Wednesday, December 19, 2012

The Ornament

I feel pretty rough this morning and I really want to write about that and an exchange yesterday with another concerned customer (about my health) but this ornament must have its story told.  I said it looked like something the artist son would have made.  We’ll call him John.  I feel like I’m assigning letters to variables in algebra equations!  More about that- the process of choosing fake names- later.  John is the older son and studied art or design at a fine university I think in New York State.  It has been years since I’ve seen him.  He was the first one to leave the nest only a couple of years after I started cleaning for the Anthony’s.  Though he has not been around for me to see him, the house is full of his art work from over the years. 

In the old house one of his paintings was in the kitchen, one in the upstairs bathroom one in the media room, geez I can’t remember all of them off hand.  And now as I bring them to mind I am struck by the variety of subjects he chose to paint; the one in the kitchen was a still life of a potted plant in their cellar that had vines draped over exposed pipes.  I never asked about that one but I’m positive it would be a good story.  The painting in the upstairs bath was a large canvas of a male figure seated showing the back and the lowered left shoulder; a calming study of the complete figure.  It looked like he was studying the use of color to express degrees of warmth.  The one in the media room was of a solitary older man in mid stride, a fairly distant perspective of the subject compared to his other works in the house, except for a small whimsical piece in his bedroom of a hot air balloon in flight.

What makes me think the sculpted figure ornament is one of John’s creations is a wire sculpture of a male figure that used to be perched on the light fixture of the half bath in their old kitchen.  I did ask Lisa about that one and I swear I remember that smiling quality of a really happy mother recalling the surprises that come with children; I think she told me the wire had come from one of the neighborhood refurbishing projects, very thin, plastic coated in various colors, and how John had used it in his creations.  That same figure now sits in the guest bath of the new condo, looking like a modern Ponderer.

I hate to stop here, I’m afraid I’ll get distracted and never come back, but my eyes are very sore and the discomfort in my chest has spread this morning to the neck and head and despite aspirin is intensifying.  I have to rest in the hopes of being able to work tomorrow with out too much pain.  I’m sorry to be such a whiner, but I’ve never been noble that way, and I do hope one day someone with this same condition will find courage and comfort when they come across an account of the same pain they experience.  It is very humiliating to read medical descriptions of painful symptoms subsumed under the heading of hypochondria.  Until science has a way of chemically revealing this subjective pain, like acids changing the color of litmus paper, people who live with it need to hear the accounts of cohorts to remind them that they are not victims of their own faulty imagination but people in real physical distress.

Monday, December 17, 2012

Goodbye to the 14th Floor

I finally made it to the Anthony’s yesterday at 12:15 and finished at 6:45 which meant I was still there when Doug arrived from the airport with their son and daughter in law.  I had cleaning gloves tossed on the rug under the dining room table, and spilling out of the plastic grocery bags I use to tote them to and from houses.  That same rug was also cluttered with a stack of boxes that I had moved to wash the surrounding bare floor.  The condo was in various stages of disassembly (to get at hidden dirt) and I had not even cleaned the guest room.  But of course I was lucky, as I almost always am, because they were just coming to stow their luggage before going back out to pick up Lisa at work.  She had to work late yesterday.  We haven’t seen each other nearly as much in the last three years as we did before she took this job.  She is working for an organization that has something to do with education and scholarships or fellowships.  I think it is connected with the University.  It sounds like she has to put in very long hours and is still focused on the job when she comes home from work.

When I was racing through the last tasks, trying to finish up the most important ones- I did neglect a few minor things like vacuuming Lisa’s closet and washing the part of their bedroom floor that doesn’t get drip marks- I glanced up quickly at the nightscape from the south windows.  I get a pang of regret now thinking I will never have a chance to enjoy that view as a solitary housecleaner again.  Last night I raced to wind up the cord on the vacuum and put it away even as I thought I should take a more leisurely last look and smiled at the thought that I would miss the view more than I would miss Lisa and Doug.  One day we will have a chance to share a laugh about how they live on such a posh piece of real estate the house cleaner didn’t want to retire and miss gazing down on the city lights.

This morning, as I write about Lisa’s job, I am reminded of what I will miss about her.  I admire all of my customers.  It is one of the most difficult aspects of my role as house cleaner, the psychological effect of looking up to the people I work for.  I will miss the role model that she has been for me.  I guess this gets to one of the top reasons I am writing about my years cleaning houses, this need to document how my customers have set a spiritual example for me of a life dedicated to family and community.

