Contents | March 2004
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The Atlantic Monthly | March 2004
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person needs somewhere that is only hers, even for one night a week. My first bed in America was a low bunk in Ruth's babysitter boarding house. Most of the other women had been here awhile, they already worked live in, so they used the beds in shifts. But each one got her own dresser, a hand-me-down from some employer. Every home has a place that is center. In my house, back in the Philippines, it is the cabinet where I display our important remembrance, the diplomas of our children and now my gifts from the ones I take care here. In the apartment of Ruth, the center is a book. Large, black, in the corner of the living room on a stand, it is left open like a Bible, or the Oxford Dictionary in the office of my employer. The book tells the story of our careers in America. Ruth's teacher had been a picture bride and then worked domestic.
Making beds for my employers, I know too much of them. Their bed here, it is like the bed of a seven-year-old: dry, neat, white, what Bing calls pretty princess perfect perfect
by Mona Simpson
On the first page she typed, How to Work for the White.
They do not like their own smell. Their waste. Their own used things.
Americans, they are very dirty. They used to be clean. The grandparents are clean. And the habits they lost are what they now crave from us.
Women pasted in copies of letters to Marcos and the unfamous presidents of Latin America. One housekeeper included a poem to her future granddaughter, all in Spanish. Ruth's teacher trained Filipinas. "Because we know English," Ruth said, "and Japanese weren't working anymore domestic." Since then Ruth has been teaching all of us.
Everyone who stayed at Ruth's when they were starting signed their name and where they were from. It is also a how-to book. There are recipes, you can see how to set a table, with as many as four forks and four spoons, things to know about pie crust, how to fan a napkin so it stands.
Always Do Extra, someone named Dora wrote in 1966. Anything a little nice without spending their money. Here where I am they have orange trees. So I make an orange and lime salad. She drew a picture of the way Valencias hold this year's new oranges and last year's and the white blossoms at the same time. Always pick the old, she advised. They're sweeter.
If someone made a dessert—floating island or a layer cake—and served it a special way, she put it in the book and who the guests were, even who said what about it. Several recorded the dates of compliments.
I find I need one praise every day, Analise Dayrit wrote in 1989. I worked for Professor Williamson, of UCLA, for twenty-nine years. When my husband die, she pay the funeral.
The book includes tips.
Two baths a day, teeth cleaning at four-hour intervals, and no curry, onion or garlic, even on days off. That is on a page from a book someone cut out and taped in: "If the Dog Likes You, You're Hired."
Don't let yourself become the queen. You're not the queen. The mother is the queen. Especially, it will happen sometimes before they are in school. Because they become so dependent. The mother, any fun she can have with her friends, any minute to go shopping, any for herself—she needs you, so at that time they will do everything to keep you happy. But the babysitter made her price so high that later on they decided they don't want. And instead of just changing the pay, they fire her.
I know because this was me.
The babysitter who was La Reina.
Ruth's own penmanship is very small. If your employer offers you something, old clothes she doesn't wear anymore, even a food you like to take home, always say no. If she really wants you to have she will insist.
Avoid families that don't use paper towels. Cloth diapers even worse.
Always put a plastic inside every garbage.
Ruth told me to work for a working mother. "The mothers who stay home want the babies in their cribs for naps," she said, "so they can tiptoe in and peek. You won't get outside all day long."
I have both. For my Monday to Friday, a stay-at-home mom, and a working mother weekends. But each mom gives to me her boy. They sleep in the stroller, or, if I put a blanket down, on the grass. I apply sunblock on the nose because both, they are very pale. I call them my albino grandsons.
think of what I can write for the book of Ruth. Maybe, I have some advice about silence.
If you are smart, when something happens while you are there, if the baby takes his first step or says the first word, Bing's first was "light," second "French," third "fries," you keep in your private journal so you will have the true date but do not tell.
You wait and that same evening or the next she will call you, shrieking, Lola, Lola, come here! Look! He's walking!
