The Cleaning Lady

Our house was a mess. It had been a mess for some time but was deteriorating to a deeper level of mess, disgusting mess. In fact, we were probably living at the level of disgusting mess for some time when it occurred to us that we needed help. With the pending birth of our new baby looming near, we knew we had to take action.

The added stress of dirty diapers was sure to push us even further down the pike to perhaps, filthy disgusting mess, a distinction I had formally reserved for my younger brother’s bedroom and the back seat of my father’s car which was used as a garbage receptacle for White Castle hamburger wrappers and empty bottles of Yoo Hoo.

My mother-in-law generously offered to ask her cleaning girls if they were interested in taking the job. Much to our good fortune, they accepted, however, my mother in law’s home differed from ours in many ways. First, it was much larger. So large in fact that you could fit our entire house inside her house and still have room left over. Second, and perhaps more importantly, her home was very clean. She lived there alone and was apparently very neat.

In the cleaning world, this is a real gem of a house to clean. Our house on the other hand, not so much a gem.

The cleaning ladies arrived just a day before our son was born. We negotiated a price with them though admittedly at a significant disadvantage, as we were plagued with guilt about the present condition of our home. I think we would have agreed to any price when during the tour of the home, we came upon a bowl of ravioli behind the toilet in a bathroom with a fork sticking straight up.

The cleaning ladies were from Brazil and spoke Portuguese so we hardly understood a word they said. The Portuguese cleaning ladies did do a great job on our house. They came every other week and on those weeks that they came we had a really clean house. Well at least the day they came and a few days after. Inevitably, things would start to deteriorate and by about day 5 we were back to mess level. By day 10 we were heading for disgusting mess and by day 14 we were right back to filthy disgusting mess. Then the cleaning ladies would come and restore the house to its former glory.

As we got used to having the cleaning ladies we became pickier about their work. If they forgot to dust a bowl or wipe a blade on the ceiling fan, we would call them and complain. Pretty soon they started cleaning worse and worse and sometimes they would simply not show up at all. When they did come, they would chatter the whole time to each other in Portuguese, we assumed, talking about what disgusting pigs we were and how they couldn’t imagine how we got the place so dirty. With each week, I became more convinced that the cleaning ladies were talking the entire time about what filthy people we were, so filthy in fact that it made them sick to even clean our house.

Things got so bad that I could no longer face them when I had to give them their check. Then one day they called and said they weren’t going to be able to come and clean. As I looked around at the mess that I would have to live with another two weeks, I started to scream at them on the phone that I was having 30, maybe 50 people over for dinner that night and had to have my house cleaned. That was when, for the first time, I completely understood what my Portuguese-speaking cleaning lady was saying.

“You make such a big mess, I no can clean today. It be night before I finish.”

I was so angry, I stammered back, “You’re a cleaning lady, isn’t that what you do?”

“I no come today, I come next week”

“Next week is no good,” I hollered into the phone forgetting that I had lied about having company. “If you can’t come today, then you are fired!”

Well that was it. I had fired the cleaning ladies, and it felt really good…for about a minute. When my wife came home and I told her the news, she cried,

“What are we going to do now?”

I reassured her that we would find, that I would find a good, even great cleaning person and I was sure that there were many to choose from.

I was wrong.

The first person I picked was from a hand written sign I found on the bulletin board at the supermarket. I called the number on the sign right away and was happy to hear the sound of a young woman speaking perfect English on the other end. She said she would come by and give us an estimate. By this time our family had grown or should I say swelled in number and we now had infant triplets as well as my son who was three years old.

Her name was Emily, though she preferred to be called Em and agreed to take the job.

She was bright and cheerful and we liked her immediately. She would often comment while cleaning that she hated kids and didn’t know how we were surviving. It even became a kind of joke between us that she was so great that we wished she liked kids so we could hire her as a nanny. Sometimes we would get to talking and an hour would go by and we would realize that she should be cleaning. In fact, we liked her so much that it took a while for us to realize that she couldn’t really clean at all. She would forget to clean obvious things like the kitchen counter or worse sometimes forget to do whole rooms.

There were weeks that she seemed to be cleaning at a pitched frenzy, scrubbing the bathroom grout with a toothbrush, and then other weeks she would stand in place for 45 minutes mopping the same corner. During one of our hour-long chats she disclosed that she was in fact manic-depressive. I immediately felt a kinship with her. Mental illness had hit my family like the polio epidemic in the 50’s so Em became family. She was devoted to us in a way that only family would be and no matter how depressed she was, no matter how manic she became, she always showed up to clean the house, regardless of her ability to get the job done.

There were weeks when she would ponder a squashed jelly bean on the floor for 30 minutes unable to decide whether to keep it or throw it away.

During a brief manic episode she cleaned all 4 bedrooms in 15 minutes, however upon closer inspection we noticed that she had forgotten to dust the dressers or change the sheets in two rooms.

