Tuesday, September 27, 2011



Marta is the cleaning lady of the woman who owns the house where I live. Every other Wednesday she arrives around noon and stays until around 8, thereby, if I'm home, triggering a whole range of class-consciousness/economic/spiritual neuroses.  

I myself have never—oh my God, NEVER—had a cleaning lady in my life. The whole time Marta's here I feel I should be asking if I can pitch in. She doesn’t clean my little wing (bedroom and bathroom), thank heaven, as that would drive me completely over the edge. My housemate once remarked, "I'm sure Marta'd be happy to clean your space if you want to throw her an extra 25 bucks." “Oh, that’s okay,” I replied. I didn’t bother to say that I can’t afford twenty-five bucks and if I could, I’d give it to her. I wouldn’t make her clean my bathroom.

There's nothing like making very little money but living in relative splendor to set up a kind of nagging cognitive dissonance. There’s nothing like trying to write while Marta’s here to make me feel like a hypocrite and a poseur. I’m sitting in my bedroom with the fan on, a glass of iced tea, and a basket of fresh figs writing about the Crucifixion while Marta’s out in the blazing sun emptying the mop bucket.

There’s also nothing like being in the presence of a ditchdigger or a cleaning lady or a bricklayer (as my father was) to make me feel that my whole life is a disloyalty to my blue-collar roots. My mother never—again, oh my God, NEVER—had a cleaning lady (and that was with eight kids).

So even though Marta's younger than me, she triggers all the unresolved guilt and sorrow and pride I have for my own mother, for my paternal grandparents who came over from Ireland, for my father who worked so hard, for the fact that I escaped the blue-collar life for the writing life. There's a whole world between the people who clean houses and the people who hire others to clean their houses, and that world--that gap--is where I live. 

There’s also the fact that having someone putter around the house for eight hours at a stretch makes me crazy. So while my for-the-oppressed-masses heart feels protective of and sympathetic toward Marta, the whole time she’s here I also wish she’d hurry up and leave.

Marta and I have somewhat (only somewhat because of the language barrier) bonded. We know the health problems of each other’s mothers (hers is in El Salvador). We both think it’s completely beneficial (and sane) to talk to plants. We've established that we're both Católico. When I make my afternoon coffee, I always make extra for her her and remind her where the coffee and filters are and to make some for herself any time. 

Meanwhile Marta goes about her business--vacuuming, laundering, scrubbing--and makes everything shine. My liberal guilt has been part way assuaged since the day I happened to see her check and realized that when you even it out over the twenty years I've been writing, she makes more per hour than me. So in the end, I just have to realize I’m grateful to live in a clean house, I’m glad Marta gets to make some money, I’m glad my roommate sees fit to put up with me. As always, let everyone else tend their garden and I’ll tend mine.  


Anyway, this is the truly great thing. A few weeks ago I went to Sunday Mass at St. Francis of Assisi. As I stood in the Communion line, suddenly from the adjacent line I heard an excited whisper: “Het-ter. Het-ter.”

I turned.

“Marta!” I beamed. 

And side by side, inching along toward the altar, we embraced.



  1. I LOVED this post.

    I don't have a cleaning lady (though Lord knows my house certainly cries out for one), but I have definitely felt this way around the kind man who comes every other week to cut our lawn. I'll be forwarding this to a good friend who once told me that she feels horribly guilty and "imperialistic" about having a cleaning lady.

    And that's a fabulous connection to Scripture ... thank you.

  2. Awesome, wonderful, moving -- that encounter in the Communion line!

  3. What I find truly amazing about the centurion is the measure of his faith in view of his unworthiness. Here was a man whose self-opinion was so low that he did not consider himself worthy to approach Jesus in person to make a request. Yet he still had faith enough to believe that Jesus could give him what he asked for without even showing up! Such faith mixed with such humility astonished even Jesus.

  4. LOVED the ending -- that you met in line to receive our Lord in the Eucharist -- completely subversive. All those distinctions, worries, guilt, etc. dissolve in His Presence, where you embrace in love and go to receive Him.

  5. Yucca, not agave: the latter die after blooming. Only nit I can pick in a fine essay.

  6. I worked through college cleaning houses. And I loved it. There's something really satisfying about creating order in other people's worlds. And getting paid for it.

    This post spoke to me, though, as regards cleaning my own house--which I don't love doing, and for which, I do not get paid. And there are six other people in this house who have no liberal guilt about watching me pick up after them. In fact, I'm pretty sure they take it for granted that I will continue to do this day after day without appreciation, because, of course, I will.

    We're all slaves, in some regard, to our vocations--writing, mothering, a religious vocation--or to our sins--or perhaps we've chosen a kind of slavery to the Lord. There's no life without the Cross. People who work in focus groups probably hate certain parts of their job. Which is why Christ is equally relevant to the centurion as he is to the slave. I needed this reminder of the psychic and emotional freedom that Christ provides--when I am humble enough to ask for it.

  7. Changed! Thank you. I actually have this quote on the home page of my website: "The agave blooms once in its lifetime. Soon after it dies." - Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, Cancer Ward...

  8. oh I'm glad this struck a chord--thanks, folks! I truly think deep down I still feel guilty for being such a sullen adolescent and not helping my pore beleaguered mother more!

    Betty, you are SO right, and in a way supplied the missing piece, which is that my incredibly hardworking and resourceful HOUSEMATE slaves, too. Of course I don't need a housekeeper: I don't own a house and sitting in front of a blank page most of the day I just don't happen to work up that much mess! I, too, actually enjoy doing dishes, laundry, sweeping, neatening, imposing order. Though I'm sure I would not enjoy doing it for six other people...

    Another related subject, which I can't go into at too much length without sounding like a self-pitying whiner, is the MULE WORK (not that I would for the world want to be doing anything else) that is writing...

  9. I like that line "way Catolico"! Very good. Mine makes $25 per hour, way more than I could make if I went back to work toiling in an office or at a retail establishment. But I need her and she needs me, and it works out well for both of us.

  10. I bet Marta loves having coffee with you. :-)

  11. love this: the MULE WORK that is writing. Which means, of course, that you are being a servant, too. For which I reap the benefit, and humbly thank you.

  12. Thank you for always bringing me back to Christ in your writings. As others have expressed, you put into words my thoughts...Can't wait to read your new book, which I ordered the other day.


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