I am going to Ruth to get a two-day-a-week cleaner for my full-time employers. A cleaning woman—that is a promotion for me. The mother will stay with Bing and they will pay me to make the afternoon journey. Where my employers live, north of Montana, a good helper is what is hard to find, as hard as a good husband, maybe, and as important. I overheard my weekend employer say, "Every woman I know worries more about her nanny's Christmas present than her husband's."
"Mai-ling would be good to clean for your people," Ruth says. "Because she is really too old to chase kids. And the mother knows it. But the father likes the way she irons his shirts. The mother's afraid if Mai-ling goes she'll have to do it herself. So Mai-ling'll be ironing for them until she dies. See, the real problem in our profession is age."
Ruth likes to have a picture of every babysitter. The book is also for memorials. Since we are working, we cannot always attend the ceremonies of each other. The weddings and the baptisms, even the funeral. But we will send a letter to remember. And that will go alone on a page, in Ruth's book.
To scrub my employers' floors and throw out the spoiled from their refrigerator, Ruth gives me a young one from Iloilo, who is working for babysitters' babysitter. The babysitters' babysitter, that is usually one who limps or is fat, that something is wrong with. But this one, she looks clean. From my employers, maybe she can ask a lot. I am already saving them the agency fee.
"Thank you," I say to Ruth in her doorway, looking from inside at the parking lot, which has turned slick, a field of rain. I hit her on the stomach. Living here, with our husbands across the ocean, we touch each other more. "I am taking from you your cleaning lady." In the place of Ruth, the last one still unemployed full time, she is the one who will clean.
I will take her back to meet my employers and to teach her the bus route. She can sleep in the bed with me tonight, and tomorrow she will start already cleaning. On the bus, light swings over us every few minutes, and then we are dark again. I am thinking of this one next to me and my younger daughters, all around the same age. Here in America everyone wants that they will have a beautiful daughter. In the Philippines we hope for only average. We understand that beauty causes trouble. This road has a bump every so many rotations, so it feels we are on a journey, every so often the swing of light and the bump.
My first employer, in Beverly Hills, wanted me to give her manicure. And I did. I never told anyone, not even my husband. Nestor doesn't want me servant in anybody's house. For me it is only a small shame. But some of the older ladies in the book did every week manicure and pedicure for their mistress, daily touch-ups with the buffer. They took pride. They didn't want that anyone else would touch their lady's nails. Ruth's teacher once revealed as a secret that the lady she worked she has soft cuticles. Nobody but me touches. Because they easily tear. A sign I once passed in Quiapo, a bad part of Manila, said:
Another woman, an Ilocana, wrote that when she went home to Luzon for two weeks, the lady grew a huge clump matted in her hair. Nobody knew how to do the curlers and the combing out, not even the one who owned the head.
I have noticed, in the book of Ruth, the ones from Latin America, they don't write "the mother of" or "my employer." They always say "The Lady."
Who is right? Who is luckier? Some of these babysitters also wait hand and foot on their husbands when they get home. I am the same with my husband and my employer. Not devoted. Except maybe to Bing.
e will have to transfer downtown, go out into the cold wet again. And I have only the one umbrella. This one from Iloilo has a life like me, used to difficulty.
No matter how rich I ever become, I wouldn't want to be like the ladies in the book, so weak from doing too little that they can't even manage their own bodies, the hair on their heads, the nails on the hands and feet. But still, for my children, too, it is different. My girls, all four, the hair grows long down the backs of soft soft sweaters. Not like the one here sitting next to me, bowl chopped short. I don't want that they will work as hard as I do. I am glad they are tucked into warm rooms in my house at home in Tagaytay, not out here with me, waiting for the bus to go back to work in the cold. The rain in the Philippines, it is smaller than here anyway and soft. A mother tries to protect the young. It is natural. Even though this work has made me large of heart, I think, well, something else can make my kids grow. I am not sure what that else will be, schooling maybe. Schooling will make them smart. But what will make them strong? Maybe only I will.
I am here cleaning American toilets, I remind them, so that you can study. The last time I said this, my second eldest said back, "You are trying to make us guilty. Don't worry. We are not using drugs."
