March 30, 2006


Thursdays are good days. Geralda comes to clean. Geralda, or Geraldinha (“little Geralda”) has worked for C’s family for over 30 years.

When we were still living in New York I relished the idea of getting a maid. I was so tired of living in my messy apartment which I had not the inclination or energy to clean, that thought of having someone else do it was very exciting. When we got to Brazil however, I was struck with two tiresome Americanisms: puritanical desire to prove I could do it myself, and the good old liberal, middle class guilt. I was surprised when first entering our apartment to discover a cramped little bathroom shoved into one corner of the kitchen.
I remember asking C what on earth the architects were thinking wasting space like that, and why did a 3 bedroom apartment needed four bathrooms? Oh, for the maid, of course. It wouldn’t be right to have the maid use the regular guest bathroom, now would it? I let the righteous face of middle class guilt take over. Charged with that and the fact that like all good yuppies, I coveted a breakfast nook, we tore the bathroom out.

I had met Geraldinha in previous visits to Brazil. The first time was in C’s Aunt Clea’s apartment and it was a brief encounter. The second time was also during a visit to Brazil, and we had stopped at Clea’s apartment for lunch. I remember feeling awkward and not being sure if I was supposed to kiss her on the cheek. (Even now I’m still a little unsure about who to cheek kiss when saying hello or good-bye – and if it should be one cheek or both. As far as I can figure there are no specific guidelines for it, and I can only assume that there must be a special knowledge you can only get by being born Brazilian that tells you when, who and how many.) I remember on that second meeting I didn’t embrace her and just stood quietly beside the lunch table doing my best to look like I wasn’t understanding what anyone was saying. I thought, I’ll just be the stereo-typical stand-offish American, and let the presumptions of my culture carry the responsibility if I’m not handling this right. Later when that self serving cloud of guilt materialized I realized she probably thought I didn’t kiss her because she was the maid. Naturally on the next meeting I went overboard with the double cheek kiss and hug, which surely just made her and everyone else uncomfortable.

When we got to Brazil, I wanted a maid and I didn’t want a maid. I didn’t know what I wanted. But I was pretty sure I didn’t want Geralda. You see, she’s worked for the family for so long that she is a member of the family. Clea, twice widowed, now lives in a tiny studio apartment by herself. She doesn’t need Geralda, but still pays her a full time salary to come just one day a week, out of respect for all the work she’s done over the years. Geralda was C’s grandmother’s maid but actually much more than that – she was a real friend to her and took care of her right up until the very end. Geralda’s sister, Tounica was C’s maid and nanny when he was a kid. (That's Clea in the middle, Geralda on the left.)

After C’s grandmother died, Geralda began working for Clea, who now considers her like a daughter. She helps her with any paper work she needs, and with her banking - electronic ATM’s are very difficult for her to navigate, and every month when Geralda collects her tiny government pension, Clea goes with her to the bank and helps her deposit it. Geralda is a reasonably healthy, but slightly overweight 50 something, and I was having a hard time swallowing the idea that this very much loved woman would be doing the hard work of house cleaning for me, a fit, healthy 30 something. No, it would be better to inflict that on a complete stranger – someone I didn’t double cheek kiss.

So for the first few months I avoided the questions from Clea and C’s mom and Gerald herself, when they continued to ask if I wouldn’t like some help. I didn’t have to jump into anything anyway because the apartment was so torn up with all the renovations it wouldn’t have made any sense to have someone cleaning anyway. But eventually I was worn down, and had to set my middle class guilt, puritanical work ethic (which, who am I kidding, I am sorely lacking in) and familial ties aside.

It was hard the first few weeks. I got very stressed out on the days she would come. I felt that I had to get up early and be showered, dressed and have eaten breakfast before she arrived at 9am. I didn’t have the conventional Waspy impulse that makes you run from room to room cleaning up before the maid could see the truth about how you really live and keep house. Instead I worried that she wasn’t comfortable. Getting to know someone’s house and routines isn’t easy, and I felt personally responsible for her feeling relaxed in our house. I couldn’t sit still and jumped up every time she entered a room or asked a question. I insisted that she sit and eat lunch with us, something that she resisted in her funny humble way (she always eats with Clea), but never completely refused. I worried that she didn’t like us and C pointed out to me, how would I feel eating at the table of the people who were paying me to scrub their toilets? (The guilt cloud materializes again…)

Six months later, things are naturally much more relaxed. We have a routine, and we’ve adjusted to each other’s patterns and space. She now eats with us every week without question, but we continue to have the same playful fight each time when she tries to put less than a bird’s helping on her plate and C and I always grab it from her and pile it high. And I’ve ameliorated my guilt by making Thursdays my ‘round the house day. While she dusts and mops, I busy myself with other home projects, like organizing files and cabinets, putting things away and sometimes even bathing the dog. Geraldinha helps me with my Portuguese and she tells me stories about her family and what it was like to grow up poor in Brazil. Once while eating with us she recounted what it was like working on a fazenda when she was a teenager: the employees would have to eat their lunches outside standing up because the old tin plates it was served in were so full of holes it would leave a mess on their hands and drip on the floor. She laughed as she told the story – I wanted to cry.

There are no holes in our plates thankfully. After jumping in and trying to help with lunch a few times and making a complete disaster of it, I now leave the cooking to her, and it’s delicious.

I love Thursdays.

No comments: