The Easier Life

My housekeeper’s son was caught between two countries and two cultures. Even with all my luck and privilege, there was nothing I could do to help him.

March 2008By Comments

About a Boy: Bonita's son Oscar was growing up in a world more familiar to my husband and me than to her.
Illustration by Juliette Borda

We hired our first housekeeper after eight years of marriage. At that point, it was either a maid or a therapist. Since all my husband and I really argued about was housekeeping (I was pro, he was indifferent), we chose the maid. Chacha (all names have been changed). She was, maybe, nineteen. Like any other teenager, she had no idea how to clean a house; she’d use the kitchen sponge on the toilet rim and throw wool sweaters in the dryer. Her saving grace was her willingness to hold our colicky baby, who needed to be held 24/7. That Chacha did beautifully. She was very pretty, and she had grown up in a large family with many babies. Around the house she would stroll with our son, rocking, cooing, singing along with the music. With him, she did not need to know English, which she was too shy to learn. At night, he smelled of her incredibly vivid perfume. But soon Chacha returned to Mexico to become a dancer. It was probably a calling.

Next came her aunt Teresa. She was middle-aged, with teenage sons, and had been cleaning houses for decades. She expressed her opinion of Chacha with prim lips, a slight shudder. Teresa was tall and blushed easily. She no doubt wondered about our eclectic taste in decor: the Day of the Dead figurines posed whimsically around the house; the milagro-studded crosses and ancient santos hung here and there; the photographs and paintings of naked women; and probably most scandalous, the authentic last rites box set above the telephone. Occasionally she would bring me a copy of the Watchtower, with passages highlighted. She seemed to believe that I was in need of salvation, and she’d noticed how avidly our household absorbed the written word.

When Teresa decided to return to her ne’er-do-well husband in Mexico, she sent her sister Bonita. There were a great many family members ready to assist, and we’d met Bonita before, as well as sisters Juana and Dolores, who had only one leg. Dolores came every now and then to help but had to take frequent rests. Teresa told me that when she was young, Dolores had treated her wooden leg like a doll, holding it in her lap and stroking it, coloring eyes and other facial features on its surface, murmuring lullabies to it as if to an infant.

Bonita was the most fervent housekeeper I have ever known. She once removed every single book from our library shelves in order to clean and then replaced them—not in their original alphabetical order but by size and color. Even my neat freak mother was impressed by her thoroughness. Bonita came to our house three times a week for ten years. Her two youngest children were close to the ages of our children, and they often tagged along. The older one, a boy named Oscar, would give me various reasons for his absence from school that day.

Both Oscar and his little sister, Lucy, were beautiful, charming children, bright and sweet and helpful. They would wander in our children’s bedrooms, admiring the belongings, touching the toys, eyeing the computers and dolls and books and games. They spoke English and translated complicated exchanges. Bonita would be explaining her legal troubles in attempting to divorce her incarcerated husband. I would be trying to distinguish between brands of tile cleanser. There is nothing more shaming, more uncomfortable, than caring about grout when someone is trying to figure out how to divorce an abusive spouse before he’s released from prison.

Over time, Oscar and Lucy became friends with our children. For our daughter’s twelfth birthday, we sent a limo around town picking up the guests. The driver called us, unsure of the final address down in the nameless, rutted dirt roads of Bonita’s old colonia community. But he gamely made the trek, picking up both Oscar and Lucy, who were, by far, the most formally dressed of the crew. I believe the limo itself cost more than the value of their home, that run-down yet impeccably clean trailer at the river’s edge.

Of course we paid Bonita, but she was much more than our employee, and we were more than her employers. We hired a lawyer to help with her divorce; we purchased space heaters and a computer for her home; we explained paperwork that young Oscar couldn’t understand; we saw to it that Bonita (ineligible for the Medicaid benefits her children enjoyed as American citizens) received a flu shot every year, eyeglasses, annual physicals. This was a happy economy, with goodwill on both sides, generosity and affection. Her father sometimes came with her and spent the day sunning himself in our side yard, happy beneath the trees, listening to mourning doves.

What bothers me, now that Bonita has moved away, retired and ensconced in a house her older sons proudly bought for her, is Oscar. Many of Bonita’s days in the house were spent talking with me about family members—parents, siblings, children: her eighteen year-old’s pregnant girlfriend who’d dropped out (the girl simply refused to raise the baby, so Bonita took in the child); the crashed car and lost job of her oldest boy; the impending marriage and parenthood of another; drunkenness, drug abuse, tickets, fistfights. Bonita would explain these crises and life changes to me in great detail as the two of us sorted the contents of the cupboards and tended, at our feet, a baby in a bassinet—her granddaughter or great-niece. Her children had struggles, but they were ones that Bonita could understand and I could commiserate with. My family had versions of these same problems. The exception was Oscar.

