Thursday, October 18, 2012

personal, personnel

Tony Hoagland

Don’t take it personal, they said;
but I did, I took it all quite personal—

the breeze and the river and the color of the fields;
the price of grapefruit and stamps,

the wet hair of women in the rain—
And I cursed what hurt me

and I praised what gave me joy,
the most simple-minded of possible responses.

The government reminded me of my father,
with its deafness and its laws,

and the weather reminded me of my mom,
with her tropical squalls.

Enjoy it while you can, they said of Happiness
Think first, they said of Talk

Get over it, they said
at the School of Broken Hearts

but I couldn’t and I didn’t and I don’t
believe in the clean break;

I believe in the compound fracture
served with a sauce of dirty regret,

I believe in saying it all
and taking it all back

and saying it again for good measure
while the air fills up with I’m-Sorries

like wheeling birds
and the trees look seasick in the wind.

Oh life! Can you blame me
for making a scene?

You were that yellow caboose, the moon
disappearing over a ridge of cloud.

I was the dog, chained in some fool’s backyard;
barking and barking:

trying to convince everything else
to take it personal too.

from Poetry, July/August 2009

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Yesterday was difficult in that way I suppose I should be used to by now, but am still unprepared for. Maybe my approach is all wrong, I don't know. I'm once again thrown into troubles with the household staff; and these troubles are compounded by the fact that I'm embarrassed that I have household staff. I was not raised with housekeepers, nannies, gardeners, or cooks (most Americans aren't!) and have no model of how to deal with the difficulties accompanying this luxury. There are difficulties, I assure you. Just watch Downton Abbey or read Rebecca. (Not to compare my housekeeper and part-time nanny with the army of staff stationed in a wing of a crenellated and gargolyed manor. I am merely managing 850 square feet in a third-floor rented apartment.)

But tell me, where do I look for models to deal with the issues of household help? Old English novels mention cooks and housekeepers but don't really give much in the way of practical advice. And those novels, more often than not, featured governesses as heroines: we're primed to identify with staff more than manage them. And then, I spent more of my life being household staff than employing them. My father packed up his home-schooled children into his truck and dispatched them upon the yards of the families he worked for as a gardener; I cleaned the church we attended with my parents every Saturday afternoon for most of my childhood, and in college I found that working as a cleaning lady for the stately households in Portland's West Hills paid much better than the jobs available for students at the University I scrimped and saved to attend. You'd think this would give me insight into how to handle my employees—but sadly, it probably just clouds my judgement.

We've gone through five different nannies in four years, and two housekeepers. One woman, A, has been with us from the time Isaiah was born, cleaning and babysitting. I trusted her, paid her well, asked her advice, found her other work. I looked past her faults many times because she was valuable to me, and the children loved her. However, she also nurses a strong identity of victimhood which she is happy to share with anyone, and she is not closed-lipped. This had gotten out of hand, particularly because she speaks Spanish fluently with my neighbors and friends. And some of these friends grew weary of A's complaining and spoke with me about it. I wasn't surprised, since she freely shares all sorts of negative things about all her other employers with me. But my world is a small one; her complaints come echoing back to me and compromise the harmony I am trying to create in my home. So I spoke with her about it, kindly.

At seminary, one of respected Russian matriarchs once mentioned her household help to a group of student wives. She described this woman warmly, as one of the family—a babushka who was always around, cooking, starching shirts, washing faces, teaching proper manners. No doubt she lived with the family as well. I didn't stop to ask myself what she was paid, or if she was paid, or whether she felt used or how she understood her loyalties. She played a role in a glowing myth, and in my head her motives were simplified to loyal servitude and reciprocal familial love. And perhaps my assumptions are more or less true. However, this image has served just as useless a source of practical help to me as my experiences cleaning homes and yards.

I suppose I wanted to think of A in the same way as the babushka—a loyal part of the family. This was an image she encouraged, after all. However, another fault she sports is intolerance of negative feedback; she wants only to be needed and valued—which for the most part I did. But when I spoke to her about her complaining to others, she could not withstand it. She was crushed and angered, the indignity of my reprimand too much to bear. And so she quit, and I will not waste your time describing how annoying this is and how much of a bother to find someone new who can be trained to the particularities of our family, someone I trust, with a gentle presence, and who is good with children. Someone, please, who will not complain about me to my friends and neighbors.

And I will add that this final neurosis: to hire household help and then have them complain about you to your friends, particularly when you admit some embarrassment about having help in the first place, is just too much. It makes the ineptitude I secretly link to having help writ large. A's complaints were mostly pedestrian, but my fear that she would reveal my weaknesses (unmade bed, sink full of dishes, desire to sit in big soft chair far too long, cheerios for lunch) is humbling and a bit humiliating.

But I recover. Cleanliness is not next to godliness, and constant industry can mask many a mental illness. Nobody is fooled by me, after all. I don't even seek to fool. I enjoy the fact that I haven't really cleaned by bathroom in four years. And even if I hadn't cleaned my share of bathrooms in my childhood and young adulthood, there is no shame is paying someone to do it for me. It's legal, good for the economy, and common enough in New York City.

I am making my own little rule-book domestic help, learning slowly by trial and error. And if you happen to know of a good cleaning lady who needs more clients, let me know.

{ poetry wednesday }


Drop In The Water Bucket said...

I love your openness here, Amber. These type of circumstances and experiences are difficult ones for anyone. But because, you being a 'somewhat' private person in many ways, this is heartbreaking to me that you have to go through this.

I was wondering why no one was commenting! (I emailed my response). Then I called you and learned your close friends were supporting you by phone calls/emails also. :-) Good.

I went online looking for chat rooms where other mother's might have similar experiences to yours, and instead hooked up with a domestic service site that gave the other side - horror stories on behalf of are a goddess compared to what I read.

We have to make tough decisions for the sake of our children - yours was painful and awkward but right on.

Good decision, dear. Thank you for sharing so honestly.

Jenny Schroedel said...


I so respect your courage and honesty. Yes! having household help is not just a luxury but also a risk, because these people enter into very vulnerable places and they must be worthy of our trust. You found that A. wasn't, and you acted. Your boundaries are sound and you are teaching me, more and more, how to establish my own firm boundaries. Thank you.

Evelina said...

Hi Amber, I follow your blog and I really enjoy the Photo Friday, as well as the Poetry Wednesday. Beautiful, simple, and encouraging.

As I read this post of yours, I immediately remembered the only novel I know where the topic of the relation to the staff in modern America is somehow tackled. It's Zadie Smith's On Beauty. I definitely recommend it.

I personally prefer young babysitters (like students), girls younger than me - I think that people are more naturally inclined to "obey" to others on the basis of age difference than by the fact that they are paid.
I wish you luck with the next nanny and I hope that the next will be the right one!

A M B E R said...

Thank you all for your kind words. There is always a part of me that doesn't want to publish these things, to keep my blog full of cheery stuff. But then I wouldn't want to write my blog, and neither would it be the kind *I* would want to read. So. I tackle what's really going on in my life, as much as I can.

Evelina, thanks for the recommendation. I've seen that book, and read some about it, and now I have a good reason to go get it. Interestingly, I did remember one book that talked about housekeepers and such in a way that was oddly useful--given that the book was set in the 14th century--Sigrid Undset's *Kristin Lavransdatter*. Kristin had to deal with the staff at the manor where she lived after marrying, and the book actually gives relational details about how she did this. Curious.

Your idea about someone younger is good too.