Last night was a perfect illustration of their unfailing tolerance- I did not detect a single note of impatience or disappointment in their voices or actions when Doug arrived with his two tired travelers from the airport.  They had been on planes for at least 12 hours and were ready to rest and relax, but came home to find that the well paid housecleaner still had not finished.  All I got was a friendly “Hi Mary Pat, how are you doing?”

When I said, cringing, “Good, but I’m late!”- their only response was, “Well don’t mind us,” in a completely relaxed tone.  I had not met Ha, and Tim brought her to the bathroom where I was scrubbing the sink and introduced her.  We had a quick friendly exchange and they returned to the living room where I could hear Doug discussing something about the Christmas tree with them.  No one seemed the least bit inconvenienced by my tardiness with getting the job done.

The Christmas tree brings up another joy of being a housecleaner; the amazing THINGS people have in their homes!  Their tree this year- how do I describe it?  First of all it was just sticks, maybe an inch by half inch thick.  Secondly, it was suspended from the ceiling.  They were very short at the top increasing in size toward the bottom, and arrayed around a central cord which must have been very strong but thin, because I didn’t notice it.  The ‘trunk’ was really formed by the central intersection of the several sticks spaced in all directions to make several diameters of a circle, or branches of a tree.  It was adorned with traditional ornaments and hand crafted originals such as a spray of small wheat stalks tied with a colorful ribbon, and a small sculpture which looked like something the artist son would have made one Christmas as a fun exercise in forming the human figure; formed of dark modeling clay it was…well I have to stop here again and explain something about art in people’s homes.

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I got up to make some tea and realized just how bad I feel.  Is it just how bad or badly I feel?  These are things I never worry about when I write in my journal.  I feel like sh…  Aspirin is helping but this is no fun.  The thing is I know these aches will return often so I don’t have to worry about failing to describe them.  What I do want to relate is the delicious taste and texture of a sweet bread I toasted to go with my tea.  When I left I grabbed, without even leaving a scribbled thank you note, a big bag full of goodies from the local natural foods store.  There is so much to tell about; the ornament, the big bag of Christmas goodies, the card I have not opened.  I have to approach this like cleaning a house and just take one item at a time and give it the time it needs for completion.  But even cleaning a house I skip from one area to another, changing from cleaning a sink because my gloves are soaked on the inside and I want to give my hands a break from water so I dust, or return to running the vacuum cleaner.  When I clean a house I don’t have to worry about losing the customer’s attention or boring, or confusing them.  I am glad I have read authors like Camilo Jose Cela, otherwise I would despair of anyone taking the trouble to read my story.

This bread is healing me.  It says on the package it is a sweet from medieval Sienna.  Pan Forte: an Italian holiday dolci with honey, hazelnuts, almonds, orange peel, citron.  Flour and butter are at the end of the ingredient list.  I have never eaten fruit cake and have always been afraid of the day that surely must come when I will be forced by Christmas courtesy to try a taste, but this bread gives me courage.  The powdered sugar on the outside of the round loaf helps, but really, after a little warm-up in the toaster this treat makes me forget what ails me.  One more piece and I hope to return later.  Right now Una (that’s her real name, everyone else gets an alias) is sitting at attention beside me.  That could only mean it is time for the morning walk.

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Last Cleaning on the 14th Floor

Today I clean the Anthony’s for the last time.  I wrote a little bit about them in the Good Neighbors essay.  I’ve learned over the years that the sense of loss at these farewells creeps in quickly and is stronger than I would expect.  I used to say goodbye to friends as though they were going off on a weeklong trip and we would be seeing each other again soon, which cloaked the parting in a festive air of liberation.  If a friend was leaving I was looking forward to seeing how upcoming adventures would change and invigorate them.  In the case of customers the relationship sometimes ended because they were moving into a retirement home where housecleaning was included in the deal, and I felt frankly relieved to shed responsibility.  As much as I love my customers, I am always happy when a work obligation, no matter how well rewarded when fulfilled, is removed from my life.  I float on the anticipation of freedom that will come with extra time and energy and look forward to new opportunities that I will be able to explore.

The Anthony’s are from the beginning of my second wave of customers when I went back to work after a three year break to take care of my son.  They all came to me through Liz Hunt, a friend and neighbor from when we lived near the Governor’s Mansion.  To tell the truth I really don’t feel up to writing about all this, which is ironic since it has been one of my fantasies ever since I started cleaning.  Even when I worked as a server on the salad bar in Balentine’s Cafeteria I spent hours thinking about what how I would entertain an audience of other food service people with insightful and humorous observations about the job of feeding the public.  So here I am taking one of the first well deserved steps toward retirement from a very fulfilling life cleaning other people’s homes and facing the fact that I’m not sure I can do this (write about it) now that the time has come.

