I have been thinking about a comment in reference to my mention of maids in Oh Mother. The comment struck a nerve, precisely because I have been tiptoeing around this subject.
It is difficult to write about it without sounding over-righteous, snobbish, or something in-between. Yet I cannot change the fact that I grew up in a household in Portugal where people other than my family did the household chores. And since I returned to my family home last year, I have been adjusting to having maids again. Their names are F. and C., and I have permission to mention them as long as I tell them what I say in a language they understand (it’s a promise!).
I don’t even know where to start on this. When I left at 18, F. was already working in the house. C. arrived only 10 years ago. Both have been devoted to my parents and I am forever grateful. They still take care of my father, the family home, the dogs … and now me and my dog too. But I keep making blunders in a set up that has been settled and comfortable for all of them for a very long time; and I keep showing signs of what I can only call inverted social snobbishness.
Here is an example of a major blunder: When I first arrived, I sometimes tried to fix myself something to eat. But the kitchen is F.’s domain; her self-worth is woven into the superior quality of her cooking (to which I am witness). Rummaging through the pantry to get ingredients for spagetti “my style” meant I was tap dancing all over her self-esteem.
It is harder to write about inverted social snobbishness because I am still confused about this whole thing. I guess we’re all confused around here. To F. and C., my life choices are incomprehensible and I hold threatening beliefs, like: a house doesn’t always have to be spotless and shirts can be worn without having been impeccably ironed. To me, their contentment is hard to grasp. For a while I found myself wishing they did not love their job; everything would be simpler, more in tune with my beliefs, if they didn’t. But wishing this made me feel uncomfortable (what kind of person wants someone to feel bad about her life?).
They will not indulge me, or do my any favors either. For a start, they would not trade places with me. I am a slave to deadlines, responsibility, and stress. “Slave” was the word F. used in a tone of compassion. She cannot imagine a fate worse than mine, and secretly pities my daughters, whose successful careers in the US confirm her suspicion that I turned them into stressed-out slaves just like myself.
On the other plate of the scale are their lives. Pay is good, they say; there is social security and a pension to look forward to; and they decide when to do what. I would add, from my own observations, that there’s no social stigma and plenty of affection. My father misses them when they’re not around, and F. is jealous of C., who lives in the house; she finds every possible reason to visit on a Saturday, bringing her grandson and her husband along to check on a loose doorknob or a leaky tap. It took me a while to get used to these “intrusions,” though I was the only one to feel this way about it. I no longer do.
I am also the only one who believes this arrangement is not universally good. Fortunately, I keep this belief to myself. I say fortunately because a few weeks ago, just before Portugal’s latest elections, I found out what they think of people like me, who are concerned about, say, the universal good. The choice was between Sócrates, the Prime Minister of the Socialist government that was in power for the past 6 years, and Passos Coelho, the head of the Social Democratic party (to my American friends: more to the center-right of the European political spectrum). As election day approached, F. and C. became more and more agitated. When Sócrates came on TV to make his final electoral speech, F. exploded.
“Soon we won’t have to listen to you anymore,” she mumbled to the TV set. “You’ll be gone, and good riddance.”
I was completely surprised. Hadn’t they always voted for the socialist party, I asked.
“I don’t know how he can show his face,” she said.
“But he’s a socialist,” I insisted. “He fights for things like your unemployment benefits, pensions…”
She was angry.
“Really! The country’s going to the dogs! And we’re going too. I only hope smart people will stop with the big ideas and vote against him.”
“It makes me mad to hear all those smart-talking people on TV going on about people’s rights. Will you please stop fighting for my rights, that’s what I want to say to them.”
“I see. I’d better vote for the right person then.”
“You’ll be voting?” she asked, alarmed.
“Yes, I think so. Why?”
“You’re American now. You vote there!”
“I can vote here too, you know. I am still Portuguese.”
“I see.” Clearly this was a worrying thought. “Just one thing: You need to be careful with the ballot. The party symbols look very much alike. You want to tick the right box.”
C. nodded. I nodded. Coelho won.
(In reference to a previous post, because so many readers were kind enough to offer advice – Flowers will be brought with some regularity. I will not be the one to bring them. We are both happy with the arrangement).