Now with this new one to clean twice a week, I will not scrub bathrooms anymore or make beds on Tuesdays or Thursdays. But my children, they don't need to know that. They can remember their mother on her hands and knees, but I have bought already for each one a very thin gold chain with a cross, a tiny diamond in the center. Once, I heard a mother here say to another, when the husband didn't arrive at a school benefit pageant she was chairman for, that he was supposed to attend, "Well. More diamonds." I decided then, it is better if the jewelries come from me.
The bus stop, it is only five blocks from my employers' house; if the rain would end, a good walk, straight north, with the mountains in front of us, tall palms lining our view. I had planned to say See, we are here. But the rain still continues, long, slanting, the palms shake wildly and our shoes ruin in the wet trudge. We walk under tall ragged eucalyptus and also pine, which smell more in the wet. Finally, we are there.
She looks down when she sees the house. It is a nice house, but not so big, not like some they have driven by in Beverly Hills and Hollywood.
"You were dreaming of a mansion," I say. "But do not worry, it is a good family."
"Ruth said he is movie director?"
"Yes, but he is young and the houses, they are very expensive here. Over a million. It is the television ones, not the movie directors, who live in the two stories."
It was raining also, the night Ruth first brought me. "I have obtained for you your new Mary Poppins, Monday through Friday," she'd called. "Complete with the umbrella."
It is late though now, so we take our shoes off outside and I use my own key.
I expect everyone to be asleep. But the moment we walk in, I know; the house tilts like a shipwrecked boat, lit and somehow sideways. The guy sits in the living room, a drink on the arm of the chair. Some people, they drink to help them sex. But from farther back in the house, I hear sounds. Already the small hairs on my skin stand up but after the dome of a minute, I realize it is not my small charge. This is adult sorrow.
Always be careful the mother, Ruth wrote. Here, with only one or two children, they can become very jealous.
But not this mother. She is young, the age of my second eldest, now studying law at University of Santo Tomas.
The guy looks up at us, our small commotion. "She's got him tonight. I'm in the doghouse."
"I want to introduce you to your new cleaning woman. Tuesday Thursday."
"Oh, hi, good, great. Helen know she's coming?"
"Great, she'll be glad, but better wait till tomorrow morning. Like I said, it's been a bad night."
This is more inside than I have ever been.
We change to pajamas and brush teeth. Time three today. I am remembering my first night here, when I was thinking they would not take me. But the nanny they fired was gone then almost a week already. "They will probably try you," Ruth had said. "Two days without anyone and they are very eager to hire."
"In the morning, I go in the room to fix their bed," I instruct this one from Iloilo. "Don't wait for them to tell you. Americans enjoy to have done for them what a Filipina mother would fix only for children small small. Also, these two, they are not used to having helpers. They do not like to ask."
Making beds for my employers, I know too much of them. The bed of an active couple, it is like the crib of an infant, the sheets twisted and strange stains, brown and yellow. Spit up. Spit down. I know. But their bed here, it is like the bed of a seven-year-old: dry, neat, white, what Bing calls pretty princess perfect perfect. The only stains I ever found were breast milk.
Tonight, it is the first time my buddy-buddy is not in the room with me. Without his breathing, I cannot sleep. I hear in the house the sound of disarray. And closer in the living room, a thump of footsteps in socks, him going around in a circle.
"Never could have happened a generation ago," he mumbles to a telephone. "Would never have happened in our apartment in New York, for Christ's sake."
I put on my slippers, then my robe over. I will walk into the kitchen and offer my employer tea, by holding up the kettle. I do not want to interrupt his phone. Some babysitters do that. They just talk to the employer anyway. It is the ones who grew up in the jungle or some small swamp without telephone.
"Oh, I'm sorry, Lola. Are we keeping you awake?" he says. "Lemme call you back. She's sobbing on the bed, wailing for all the house to hear. The kid's shrieking too, in sympathy. Now the nanny's up. 'We don't live alone anymore,' I pointed out to her."
"And what did the mother of Bing answer?" I ask after he hangs up.
"Nothing." He rubs his eyes. "I don't think she's speaking to me."
"I will make tea. Would you like tea or chocolate?"
