Parting GiftsParting Gifts
My Mother, in our weekly call, told me that she lost another cleaning lady.
“Mom,” I said. “How can you continue to lose 150 pound Polish women? If this keeps up the police are going to start digging up your cellar.”
“Very funny, Mr. Borscht Belt, but I don’t know what I’m going to do.”
I didn’t want to chance an allergic reaction by suggesting that she vacuum her own house and change her own sheets.
I started next week’s call by telling her that the ship, The S.S. Kielbasa, was coming in on Tuesday and if she wanted to get first picks she ought to be down on the dock at dawn. I offered to drive her and she told me that if I just called to make fun of her then it didn’t count as that week’s call. She hung up.
Dad left my Mom comfortably off when he died. I was still in college. She lived modestly in a two bedroom condo in New Haven, overlooking the harbor, and if nothing else she had her priorities straight; grandchildren—each one exceptional, daughters-in-law—they mean well, family—don’t get me started, bridge—at least I have bridge, sons—three sons, enough said, and cleaning ladies—you have to get them right off the boat from Poland because once they start speaking English they’re no good anymore.
I have the most trouble and the most fun with her Polish cleaning lady theories. She never says that they were bred to clean but I know she believes it. Deep down my Mother must feel that Poland is the cleanest country in the world with all of the women running around with schmates, rags, on their heads, a dust cloth in one hand and a broom in the other.
Her record for longevity with a cleaning woman is three months except for Sonia. Sonia, for eight years, took two buses twice a week no matter what the weather to get to my Mother and clean. After the first year, my Mother tells people proudly, she no longer had to follow Sonia around and tell her what and how to clean. “That Sonia,” she says, “she was a pro. She was like family. When she left me for a full time job with those rich momsers I was heartbroken, but being a lady I wished her well and gave her an extra five dollars that week.”
“Mom. Don’t throw your money around like that,” I tell her.
“Laugh, Sonny,” she tells me. “You got that shiksa you married to do the cleaning. I’m all by myself.
“Mom,” I tell her. “Do you know that it hurts my feelings and Mary’s feelings when you talk like that. That’s why she doesn’t come with me to visit very often. You say hurtful things.”
She looks at me quizzically. “What? Am I supposed to be responsible for everything that comes out of my mouth?”
“Some people are,” I tell her.
“Well I’m not some people, Sonny. I’m your Mother.”
“And what?” she asks more threatening than asking.
“Nothing, Mom. But maybe you could think before you talk and insult some one.”
“After all these years you are telling me to think before I talk. Listen you little pisher, where I come from you think while you’re talking or you never get to talk and people run all over you. You had it too easy growing up. I knew I should have been a tougher Mother. My family told me, “Don’t be such a pushover for those boys, they’ll just break your heart in the end.”
“Mom. Before you bleed all over the phone tell me about your new cleaning lady.” I knew I could get her off of any topic with this question.
“So far, so good. I got her from the butcher. It’s his cleaning lady’s cousin. Been here only three weeks and already she has a full schedule. I was lucky to get her.”
“So she’s doing a good job?” I ask foolishly.
“How good a job can she be doing when I’ve only been training her for such a short period of time. She tries to speak English to me and I tell her, No. No. Speak Polish—no English. Once they start speaking English it’s all over. They start asking for bus fare, lunch, and more money. They know there’s less discriminating people than myself who’ll take them on. There’s no loyalty anymore. Sonia was the last of the old breed.”
“Mom. Have you ever checked to see if Sonia had any daughters?” I asked with tongue firmly planted in cheek.
“As a matter of fact I did— but they had no interest in the family business. “They’re going to go to college,” Sonia said, and she suggested I try the Lithuanians. “They’re coming in to our country in large groups,” she said telling me that I’d have a tougher time training them because they’re slow learners—but in any case I should stay away from the Slovaks. “Slovaks can’t be trusted,” Sonia told me.”