eat out of. Even though she worked full time.

New World

At the beginning, Erika would complain how hard she worked by me, and several times she threatened to leave if she found an easier job. She did eventually find her dream job, an older couple with no little children and a small, neat house, who were willing to pay her even more than I was. But Erika didn't leave me. She re-arranged her schedule to fit both of us in.

She loved my children. I sometimes wondered if that's what kept her coming. My 3-year-old would cry, "Erika! Erika!" as she walked through the door, and she would lift him up, giggling, until he touched the ceiling. She had a 5-year-old son, and on the Wednesdays when school was closed, she would bring Daniel to play with my boys while she cleaned.

One day, she told me that she had given up her job at the dream house. I was surprised.

"They not want me to bring Daniel there,” she explained. “When school is closed, what I should do? But they not want small children. Not nice people, not like you."

I glowed with pride. We were beginning to understand each other.

Erika hadn’t seen her daughters for 10 years.

Erika had two daughters still living in Hungary, both in their 20s. She had not seen them since she came to America over 10 years ago. She and her husband started a new life here, with Daniel, their American son, and she was strong and proud. I wondered about her, wondered how it felt to not see your daughters for 10 years, to start over in a new country, with a new language, at her age -- or at any age.

She was complacent, but not happy. As we passed each other, she carrying the laundry, I in and out from my errands, we would greet each other with a sigh, she from her load, I, in commiseration, with mine. Life is hard, she was always saying, and she was worn out from it all.

She rarely mentioned her daughters. Once, I asked about them, asked whether they were married. Were there grandchildren? She shook her head, as she gazed at my children playing. “Maybe someday,” she said sadly.

Erika stayed with us for a year and a half, and in the end, it was I who left her. When I told her we were moving overseas, she was upset. "Oh, mees, why you leaving? You not like it here? America not so bad." I offered to take her with us to Israel and she gave a rare chuckle.

"Eef you think my English bad, you hear my Hebrew!"

As the moving date approached, she would ask with increasing frequency, "You really going, mees? Maybe I come with you."

I marveled at her attachment. Here she had seemed, when we first met, so strong and independent and proud. But inside she needed what we all need -- love and warmth and acceptance. In the end, it didn't really matter that she was uber-organized and I just barely muddled through my days. Or that I was the employer and she the foreign worker with the poor English. We'd both gotten past our condescendence and prejudices, and life, after all, does have a way of humbling and equalizing us all, as I was about to find out with my own immigrant experience.

Bumbling Immigrant

I appreciate now what Erika went through. What it feels like to be spoken down to, as if you are a child, by people who may not have anywhere near your education or life experience, just because the broken words coming out of your mouth sound childlike. How it feels for a formerly competent adult to be reduced to squinting in confusion when filling out forms, or speaking to appliance repairmen, and being asked kindly, condescendingly, if there's someone around who can help translate for you.

I especially appreciate the courage required to pick up a family and pack up a life, and start over in a foreign land, even if it means you may never rise above cleaning houses for a living, in order to grant your children a chance for a better life.

But at the same time, there was a world of difference between my immigrant experience and Erika's. She made the drastic move in search of a better economic condition, and perhaps to escape some of that Eastern European repression.

The day I made aliyah was one of the most spiritually exhilarating days of my life.

I was not escaping anything, and was certainly not expecting to better my life financially. Rather, the day I made aliyah was one of the most spiritually exhilarating days of my life. As I stepped off that plane, I bore not only the weight of my 17 suitcases, but also the weight of history. Sure, I couldn’t properly conjugate my verbs. But I was not a foreigner, not a "greener." I did not have the identity crisis that Erika had, or that my great-great-grandparents no doubt had when they immigrated to America, trying to figure out who they were in this strange new world, and where they fit in to a society they did not understand. No; on that momentous day, I knew exactly who I was.

I was a Jew coming home.

That is not to say that I haven't since felt like a bumbling immigrant. But, like Erika, we've worked and struggled and gotten through some rough spots, because we wanted to grant our children a chance for a better life -- to live as Jews as fully as possible, in the land that God watches over lovingly. While I may never rise above that telltale American accent, my children will, God willing, be Children of Israel in every sense of the word. And, unlike Erika, I am lucky enough to carry with me a conviction that what I am doing is deeply significant -- for both me and the Jewish people as a whole -- which keeps me smiling even through the rough spots. Which keeps me from falling prey to Erika's worn-out sighs.

I called her a few months after we moved to Israel.

"Mees! How are you?" She exclaimed. "How are children?"

"We're all doing well. How does Daniel like school this year?"

"Very good. He learning to read now," she said, with obvious pride in her voice. Maybe she would always be an immigrant, but her son was learning English as a full-fledged American. I related to that now as I could not have the year before, before we went through the same experience.

"So, mees" she continued, "I miss you. When you coming back?"

“When are you coming to Israel?” I rejoined.

We both laughed. We knew that for each of us, there was no going back.

Published: November 28, 2009


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Visitor Comments: 12

(12) Michael, December 16, 2009 7:30 PM

This summer I worked for a family with a care-giver from South America. At first, I had trouble connecting to the nearly English-less Martha, and perhaps I even thought she should know more English, having lived in the US for a few years already. Then one day, despite the language barrier, Martha succeeded in relating her story to me. She has two children around my age who live with her parents. After her husband left, she had to travel to America to be able to provide for her children. She hasn't been home in ten years, but both of her children are in college - her son will be an engineer and her daughter a lawyer. I was overwhelmed with vicarious pride in her tremendous achievement, and appreciation of the sacrifices she made. I have had my own struggles, and I believe that learning about the struggles and strength of others enables us to face our own challenges, and to connect to all human beings through the realization that we are all navigating this "gesher tzar me'od" - the vicissitudes of life.

(11) R, December 10, 2009 9:39 PM

Erika contact info

What is Erika's contact info? I sure could use her & be kind to her simultaneously.

(10) Anonymous, December 2, 2009 1:57 PM

Thank you, Gila, for the inspiration! A great paradigm shift for me while navigating through the often exhausting and frustrating beurocracy and culture shock one encounters in acclimating to life in Artzenu Hakdosha. Keep 'em coming!

(9) SHARON, December 1, 2009 12:39 PM

Beautiful

B"H Thank you for writting this, It reminds us to be patient with those who are struggling and speaking slowly when we get impatient and need to move along. It is a blessing that you both were able to cross paths in this life. We all have our inner secret struffles we tend to keep inside for fear og appearing weak. Bless you both! I will be happy to visit you in Israel!!!

(8) Shira, December 1, 2009 3:08 AM

Great article!

So funny and so true. I hope to see a follow-up article on what the cleaning ladies in Israel are like!

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