"I'll take some hot chocolate maybe. Lola, nothing even happened. You were gone, so she had Bing all day by herself and she was tired. Who can blame her? When he conked out, she ran a bath. But you know the way Bing goes around pushing buttons on all the phones? Well, the one in our bedroom, the machine, he must've pushed something. And so, I'm having a conversation with Andy, you know Andy, he's really the only guy I ever talk to—I mean, she probably talks to ten of her friends about our relationship, her complaints about me and who knows what else, and I don't mind, I really don't even mind—and we're just kind of mouthing off, the way guys do, talking about how stuff isn't the same as when we got married. Oh, God, I said some things I probably shouldn't have, about, you know, thoughts I'd had during casting or on the set, and then he said he wondered if he'd ever fall in love again. I kind of agreed with him, just in camaraderie, oh and then I said something about her weight, when she had Bing she put on a little weight, and the breast-feeding, something about breast-feeding. Anyway, she says it'll never be the same for her. And I didn't even do anything. I haven't touched another woman, I haven't even considered touching another woman. I was just talking. Sheesh."
"Use your words," I say for a joke, because that is what we tell children to do instead of touch, instead of hit. That is what I am always telling his son.
"Right." But he does not laugh. "Hey, you think you could get through to her?"
"You want that I will be the one to talk to Helen?"
"Maybe bring her a hot chocolate or a tea. Make it tea."
He is the one always watching her diet. Once, they called me to pick up Bing from a restaurant. While I was strapping him into his stroller, my employer said to his wife, "You sure you really want to order that?"
"Yes," she told him. "It's my birthday."
"I can say I am coming for Bing, to let her rest."
But I do not do what he says. I do not give for her tea. I make the white hot chocolate.
I notice my employer's curls touching the ragged edge of his sweater. Even now in the middle of the night, he is the director. She feels lucky to have him. His talent. She will want me to feel sorry for her, but she will believe I do not really understand, because she is on a higher level, married to fame, married to glory.
When the chocolate is finished I put on a tray with graham crackers. She serves with hollow cinnamon sticks the kids use to blow bubbles.
elen sleeps face down, one knee up the way of my youngest. Nelly is also the longest of my children. And the most expensive. Medical student. Far Eastern U. Bing is on the bed too, wiggling, fussy. He has every night of his life slept in a crib in a room with the babysitter; he is not used to a grown-up bed without walls. Here people write books about the family bed. We had the family bed. The baby sleeps with the parents until the next one is born. Then out. That is all.
But this baby, he cannot sleep. And here he is the cause of all the trouble.
"Really kind of a mechanical error," my handsome employer said.
"Lola," Helen whimpers, her mouth against the sheet. Then she sits, her bare feet above the floor hanging, like a hospital patient.
"You are always making for me Lola's coffee," I say. "Tonight I have for you the white hot chocolate."
She wears blue pajamas with a light-green edge, but the hair is tangled and the eyes and nose are red.
I slip an arm under Bing, pull his blanket, throw him on my shoulder and begin the pat pat. Right away, his finger goes to the mouth, the other hand on the ear. He wants to sleep. He is very tired. It is best if everyone can sleep. I will sprinkle sugar in their closed eyes and they will wake up again happy.
"Lola, he doesn't want me, he never did, not really."
I open one arm to her too, and she loosens to sob. "Okay," I say. "You have your cry."
"I really can't keep on, Lola, not after the things he said. And I don't have anywhere else to go. His friend asked him, was he in love with me when we got married, and he said he thought I was pretty enough, he was in love enough, I was a good person ..." and at this she breaks down.
"To be a good person, that is not something to cry for." Only the young would cry for that.
"Like a consolation prize. He knows he should love me." Her voice drops and gutters, so the word "love" sounds desperate, an animal noise, something you would hear in a birth or a death, not for an act of romance or union during the middle of life.
