Mexican Grace

This is a regular feature column inspired stories that manifest “Mexican Grace.”  This is a regular feature column inspired stories that manifest “Mexican Grace.”  El Ojo is looking for more anecdotes that relate the many encounters, initiated by expats or locals, that exemplify the special forms of mutual giving and receiving that define the Mexican Grace that brought us to this unique paradise--and that keep us here.Please email articles of up to 900 words, with a Title and your name at the top to both This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. and This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. are welcome.

 

THE QUEEN OF CLEAN

By Loretta Downs

QUEEN OF CLEAN

In 1980 my work started to involve frequent travel and long hours so I engaged a cleaning lady. First, it was once a month then more frequently as my time diminished and my income increased. 

It didn’t take long for me to love coming home on the day she had stormed through the apartment. Oh, the smell of lemon Pledge, the sight of a dustless home, the order that was regained, the pictures on the wall slightly tilted to let me know they, too, were touched with her soft rag, were the reward to paying another to enter my domain and do the hard work of cleaning it. 

Even though I haven’t cleaned my own home since 1984, I am never totally comfortable, maybe even feeling a little guilty, having another woman clean my house. To ease my discomfort, I try not to be home when she is working because I know I could do it myself if I were more organized and prioritized my time differently. I pay dearly to go to a gym instead of exercising with a broom or a mop.

Some of my discomfort is surely connected to my mother. She was obsessive about cleaning. Not the kind of obsession that needs therapy (well, maybe), rather the kind of obsession that could not live with a bit of dirt near her. We had an old house with a basement where she washed, hung (outside in the summer), ironed our clothes, and cooked on her original 1935 stove to not make a mess in the upstairs kitchen. You could lick the cement floor it was so clean.

My mother was born in 1912 to Italian immigrants who had found their way from Ellis Island to a small coal mining town in southern Illinois. They were poor even before her father died in the 1918 flu epidemic (yes, I get vaccinated), but after that her mother worked desperately to keep her five children together. 

At the age of 12, she was sent to St. Louis, 90 miles away, to be a live-in servant in the home of a couple with two small children. She never said much about that experience, though she smiled when she talked about the “nice family” and sending her $50-a-month salary to her mother. After one year the family sent her home to finish grade school. Cleaning is in my blood. So is respect for the cleaners.

When I bought a home five years ago, a friend recommended a young woman starting out in the cleaning profession. I didn’t have the patience—or the emotional vigor—to train her and she didn’t like the work, or maybe me. We parted. Then Josefina came into my life, improving it in untold ways. 

The house has more windows and doors than walls, and they are often open to let in warm air and birdsongs, and also dust. Lots of dust. I discovered just how much dust during my first two-week quarantine, in March, when I returned from the States and I paid Josefina to stay home so she wouldn’t lose income.

I was willing to wash my dishes and wipe the mess on the counters, but I could not get in the mood to move the dust that I watched accumulate until I could quite easily have written my grocery list on the coffee table. About day ten I drank enough coffee to take a few swipes at the surfaces that were beginning to support plant life. I even took Josefina’s mop in my hands, wondered what products she uses to wash the floors, looked around in the (her) cleaning supply cupboard, stood dazed a moment, and put the mop back.

By the end of my quarantine I had cleared narrow paths from room to room with my slippered feet and followed Erma Bombeck’s advice to “just lower the lights and put flowers in vases, then no one will notice the dust.”

Just like my mother, Josefina simply abhors dust. She walked in shaking her head, “Polvo! Hay mucho polvo!” Dust! There is so much dust! I gave her an air hug and left, knowing when I returned five hours later there would not be one speck of dust in my house. Even if there were, I wouldn’t see it. I call her La Reina de la Limpieza, the Queen of Clean.

Once in a casual conversation I mentioned to someone that I was giving her a raise. Without even asking from what to what, they said, “Don’t do that or I’ll have to give mine a raise.” Really? Based on casual research, the pay range for cleaning services in Lakeside is 50 to 100 pesos per hour. In the US the going rate is $25 an hour, and finding a good, reliable, trustworthy cleaner is not easy.

Josefina, her mother, and some of her many sisters have always cleaned houses to contribute to the family’s income, resulting in an educated and hard-working younger generation in the Lopez family, just like in my family. She’s only ten years younger than I am, and I hope she remains strong much, much longer. I need her not only to move my sofa and mop my floors, but because she reminds me where I came from. That reminder makes me beyond grateful that I don’t have to clean my house or anyone else’s house like my mother did.

 

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