I guess I am like my customers who appreciate me when I don’t come even though it might be an inconvenience; when they do a job I would normally be doing they remember why they hired me to do it in the first place.  Among many other things they remember the patience required to complete the details that will go unnoticed by casual observers, but add up to a home that feels orderly and well cared for.  As I go back and forth between this essay and washing my own dirty dishes I wish someone else would tell my story, or that I could tell it to them and they would present it in coherent prose that doesn’t put the reader to sleep or make them cross eyed with incomprehension.  I have yet to read an account of a servant who has enjoyed the depth of friendship that has benefited me for the last 27 years among my customers.  I see so much advertising about employees being members of a corporate family and think how lucky I am to have real intimate and honest partnerships with every one of my customers.  We trust each other, tolerate each other, sometimes we get irritated with each other and barely keep from striking out in anger.  We experience in the limited amount of time that I’m in their house most of the emotions that are associated with home and family, in the sanctuary of the family.

I wish I knew how to shape a story to convey the sense I have gained over the years that a house really is a sanctuary for its inhabitants.  Even if people don’t have altars in corners with candles and pictures of saints or loved ones, there are relics of special bonds to loved ones throughout the home.  No one has more opportunities to handle these brittle icons of hopes and memories than the housecleaner and, if they are lucky enough to be able to visit and share stories with the customer, the various bones and images are literally brought to life, infused with the history and aspirations of the owners.

So today I go to the Anthony’s, who moved from their big old house in a historic downtown neighborhood of shady streets and progressive families mixed in with a few remaining low rent rooming houses, into a 14th floor unit in a new high rise building.  They can see their old neighborhood from the floor to ceiling windows in the new condo, as well as the highway leading south to the beach.  At night they look down at moving lights on the streets and see the lights stacked in windows of all the other tall buildings of our growing city center.  Last spring I watched the sun set, the bottom of the great orange circle touching the distinct line of the horizon, and stood transfixed at the western window watching it …now here is a problem.  How do I describe the motion.  I have to stop because I cannot think of a word that contains the deliberation of movement that impresses me with such a view of the sunset.  It reminds me of a dancer making a deliberate, pageant like exit from the stage, gliding with perfect control not a millisecond too soon, into the wings.  This is the impression I got from watching that one sunset from their west window, followed by the appearance in the darkness of Venus and Jupiter like two jewels suspended in the fresh sea of night.

Well, I suppose it is now evident that I would bring romantic notions to any job or situation.  I guess what’s important to me are the people who can live with that, the customers who have kept me over the years are the ones who could put up with a woman who sees magic in everything and looks for love in every nook and cranny.  All this romance can be very distracting.  It fans the flames of emotion and leads to a lack of self control.  What I’m getting at here is that my customers have been heroically patient with my habit of showing up later and later and taking longer and longer to complete tasks.

This morning I am calculating for the last time how late I can arrive and still have plenty of time to finish before they get home.  I can probably get away with 11am; there would be time for 30 minutes of rest, or time wasted and I could be leaving by 5:30.  Their son and daughter in law are arriving tonight from Taiwan, so there’s no telling what their schedule will be.  What time do flights from the other side of the globe usually arrive?  My first guess is late in the evening.  I want to make brownies before leaving but only half of the dishes are washed and I’ve got that funny feeling in my chest.

I went to work yesterday with the intention of working only two or three hours to hold a customer over till I could come for a full cleaning- I wanted to be in good shape for the big final cleaning at the Anthony’s today, but of course I got intoxicated on the after party dirt in the Hat house (they have a collection of hats hanging in the breakfast nook) and ended up rushing through to finish in 4 ¼ hours.  I still must take my dog for a walk and take a quick bath.  I know I will need 30 minutes in the bed before I leave just to keep the shaking down.  Brownies would be so nice.  But with an hour left before time to leave they will have to wait.  I can’t rush anymore.  I can’t fit things in the way I used to, like spreading light or peanut better a little bit farther.  My body rebels at the least expectation of hurrying through life. 

Saturday, December 15, 2012

The Luck of the Irish

“If you had the luck of the Irish, you’d be sorry and wish you were dead.
You should have the luck of the Irish, you would wish you was English instead.”  Lennon/Ono

I have taken the day off and resolved (again) to start writing about my life as a housecleaner with Grave’s Disease.  Yesterday was a day of worrying about what my customers think of me.  When my neurology customer asked me how I was feeling and I said fine but shaky, he took my pulse and said it was “a little fast but strong, no fibrillation.”  