"He said to his friend, he said, 'I wanted a bitch and I didn't get one. I did the smart thing. I married a good woman and I expected the rest to follow. What can I say? Some did and some didn't.' Oh, and his friend, his friend even said, 'Well, she's beautiful, at least.' And you know what he said to that? He said, 'Really? You think so? On the outside, maybe. Our insides don't fit.' Then he said, oh, Lola, you know we're going to Hawaii, and he said he was afraid to see me from the back in a bathing suit! He's afraid my thighs will jiggle." The shoulders shudder now in convulsions, the breath heaves up and down. This is really the true worst for her. She is always trying to lose the weight.
"And, and, not only that, he says I'm 'chirpy,' that I don't accept the real him. I don't understand the art of complaint. And Lola, you don't know how much he thinks everyone's against him. I spend my days talking him back up into the world."
"I know, I know." For a long time we just rock. And then finally, she is ready to listen. I have seen this with children. You have to wait until they are patient to hear what comes next. That is when I will tell the story.
"I believe with my employer, he is grateful. For you, to have the marriage, Bing, all of this."
When I am talking, I am remembering the day. Before I took the bus and the transfer to the place of Ruth, my little buddy-buddy and I attended play club at the house of China. We have two Chinese adopteds, named Emma and Larkin, and a blonde girl with freckles named China.
"Without you, he would have—no life. And I can tell, inside him, he did not believe any of it would be possible." What I am saying, it is also true. He is a person who swings from the top to the very bottom. He is not made for normal life.
"He's said that before too," Helen admits, "that he's grateful." She holds now the cup of chocolate, with both hands, drinks as if chocolate can cure her.
We lounged around the pool, kids and babysitters. Palm-frond shadows checkmarked the light. Before I came here, when I imagined desert, I thought it would be flat, with camels. Here, the desert meets the ocean, with huge waves that clap. Opposites attract.
Kitkat, the babysitter of Simon, stood up, shaking her body into the bikini. "Simo," she said. "When you are big and rich, what will you do with all your money? Maybe you will live on a yacht!"
All the babysitters, even if they are in America one week from a swamp in the jungle, they know what is a yacht and a limousine. The employers do not like us to tell these words to their children. But why not? That is the fun of here.
"I will buy you a house," Simon said.
"Oh," Kitkat murmured, happy in her cheeks, pursing her mouth, to keep it in.
Out of folded newspapers, I can make airplanes, hats, and boats that float. This is a trick of babysitting. We were making paper boats when the mom of China had the idea to go to the lumber store and buy us wood. Here, the mothers will always find a way to make a project much more work.
"And what about me?" Tintin called to Simon.
"I will buy you a house too."
No one asked Kitkat why she thought Simon would become rich. He is rich now, already. But in the Philippines, we seemed a fortunate family too when I was the age of him. I called to Bing. "How much do you love your Lola?"
He stood with his arms stretching, stretching to points. All that day he puffed his cheeks, blowing, trying to whistle, but nothing came out. "This big," he finally said, then lost his balance and fell, and we all laughed. My happiest times are with other babysitters when we are laughing at our life. For that you have to be the same. To be above other people, you will have to say good-bye to laughter. My employer, what he does for a living is make jokes. He says some day he is going to make a movie about me. That is the time Lola will become rich.
We sailed the wooden boats by the side of the pool, the kids holding the strings and us holding their shirts so they would not fall in.
The flowers here seem papery, pretty together, not one at a time. If you picked a few for a vase on a table, they will not anymore seem like flowers. I am from a wet island, with trees that drip drip drip, roads that every year flood. Our flowers grow thick and waxy, more pretty the closer you look. Before, I always thought deserts had mirages because they could not hold real water. But this one does.
"Oh, you know what else Andy said, that's the friend? He said, you married her before you became yourself. Lola, I don't know how I can go from here. I'm a woman not loved by her husband."
"There are words of the night," I say, "best forgotten in every marriage."
"Is it always one way or the other, the one person loving more?"
"Some people, they just have more love. It is easier for them. Others, they are less inside."
On the bedside table, in a porcelain shell, wait her diamond earrings with heavy screws on the back, so they will not fall off. Her life as a mother, it is good, but too much alone. One mother, one child. It should be a houseful of people.