Of course, because she was family and sick on top of that, no matter how bad a job she did, we didn’t have the heart to fire her. How could we tell her the truth that she couldn’t clean worth a dime, that our house was just as dirty after she left as before she came.

So we lied to her. We told her that we were having financial problems and we could no longer afford to have a cleaning girl. We would miss her terribly, loved her, she was the greatest, would tell all our friends about her and of course call her if things ever changed.

After the emotional roller coaster we had with Em, we opted for a commercial cleaning company. This time we were going for a strictly business relationship.

We called Happy Housekeepers and a well-spoken representative from the company arrived on time to give us an estimate to clean our house. They told us, of course that the first cleaning, or as they call it the Super Cleaning would be required to get the house back into shape.

The Happy Housekeeping Representative explained that a house is like a person’s body and ours was badly out of shape. He must have noticed the Twinkie wrappers under the couch during the inspection. He said in order for the body to get back into shape and on the road to recovery, it’s a good idea to get rid of all the junk food in the house, maybe do a little yoga. Getting started was the hard part but after that it would get easier.

It was going to cost us $225.00 for our house to get started and $85.00 for each additional starting.

The benefit of using Happy Housekeepers is that if at any time you are unhappy with their service, they will send someone out to your house and fix the problem to your satisfaction. We were sold!

After our first cleaning we were discouraged and dismayed to find crud still clinging to our kitchen counter. As promised they did return hours later and remedy the problem. After our third cleaning I came home and was shocked to find that the “crew” on that day had completely neglected to clean any of our bedrooms. Our house was all of 6 rooms and we lived in a four bedroom split-level. What must they have thought after they finished cleaning our house?

“Boy, things sure went fast today, didn’t they Connie?” When we called them and asked what had happened, they claimed that they were told by our nanny not to go upstairs because they would wake the babies, but yes they would surely come back and fix everything. On week seven we had them come back to wipe up the crumbs they missed behind the toaster and on week ten we received a letter saying they were raising their rates by 26%. Were we still interested in their service?

When we called and asked how they could raise their price by that much they reminded us of all the times they had returned to our house to “remedy the problem” and the result was that our house was taking longer than anticipated to clean, thus the increase.

We told them to screw themselves and a week later we were living in shit again.

Soon after that I broke my ankle. I was stuck at home for six weeks with my leg in a cast with nothing to do but watch the ever increasing mess in our house deteriorate to filthy disgusting mess. Finally, when I felt I could no longer live with the mold growing under the toilet seat, my good friend remembered she knew a woman who was cleaning houses. I called the woman the same day and gave her my very sad story about my broken ankle, 4 kids, dirty home ect….

The next day, Marie arrived with bucket in hand and went to work. She scrubbed and scoured enough to put Cinderella to shame. My nanny at the time was so relieved to have someone come to clean the house that she bought her cleaning supplies as a welcome gift and by the end of the day the children were calling her aunt Marie. She didn’t care what she got paid. Whatever we could afford she said, which only made me want to pay her more. By gosh, we all fell in love with Marie.

If the garbage cans were still at the curb when she came, she would even bring them up. She was always finding ways to help the family so much so that we really grew to depend on her. That of course was our folly. Although Marie could clean a house like the Tidy Bowl Man cleaned toilets, she wasn’t very reliable. Too often we would come home from work to find that Marie simply hadn’t shown up. We would call her home and no one would answer for weeks. We would wait patiently thinking that she had to turn up soon and then sure enough she always had some incredible story as to why she had dropped out but was so so sorry and was now back and did we need her. Hell yes we did. Then she would come back baring trays of lasagna and garlic bread and a wonderful potpourri of cleansers that would make my house smell like a fresh field of flowers. The nanny would regain her former happy demeanor and all would be well with the world, until Marie disappeared again.

The last time she left, after calling for several weeks I finally got a hold of someone in her house. I explained who I was and asked where I could find Marie. The dull witted voice on the other end of the phone replied,

”I don’t know.”

Somehow, I think he meant it in the more permanent sense. Marie was always such a happy person. I am always suspicious of happy people. After all what is there to be so happy about anyway. She was probably in a terrible abusive marriage and one day just up and left for good. At least that’s what I always thought.

There were others after Marie. So many in fact they are too numerous to recount. All had some odd or peculiar thing about them like the one who had tattoos all over her body. Which was fine except that each time she was in a relationship, she tattooed the name of the man she was with somewhere on her “temple of love” and of course with each break up she was left trying to make some creative looking design out of the name Lenny. She quit cleaning our house after week three. She couldn’t take all the piles.

Now I clean my house myself. It’s never really perfect, but my standards are lower since I took over the job. I find I like the cleaning girl a lot better now. She isn’t as nice to my kids as Marie was, but she always comes home at the end of the day.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *