Four little words

Meme on FB this morning (I omit the image):

The four words every girl wants whispered in her ear

Susan Fischer (among the 10k+ people who responded):

I’ll clean the house.

That triggered a flood of reminiscence from me, which apparently ran too long for FB, so it cut me off in mid-sentence and allowed no responses, but it was lost in the deep waters of all those other responses in any case. So: this was very much not what I intended to do this morning, but here’s my bit of personal history, now edited and expanded from that posting — but with a lot left out; well, about 65 years of housecleaners isn’t easily reported on.

Not, however, in my experience: the naked house cleaner. Gay and lesbian housecleaners, certainly, of course, but naked, no. From the (London) Time Out page, “Coming Clean: Life As A Naked House Cleaner”, posted 4/5/18:

The title pretty much says it all. Ethan Mechare is going to tell stories about cleaning houses, naked. And he wants you to watch. He’s an actor and YouTube comedian who’s performing a show about sexual fantasies and voyeurism. … Join the fun in a host of cafes, bars, or secret London living rooms (you’ll get the address the day before).

When I was in high school, I did the housecleaning, laundry, ironing, and a portion of the cooking for my family, and shared the dishwashing with my dad (my mother wasn’t physically able to do much of this). I started helping out when I was just a kid, but then my parents asked me to take over the whole thing, for a quite decent salary.

As people who grew up in the working class, the idea of hiring a maid was foreign to my parents, but everyone used the unpaid labor of unmarried daughters, spinster aunts, and grandmothers, as well as wives. I was an only child, and I was into neatness, so I sort of fell into this conventionally feminine role, which I filled in addition to all the expected boy chores — taking out the garbage, mowing the lawn, weeding the garden, changing the storm windows, cleaning the garage, etc.; my dad did as much as he could with some of the heavy-duty stuff, but he worked about 60 hours a week and had limited time. I also helped out some at the family costume jewelry store, especially at Christmastime, when the schedule was hell.

I don’t recall resenting any of this — it was what kids did in my world, either working with their family (lots of farm families) or getting serious jobs out in the world — except for my childhood task of tending to and hauling ashes from the little coal-burning stove for the hot water, which required my getting up in the dark of night to prime it for the day (I campaigned, eventually with success, to have it replaced by an electric water heater.)

Ann Daingerfield grew up in a Southern upper-middle class family (sometimes hard up for money, as such families will sometimes be, but with plenty of status and the social networks to go along with it) — yes, I married up, spectacularly — with people who always had maids and usually (on farms, always) at least one “man” (to do heavy work, indoors and out). So when Ann and I married, I was perfectly ready to do the housework, but she couldn’t cope with the idea of her husband doing the work of servant women. After a few years of unhappy contention — Ann insisted on trying to do the housecleaning, which she just hated and did very badly, but felt shamed by my doing anything to clean up, which I (in my neatnik and male-let’s-fix-that modes) could not keep from doing — when we left the little apartment in Cambridge MA and went on to a little house in Urbana IL, we agreed to seek out housecleaners.

By considerable scrimping — after our honeymoon in 1962 and my getting a Guggenheim in 1976 (which was also my first chance to travel outside the U.S.), Ann and I never took anything resembling a vacation, because we both worked yearlong; and before that, during my college years, I never took anything resembling a vacation, because I was always holding down several jobs at once, to pay for college — we hired housecleaners, usually needy students (several times, male grad students) or other people on the edge in some way or another.

In Urbana there was a wonderful old farm woman who suffered from epilepsy that made most people wary of hiring her, and, later, in Columbus OH, a self-described Jewish American Princess, who was abandoned by her husband for a much younger prettier woman, leaving her with no marketable skills (she had expected to be a Wife for Life), beyond managing a household. So she did that, for money.

We found Jane by fortunate accident. She and my man Jacques were both working on Democratic political campaigns as volunteers. (What do educated but unemployable people do with their time? Volunteer work. Jacques did a ton of volunteer work.) They got to talking about their lives, Jane confessing that she desperately needed a job that paid some kind of money, Jacques noting that we were between housecleaners (I think the grad student in zoology had just finished his Ph.D.). So Jane came to us trying her hand at housecleaning, at which she turned out to be quite competent (so she eventually moved on to creating her own professional cleaning service), and also fully aware of the nature of our eccentric household: a married triple plus their teenage daughter.

By then we were accustomed to stretching people’s experience of the world. But not quite prepared for her reaction a few weeks later. After the four of us had straggled in, one by one, Jane asked if she could talk to me privately (as Head of Family, I guess). Looking very concerned, she said (I paraphrase): “I don’t know you you do it, I’ve never seen anything like it, you people come home and then you are all overjoyed to see one another! It’s wonderful”. And burst into very complex tears.

I saw her appreciation of our everyday regard and affection and also her deep sadness that she’d never experienced anything like that herself. I started to say “Of course we are”, but switched to a simple “Thank you”, because she had just extended us a very fine compliment. I withheld “I’m sorry”, because no one wants to be pitied. It wasn’t enough, but it had to do.

Later, I told Ann and Jacques, and of course Jacques switched into his male-let’s-fix-it mode (J was an earnest and passionate fixer of personal and social ills — a piece of his moral makeup that was one of the things that caused me to fall in love with him — as well a guy who did the standard masculine household repair and maintenance stuff) and Ann switched into her female-supportive mode: Jane needed reassurance and sympathetic concern, not just a brief thanks, however heartfelt. Eventually we realized that even the three of us as a team were not going to go out and somehow find a guy who would properly appreciate Jane, she’d have to do that herself. And that we — with all our defects — were, omigod, models for what she might want.

Since this is real life and not short fiction, the story just trails off, unresolved. I don’t know what happened with Jane. We were soon enmeshed in the terrible dramas of our entwined lives — Ann died, J and I somehow got through the HIV plague alive, J died anyway, I lost track of things.


I had no idea where this tale was going when I started writing it. But there it is;  it just tumbled out.




One Response to “Four little words”

  1. Mike Says:

    This is such a great story. When I was very young, we lived a while in Mexico, where it was common for modestly middle-class people like us to have servants. My aunt, who lived next door to us, had a live-in cook and a live-in maid. We had just a live-in “muchacha” who did all sorts of things, as I recall, including housework and laundryt and possibly some of the cooking. (I also now realize she couldn’t have been any older and about 16, even though she had a young son. I also now realize that this situation must not have bothered my grandmother, who ran the household.)

    The upshot of this is that my mother didn’t learn housework or cooking at home, and she never really mastered these (esp the cooking part). When we returned to the States, we (re)joined the working class, and we of course no longer had help. It was as you describe—no servants, just kids. It was always interesting (sometimes frightening) to see how the whole chores thing worked in the households of my various friends, from none (father=doctor) to highly structured and rigidly enforced (family originally from the farm).

    I learned a lot, especially cooking, from my college roommates. Household orderliness I’m still learning, but have gotten much better at over the decades. I’ve never been entirely comfortable with the idea of a cleaning service, possibly due to that original experience, dunno. (There _may_ also be a cheapness factor at work.)

    Anyway, great post!

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