To a person free of all but the normal anxiety about paying bills and getting the kid into a decent college that news would be reassuring, but in my case I was robbed of the one physical explanation I had for the mysterious feeling that haunts me under the breastbone and grows to an intense pain in my neck, head and eyes in irregular cycles.  I spent the rest of the day in circular thoughts wondering what was causing the sensation in my chest if it was not related to the heart and resisting the impulse to defend myself against the logical conclusion that I have hypochondria.   By the end of the day I returned to the Wikipedia article on Grave’s Disease that I’ve read twice before and was reminded of the tears that popped from my sore eyes the first time I read it.

It has been my plan for several years to write about my life as a house cleaner and tell the story of how I grew up in the nurturing atmosphere of my customers’ homes, strengthened by their kindness and inspired by their patience.  Now that I have been living for 3 years with the knowledge that I carry this chemical difference, and have had some time to consider the various ways it has affected my moods and behavior, I realize how important it is for someone to tell the story of what it’s like to live with Grave’s Disease. 

Today the awareness that shines most brightly for me is my appreciation for both this condition and modern medical science.  I sometimes say condition because calling it a disease contradicts my feeling that I am lucky to have it.  I am reminded of the students at Gallaudet University who protested the hiring of a hearing person as leader of their institution in 1988, beginning the ‘Deaf President Now’ movement; their demands for a deaf university president raised awareness of a culture that chooses to regard difference as an opportunity rather than a disability.  To receive a diagnosis of Grave’s Disease at the age of 51 after the body has been revved up by the effects of an over active thyroid for many years, is the same as being diagnosed with a mental illness that bears a shameful stigma.  It is handled very much in the same way that people once handled the diagnosis of cancer back in the days when it was a death sentence carefully guarded from the patient.

In other words, I was never told I had Grave’s Disease.  I had to put the puzzle pieces, which by mere chance fell in front of me, together.  If I had not repeatedly sought out available literature and asked questions of medical professionals, and if a friendly radiology technician had not told me the story of a fellow soldier’s mental breakdown, I would never have received an explanation for the wild mood swings and intense bouts of pain that I have lived with for years; I would be just another confused woman unable to control herself.

Mother without a License

When I discovered that I was pregnant at the age of 36, without health insurance, savings, or any other trappings of the corporate dream, I went to the county clinic.  Other than STD clinics I had never patronized medical establishments, but I liked the waiting mothers’ clinic; I liked seeing the various parents and guardians with infants and toddlers that circulated every month, just like me, through the waiting room and lab stations.  Eventually, I even liked being called ‘mom’ by the workers in the clinic, after wrestling with the inner conflict of feeling like a comrade in a state reproductive program and deciding that I could resist the repeated appellation as a social rank or let it help me prepare for the new life I was trying to fathom.  How in the world one of those small turkeys would come out of me was too frightening to consider.  I chose instead to meditate on the variety of women progressing through stages of abdominal growth and scolding restless children, and trust that if they could do it, somehow I would manage too.

Every month I was given two pages with a drawing of the corresponding developmental stage of the fetus.  I loved studying all the information and projecting where I was in my journey to motherhood, I loved telling my guy about the latest scientific gem that I had gleaned from the handouts or a book from the library.  I was uncomfortable accepting the WIC coupons that I was automatically signed up for and found the bureaucratic labyrinth I was subjected to every three months to collect them tedious, but like an embedded journalist I never missed an opportunity to sit in the waiting room and go through the experience of being told how I should plan and prepare meals for my family.  I learned a lot about government funded prenatal care and became a big fan of Jimmy Carter.  It was the last 2 weeks of the pregnancy and delivery that opened my eyes to why the American medical institution is casually demonized by the same people who can’t seem to get enough of it.

Ever since I was literally restrained in a hospital bed for the birth of my son I have been engaged in an uneasy standoff with the institutions that are the pride of the average American and yet the first target for blame when lives are compromised or lost.  This account of my life with a difference called a disease is not an indictment of science, American health care, or the medical community.  It is the story of my effort to make the best of the body I was given, and take pride in the woman I am.

Name Your Poison

Grave’s Disease is a name commonly used in America for the autoimmune condition which causes the thyroid to produce thyroid hormone indiscriminately.  Robert Graves was a revered Irish physician of British ancestry who published a two page article in 1835 describing 3 women suffering from heart palpitations accompanied by enlargement of the thyroid gland.  There are, however, earlier descriptions of the condition in medical literature, including one in the 12th century Thesaurus of the Shah of Khwarazm by Al-Jurjani.