Missing Our House Helper*

(*To respect our house helper we do not share her name here.)

Yesterday GWA celebrated the Class of 2020, like so many schools worldwide right now, with an online commencement ceremony.  In the coming week faculty and staff will close out the school year, packing up classrooms with social distancing.  Like yesterday’s graduation, the all-staff celebration held typically on the last day – when everyone comes together one final time to wish bonne vacances to those not returning until the fall and bon courage to those heading to new adventures – shifted to a prerecorded format which the HR department instead shared early and online with faculty and staff last week.  As usual, it recognized the academic, administrative, and operational divisions; spotlighted people who have given 5, 10, 15, and 20 years of their lives to GWA; and acknowledged those leaving GWA at the close of this year.  Alas, just as the timing of its release felt off from the norm, the bisous and hugs that usually mark this wonderful annual event with warm humanity, could not translate to the online format.

A few weeks ago Audrey hosted a synchronous all-school staff meeting with 146 people online to talk about how we would close out this school year.  It was the first time in more than two months that so many GWA people had interacted together, even virtually, with so many others.  It felt so good to see many faces we have not seen for so long.  Typical of Morocco, the first 20 percent of the meeting was spent with a gaggle of sound and faces lighting up the screen like the grand finale of a fireworks display as people greeted each other in hundreds of long-overdue mini-conversations about health and family and wellness with many hamdullahs.  We have a close community, and we all miss each other.

That feeling does not go away completely even when we see people who have come to campus for a designated purpose, because the masks we wear and the social distancing we practice force the bisous and hugs that punctuate normal interaction into unsatisfying long-distance gestures while eyes say, “I wish I could hug you and kiss your cheek.”  Of all that Morocco offers to expats who accept the invitation to join the Culture of Marhaba, our relationships with the people who have entered our lives and let us into theirs stand at the top of the list.  Depriving us of them since mid-March leaves an emptiness in us, especially as we try to make sense of the missing resolution that results from remaining engaged at full speed in our GWA responsibilities to the very end while preparing mentally and emotionally to leave Morocco and our family and friends here.

Throughout the quarantine, one person has topped the list of people we have missed:  the woman who helps in our house.

She joined our lives as a house helper three years ago.  Quickly we realized how pivotal she was in our lives.  With her unable to come to us since the quarantine began in mid-March, we have survived without her because we are capable, functioning adults.  Yet, in the last three months we both have exclaimed repeatedly, “Oh, I miss her!”

We arrived in Morocco four years ago with no expectation of having someone help in the house.  Brian’s family comes from Minnesota farm stock that focused on self-sufficiency instead of paying someone else to do what one could do for oneself.  Brian considered it bad parenting to raise our children without showing them the basic survival skills of how to clean a toilet, load a dishwasher properly, do laundry, make a bed, and sweep the floor.  Brian’s Grandmother Elsie set the standard for that ethic throughout her life.  Having cleaned other people’s houses, done their laundry and ironing, cooked and baked for them, and generally make life easier for them since she was a girl, she cleaned her own house through her 80s – not only moving her oven and refrigerator by herself to clean behind them, but waxing them so that they looked as shiny and new as when she had bought them decades before.  Even after moving into assisting living, she continued to clean and vacuum her apartment until her mid-90s.  But at the start of our expat life in Morocco many expats told us the same three reasons we should get someone to help in the house.  First, even with the big pay cuts we took to come to Morocco our income was sufficient to hire someone to help at home.  Second, relying on open windows and doors to bring in fresh air and to cool the apartment, Moroccan dust would accumulate everywhere in no time without regular cleaning.  Third, most important, and most challenging to Brian’s upbringing in the realm of self-reliance, was that for expats with sufficient incomes to do such things for themselves instead of hiring someone to help could be seen as taking a job away from someone who needs it.  How much of that last factor is actually true and how much is expat mythology we still do not know, but we agreed to find someone to help.

The first was a dear woman who lived in a poor neighborhood a short walk from GWA’s campus.  Her husband is the imam for the neighborhood mosque, chanting the Call to Prayer from its minaret multiple times a day, and her sister works on GWA’s housekeeping staff.  Our hearts broke when she died suddenly in January of our first year.  The second started with us soon afterwards, but we always felt uncomfortable with her in the house, and after a while we noticed little things disappearing.  Though we never found clear evidence of wrongdoing, we decided to replace her when we learned that our current house helper would have a couple days available each week after one family with whom she worked left Morocco in June of 2017.

In any industry, people of quality have positive reputations that precede them.  Such is the case in the community of women who have found a niche taking care of GWA families in their homes on and off campus.  No different than in the U.S., they receive far too little recognition as a stakeholder group in GWA’s broader community, yet both individually and as a group they contribute significantly to the quality of life and community here.  This wonderful woman stands at the top of that group.  She accomplishes more in a few hours than would take others far more time to do, and does it with incomparable work ethic, determination, and even ability to anticipate our household needs even before we know what they are.  And, even with her having not much English or French and us having not much Darija, she does it communicating a warmth and caring underneath the tornado-like seriousness with which she goes through each day.

Soon after she came into our lives, we came to understand that we do not live in our house.  We live in her house.  She reorganized our cabinets, drawers, closets, countertops.  Countless times we have looked for something only to find that she has moved it to a location she thought made more sense than where we had it.  Usually she was right.  Sometimes we dared to move it back to where we had it previously.  The next time we would look for it we would discover it moved again to where she wanted it.  At some point we hit the “I Accept” button and put things where she thought they should be.  For weeks after the quarantine started we commented to each other when emptying the dishwasher, “That’s not where You Know Who wants it.”

Before Charlotte moved out last year, she took particularly good care of her.  When Charlotte’s bedroom was in a special state of teenage mayhem, we would close Charlotte’s bedroom door and tell her not to bother cleaning the mess inside it.  She never listened, and Charlotte would come home from school to find a clean room with fresh bed linens; clothes cleaned and stowed away properly in the dresser or closet; and food containers collected, washed, and put away in the kitchen.

When we had a problem with an entire brigade of ants marching one by one into our apartment from outside our bedroom, Brian smeared fruit jelly laced with boric acid around their entry points around our bedroom’s sliding door and in Audrey’s closet.  The ants loved it and feasted.  The next day, she did not.  She cleaned up the jelly smears, bought a can of ant spray, and left it subtly-not-subtly in prominent view.  When Brian smeared again upon the ants’ reemergence the following spring, she went further by re-caulking the cracks around the sliding door.  We have so many other anecdotes about her care for us, from reorganizing the plants in Brian’s balcony garden to letting us know what cleaning supplies have run out by leaving the empty containers of vinegar or Ajax or dish soap in the spot on the dining room hutch where we would leave her pay.

Throughout the quarantine when she has not been able to come, we have taken care of all the things that she did to make our lives easier, but we have felt her absence as much as we felt her presence before all this craziness hit.  If she saw the current disorganization of our spice cupboard, our pantry shelves, and other things as we have kept them since mid-March, we are sure she would quietly set to putting them all back the way they are supposed to be.  We still hope that before we leave we can tell her face to face how much we appreciate her and have loved her as part of our family in Morocco.

On your mark, get set, here we go!

One thought on “Missing Our House Helper*

  1. Loved it. As the son of a diplomat, I grew up with housekeepers, including a special fulltime cook/housekeeper in Prague who was part of our family for five years. Later, in retirement, she and her husband visited our family in Milwaukee. Speaking of retirement, I retire in 8 days. I don’t have a clue what the next stage in life holds, but I am planning a visit next month to Seattle to go backpacking with our son & his wife (who is with child). Peace and blessings for your new life in Panama!


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