Readers share stories of bonding with longtime nannies, housekeepers

The changing roles of nannies
(Dave Calver / For the Times)

If the letter from Sherry Steinberg of Santa Monica read like some love story, that’s because it was.

“I met Lucy in the spring of 1963,” began Steinberg’s note, submitted after the Home section asked readers to share their stories about the bond between housekeeper and homeowner. Dozens of readers weighed in, describing how a cleaning lady or nanny had become like a sibling, parent or best friend.

Steinberg said her nanny-housekeeper has devoted 46 years of service to five generations of her family. Births, weddings, her husband’s cancer, her mother’s recent death -- through all of life’s defining moments, Lucy has been by her side. Or Mommy Lucy, as Steinberg’s grandchildren call her.

It is a relationship like no other, Steinberg said. When asked to explain, she paused.

“I feel very indebted to Lucy,” Steinberg finally said. “I feel appreciative of other friends, but I don’t feel indebted to my friends.”

The housekeeper is now 73, Steinberg said. “We will always be there for her because now it’s our turn to take care of Lucy.” Next month, when Lucy throws a 97th birthday party for her mother in Panama, Steinberg is flying down to be part of that family celebration. Her kids are going too. “They’re really dedicated to her,” she said, “and rightly so.”

Most of the letters that Home received were from women expressing admiration for other women. Susan Sautman of Culver City wrote about her 25-year relationship with her housekeeper, Agustina Vasquez, whom Sautman’s family helped to become a legal U.S. resident. When asked why they wanted to get involved in Vasquez’s life -- helping her seven children emigrate from El Salvador, encouraging the children to learn English, aiding some of them in finding jobs -- Sautman’s answer poured forth without hesitation.

“I saw the sacrifice their mother made to come here and how hard it was for her to support seven children,” Sautman said. She admired how hard Vasquez worked. She understood how difficult life had been. “She did this for her children,” Sautman said, “and I wanted to do this for her.”

Though many homeowners have zero interest in their housekeepers’ personal worlds, others said they were happy when these disparate lives became entwined. Los Angeles resident Sheila Rode wrote of driving to Mexico City in a motor home to meet the family of her housekeeper of 40 years, Elvi Vasquez.

L.A. reader Diane Duarte expressed her feelings a different way: If she were stranded on an island and could only have three people with her, she would take her husband, her dog and “my housekeeper and sister-in-heart, Consuelo.”

When you spend so much time together, it’s only natural to become close, said Santa Clarita resident Nancy Schofield, who ran a cleaning service for 21 years, tidying three houses a day, five days a week. But the fact that you are not a blood relative, that you are not a friend in a conventional sense -- these are precisely the reasons why clients feel comfortable confiding their deepest fears, frustrations and secrets to you, she said.

“I think they feel more confident because they know you’re not going to run out and tell their other friends,” Schofield said.

Ann Pitts, a Manhattan Beach anthropologist, wrote to Home about her El Salvadoran nanny-turned-housekeeper.

“Time does this thing,” Pitts said. “You have daily interactions, or weekly interactions. Her family grows. My family grows. . . . In some ways she was more intimate than my friends because she was right there, in the house.”

Over 19 years, the two women watched each other’s children get older and exchanged advice on raising teenagers. Yet differences in race, class, education, language and life experience can form a divide that never gets bridged. After nearly two decades, Pitts thought they had shared everything -- “complete transparency,” she said -- until the housekeeper made an announcement: She and her boyfriend of eight years were marrying.

Boyfriend, Pitts thought. What boyfriend?

“She didn’t want to tell me. I don’t know why,” Pitts said, laughing at the longtime secret. “No matter how close she might be, it’s just a cultural thing. She has a private life.”

Sautman can relate. Her housekeeper is more than hired help. “I love her like a sister,” Sautman said. Even so . . .

“After 25 years, I still can’t get her to call me by my first name. I provide her a paycheck, so she doesn’t feel like she should call me Susan. I’m Mrs. Susan.”

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