"But I had boyfriends before who loved me!" She slams back face down on the pillow, sobbing in heaves again. Even so, I have little one asleep on my shoulder. Now his finger holds on to my ear. I let her cry for a few minutes. Then I bend down to present to her the sleeping face.
"But, ah, if you married someone else, you would not have this one. You could be in the other position, but your husband, he could never live that way. He is not strong enough. And you, you are best here too. Otherwise, you would feel less."
"How about you, Lola? In your marriage." See. Now she is beginning to remember curiosity again. That is always a good sign.
"When I came here I had already turned forty-seven. To a mother, romance is a belonging of the children. It is an obstacle I worry for, like drugs." The young babysitters, they are not like me, looking back across the Pacific to an older world, saying goodnight to the Philippines. They face the dry continent here. They see big skies. Especially, they are thinking of cowboys.
"My Nestor, he is a very quiet man. We have been married a long time. We have worn each other down. Two pencil stubs. Look, it is almost light. No more rain." I nudge her as best I can with one hand, while the other is crooked around him on my shoulder. "Come, you sleep a little more, then go in the shower. Wash your hair and put something, a cream on your eyes."
"How should I be with him? Maybe I should have seemed not to care." She is all the time embarrassed. But it is a young embarrassment, nothing at all like real shame. "I really can't sleep."
When I take the heavy boy to my room, I find the ragged bear he uses to hold on to when he goes to bed. I bring it to the mother, tuck her in.
"Lola is my mother and Dr. Schneider's my father," I overheard her say a long time ago. Dr. Schneider, he is the psychiatrist she drives to see once a week.
he new housecleaner from Iloilo stands, up and dressed, in leggings and bright sneakers, ready to begin. But today, there are no beds to make.
In the kitchen, the guy looks up at me from the table where he is slicing a persimmon. He is the last part to fix. Then all the gears of the house, they will be moving. It can be a morning like any other.
At home, I could talk more to the women, but there, I was not really working. Women, they want it all to be pretty. They want it to be all about love. The men are the ones who know I am working a job, with many tasks, and for that I am paid a salary. The women, they want to believe it is because I love their children. I do love their children. But I am working too for money.
My employer looks at me and shrugs. What does he do with all that love? he is saying. How can he use it in the business of daily life?
His face looks smudged, lifting from his sweatered arms. "So what should I do?"
"If you are asking me, I think, something of appreciation. A gift for commitment and apology."
"Like flowers or something."
"Flowers and something. Maybe diamond."
More diamonds. That is a phrase I heard, I may as well use it.
"Sure, that's a good idea, sure. You just tell me, Lola."
"Make a play date today with your wife. For the jewelry store. I will take Bing out the whole time. You go ahead and have your fun. Make a mess. I will clean up everything later."
he life of Lola was never young. I knew, a long time ago, that my Nestor was a person to cherish, but if the family would move forward, if my children would earn professional degrees, it would be me to pay it. Anyway, what can a foreign man do here?
By the time I slip out the door, pushing Bing in the stroller, I have sent the father to the back of the house, carrying a tray of breakfast, her coffee made the way she makes it, with a stick of bougainvillaea I cut from her garden.
It is like a top, if the throw is correct, the hand can leave and the wooden piece will keep on for a long time spinning.
Bing is just barely awake, but I talk to my buddy-buddy anyway. I tell him we will attend the park, play in the sandbox with his friends. Emma, Larkin, China, Simon, and Luke. He purses his lips and blows. A high, thin, wavery sound comes—the first whistle—and then he smiles. I will not tell to my employers, but maybe I can make him to do it again, for the other babysitters. Kitkat, Lita, Tintin, Mai-ling. So they can hear too, on the day he learned. We are the working mothers.
Mona Simpson is the author of Anywhere But Here (1987), The Lost Father (1992), A Regular Guy (1996), and Off Keck Road (2000). This story is adapted from her forthcoming novel, My Hollywood.
Copyright © 2004 by The Atlantic Monthly Group. All rights reserved.
The Atlantic Monthly; March 2004; Dependents; Volume 293, No. 2; 129-137.