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