Oscar baffled Bonita. She said so often. Why was he so frightened? Why didn’t he eat enough? Why were the other children at school so unkind to him? Talking about him, she always put a hand on her midsection, as if all his problems resided there, in his stomach. She assigned a single word to her most complicated child: “nervioso.” That was the explanation he could offer that at least made sense to her.

He loved to dance, Oscar. He was agile and graceful and physically fit but did not want to play sports. He was also compulsively clean, a kid who ironed his jeans and wiped mud from his immaculate white high-tops. He hated the crowdedness of their trailer; he hated the number of people who routinely dropped in there, hid out, crashed—his older brothers, his many aunts and uncles, his dotty Mexican grandparents from both sides of the family.

Oscar heard voices. He saw ghosts. He could not bear to share a bedroom or bathroom or set of plates with other real people; he couldn’t sleep some nights for all the noise in his head, the figures in his room. And always there was the fear of his father, who had been released from prison by the time Oscar had hit puberty and who refused to accept that Bonita had divorced him. The threat of that man’s arriving unannounced haunted Oscar. He was terrified of his father, who perhaps had sensed much earlier than Bonita that Oscar would not be like the other boys, interested in cars and girls and recognizable male pursuits. The rumored return of this intolerant man made Oscar sick. He couldn’t keep down food, he couldn’t attend school, and he couldn’t really convey to his mother the complex depths of his trouble.

He should have been born to other parents. Bonita loved him, of course, but she did not understand him. And although there was often a harmonious relationship between Bonita’s need and our ability to answer it, my husband and I were helpless to truly rescue Oscar. His mother was from rural Mexico, and he was an American teenager. He was ashamed of their home, of his mother’s inability to speak English, of her silver teeth and swollen ankles. For her part, she could not be convinced of the legitimacy of any of his complaints or personality traits. His desire to dance, his need for silence instead of chaos, the voices he heard: This all seemed, to Bonita, willful.

Our New Mexico town is very near the border. We used to go regularly down to Juárez—to shop, to drink, to eat at the terrific restaurants there. But over the years the trip has become more fraught for me. There on the bridge, between countries, one is always confronted with extreme poverty—the begging women and children. The last time I visited Mexico was around Christmas. It was cold out, and the bridge itself, arcing over the puny Rio Grande, was windswept and desolate. The flags looked ready to rip from the poles, shred into trash along the shores. In the late hours of a winter night, we walked back across, toward the U.S., and were forced to step over, literally, several ill-dressed toddlers and an older woman wrapped in blankets with an infant in her arms. We handed over money; we are not unaware of our luck. But that image, of our sturdy American legs stepping over the heads of those people on the bridge, has prevented me from going back.

Not that avoidance is helpful. Only easier. In the case of Oscar, we did what we could. When he was thirteen, I went to his middle school to defend him against a cruel principal who’d refused to speak Spanish with his mother; eventually, I engineered a transfer for him into a dance program at a magnet school. When he went to the doctor complaining of stomach pains, I insisted that he and his mother reveal all the symptoms, the voices and anxiety and lack of sleep. When medication was prescribed yet not covered by Medicaid, I paid for it. I tried to explain to his mother the terms of his particular issues, but neither she nor I could really bridge that profound disconnect. I grew up in a time and place that tolerated, even embraced psychological disorder; Bonita grew up in a time and place I only dimly understood, about which I could only make informed guesses.

We might have lived happily enough with that gap between us, but in it resided Oscar, lost, floundering. He lived at the end of a dirt road and collected chicken eggs every morning from the clucking brood out the front door. Then he cleaned the mud from his shoes and boarded the school bus, which deposited him at a noisy American middle school where aggressive American boys routinely beat him up. At night, in his bedroom, he put on his noise-canceling headphones (a gift from us) so that he would hear neither the cries of his brother’s infant nor the voices that were his alone, those in his head.

Short of stealing him from his home, what could we have done? His father occasionally showed up at their trailer, drunk, hostile, and the next day Oscar would be too ill to eat, let alone go to school. Because the other children in the house were not undone by their lives, Oscar’s mother couldn’t understand why Oscar couldn’t also endure. He did not resemble his older brothers, whose delinquency was familiar, clichéd, treatable; Oscar had the troubles of many American teens—sexual ambivalence, psychological malfunction, artistic sensibility and sensitivity. But what were those things to his mother except the inconceivable whining of privilege?

He should have been our child, I told my husband. In the great lottery of personalities assigned between parents and children, Oscar would have fared far better with us. We had fewer children, more money, artistic temperaments, and our own histories of psychological meltdown and dysfunction.

Oscar will be eighteen this year, officially qualified as an adult. I wish they hadn’t moved away. I would have liked to have been available, in whatever capacity I could muster: sympathetic ear, ready cash, sage advice, sanctuary, affection, goodwill, and, of course, most notably, that utterly useless entity, the overwhelming guilt of a person whose life has been easier.

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