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Housekeepers

My mother came from a wealthy family. She never saw the servants cleaning. She generally didn't see them at all. But they were there. When she left home and was thrown upon the realities of life without wealth, she managed rather well, in some respects. She didn't grasp the cleaning thing particularly well but she was a good organizer. Even at her messiest points her drawers and closets were well organized and neat. As for the rest, she told us she liked to see the difference. She didn't see the point of cleaning something that already looked clean.

One other thing she took from her childhood: the notion of housekeepers. I have heard of the one who worked for us in Los Angeles but I was too young to remember her myself. When we moved to Marquette, Michigan (after the divorce) my mother hired housekeepers still, usually for one or two days a week. When I think of it now it seems like quite an extravagance but it didn't then, naturally, and it might have helped a little.

I remember three. Mrs. Johnson was a warm, affectionate, round housewife. She lived in a house that looked just like her with her husband and son (the son was later killed when a car lift slipped and landed on top of him while he was underneath). Mrs. Johnson was sweet and the model for a classic housewife, with the doilies and framed pictures of the wedding on the wall and the knickknacks here and there. I do not remember what cleaning she did in our house, except she washed dishes, vacuumed, washed and ironed clothes. The clothes are what I remember most, especially how she seemed to have persistent optimism that her work was worthwhile, that we would appreciate and take care of our clothes. Which I didn't, believe me. I think I saw those neat clothes, all hung in a row, almost as accusations against me but I never held it against the kind Mrs. Johnson.

Mrs. Martin was a thin middle-aged woman, a single parent with one child, with a lot of smarts. She liked to do crosswords, got me hooked for a while. She also tolerated my cooking spells, cheerfully cleaning up after me as I went. Maybe that's why it took so long for me to grasp the concept of "sidework"? Probably not because I would have just left everything there until I was done, to clean up later. This was in the large kitchen my mother remodeled when we moved in. Higher counters than normal (she was six feet tall) and tons of cupboards and a Wrightian "shelf" above part of the kitchen, where we threw appliances and pans that weren't used often. There could have been a body there and we would not have discovered it for years.

Mrs. Martin was smart and she appreciated smart. I enjoyed talking with her, learning about her life and telling her my thoughts. She seemed the sort of person who turned to housecleaning because jobs suitable for her skills and intelligence were not much available. I count her among the adults who supported me without criticism, who saw there might be someone of value in there.

Then there was Mrs. Mackie. The horrible Mrs. Mackie. She had no patience with these children who knew nothing of cleaning. She told us to clean dishes right after using them - good advice but when it comes from a witch who's listening? Worse, one day she got tired of all of our toys lying around the house and she threw them into the snow. If we couldn't take care of them she wasn't going to either. They stayed there until spring, as I recall, and of course most were ruined. I think of Mrs. Mackie when people think a hard line is the one to take. Maybe it isn't.

When we moved out of the town of Marquette and into the two mobile homes in Deertrack (7-1/2 acres given my mother by my grandmother, outside of town in the UP woods) we no longer had housekeepers. By then there were fewer of us but there were certainly young'uns and none of us was any better at cleaning than we'd been before. Maybe she thought we'd reform or maybe she just could no longer afford it. I vote for the latter because of experiences I had later with her checkbook.

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