When I saw the article about housekeepers and employers, I felt compelled to respond. Twenty-one years ago, I was a teacher and wanted to return to work when my daughter was 8 months old. After attempting to hire one or two people who didn't work out, I found someone through a friend. That someone was Carmen, and she had been in this country for only about a week when we met.
I'll never forget our first meeting. When we were introduced, with downcast eyes, she kissed my hand. This simple act seemed so strange but yet touched my heart. I later learned that she had been one of nine children born into an impoverished family in rural El Salvador. She was intelligent, ambitious and a wonderful worker -- sensitive and caring with our daughter and extremely dependable. She lived in our house at first because she had nowhere else to go. She spoke no English when she first came, and we were able to communicate only because of my halting high-school Spanish.
Almost immediately she wanted to improve herself. She took English lessons at the local high school. She learned to drive and bought an old car. Finally one day she came to me and asked me if we would help her get a green card. I located an attorney, and she paid him to help her apply to the Labor Department based on our need for a nanny.
Years went by, and we no longer needed a live-in with my daughter in school. Carmen then worked in other people's homes, but we still kept in touch, remembering holidays and each other's birthdays.
After about nine years, we received a letter stating that her immigration case was finally up for review. However, the paper we were asked to sign asked if she was still in our full-time employment, which she was not. My husband explained to an official that she worked for us part-time, and the official said she was no longer eligible for the green card. Carmen was devastated.
Then a miracle occurred. About three months later, Carmen received her green card in the mail. We never understood how it happened. Was her application accidentally put in the wrong pile? Did some kind official take pity on her situation? Regardless, we felt it was an act of God. A little over a year ago, Carmen became an American citizen and celebrated her new status by inviting us to dinner. It was truly a joyous occasion.
Thank you for the opportunity to salute and thank the wonderful people who keep up our house and our yard. They enhance every day of our lives. The word "stranger" has no place here. Does a stranger have a key to your home and the code to your security system? Does a stranger enthusiastically admire your online pictures of grandchildren -- or know your dirty laundry and your occasional disagreements with your spouse?
I thank God for our helpers. And in answer to your un-posed question: Yes, we treat them well, financially and personally. They deserve no less.
We were fortunate to find Norma to care for our newborn son. She was a gem, a second mother to our kids and a confidant to me. We treated her well, and she stayed with us for more than 17 years. She continues to be part of our extended family, as we are to hers. It is all about mutual values and respect.
Rosa saved my marriage!
When Rosa came into our lives, my daughter was 8 or 9 at the time. My husband-to-be, Bob (still my husband, I'm glad to say), and I were trying to balance the delicate task of merging a family together and taking care of the responsibilities of daily living. There were weekly "discussions" on the cleanliness of the home and who would be responsible for said cleanliness. These "discussions" continued until nobody could ignore the green substance on our shower walls or the mutant dust bunnies.
Long story short, Bob and I sat down and determined we needed a cleaning lady or marriage counseling. We determined it was cheaper to get a cleaning lady, not to mention a lot less gut-wrenching.
We were correct. Rosa was much better than therapy -- mainly because at the end of the day, we actually had a clean house rather than a promise of a clean house! Rosa cleaned places that we didn't know existed, and she did it effortlessly. Sometimes her mom would come as well.
Even though I saw Rosa every two weeks, I gotta admit that I don't really know Rosa. I don't know her last name. I don't know her mom's name, first or last. I don't know the names of her children, although they have been to my house and I have given them gifts. I don't know where she lives. I don't know how old she is. We didn't even know Rosa was pregnant until she walked in one day with a brand new baby boy in tow! How does that happen?
I guess I looked at Rosa much like I do the checker at the grocery store: I know they're there, and they are friendly and helpful, but I don't need to know who they are. Rosa should have been different. This is a person whom I saw on a regular basis, whom I let into my home, whom I like. And as I said, she saved my marriage.
My daughter has gone off to college, and although our nest is empty, it still gets dirty. But because my husband has been out of work for 16 months, we finally had to let Rosa go yesterday. I hope that it will just be for a couple of months, but I have no guarantee. Rosa asked me, "Why?" and I had to explain that it had nothing to do with her. There just isn't any money. Now all I can do is hope that after all these years, our marriage is strong enough to survive Rosa's departure.
I have had my housekeeper since the last years of law school, and most important, through the year I studied for that dreaded California State Bar exam. However, as a newly licensed attorney, I no longer had the financial assistance of those student loans. Each week I struggled with how I would tell my housekeeper, "Anna," that I could no longer afford her.
Anna had been accustomed to coming every Tuesday. I felt guilty asking her to reduce her time to every other week or once a month. I worried that the change would infringe on her ability to accept work from another prospective employer. So Tuesday would come, she would let herself in, wake me up with a cup of hot coffee and cheerfully play with my 90-pound "baby" pit bull. And then another Tuesday would go, and I would not have mustered the strength to let her go.
Meanwhile, this economy weakened and I myself was learning exactly how hard a job was to come by. Eventually, though, I realized I found great comfort in Anna's weekly visits. I likened her arrival to a day of therapy. I finally decided to trade in the struggle of letting Anna go and embraced my search each week to find the few twenties it cost to keep my housekeeper. I couldn't be happier with that decision.
"Do you need a cleaning lady?" asked Pablo, the painter.
"Well, yes, I haven't had one for a while," I answered.
"My wife, Elsa, can do this for you." he stated.
Soon after that, I became grandma to the Chavez family -- two adults and two children. Sharing birthday dinners and other celebrations has been special. After my family acquired a cute dog, they also adopted one. They brought flowers and plants to the hospital after a few mishaps.
Now, over at least five years, we have shared the good and the not so good in our lives. Our love and hearts continue to reach out for one another.
RE "After the Work Dries Up, What Next [March 21] by Susan Carpenter: Ms. Carpenter, in all of your (I'm sure thorough) research, why are three of the four people you wrote about illegal immigrants? (Oh dear, I said the "I" word -- illegal. I know The Times will not print that vile word.)
I realize that The Times is a liberal newspaper with strong leanings toward the plight of illegals (oops, I said that word again), but how about doing something unique and write about actual citizens who are having a tough time? Please do not use the tired excuse that you could not find any U.S. citizens in the housekeeping industry, since Americans supposedly won't do that kind of work. If you come out of your L.A. Times bubble, you would find the people of America are hardworking and not "above" any job. Or is it that you, Ms. Carpenter, think yourself "above" those Americans who would do housekeeping?
Editor's note: Because The Times could not verify the immigration status of the four people who were profiled, the article does not say whether they are legal or illegal immigrants.
The housekeeper chronicles
Cleaning lady as therapist? Readers respond to Home section stories about household help.
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