Maid in the U.S.A.: The Invisible Helpers

My mother was raised in a wealthy household in Guyana. Somewhere in my files, there is a clipping from the Guyana Chronicle, a photo of a pretty girl in a hoop skirt, performing on the piano for Princess Margaret. Her father, Mayor of Georgetown, watches proudly. That girl is my mother. She went on to earn her degrees in music performance at a London conservatory, where she met a handsome British army officer from Barbados.

My parents moved around Europe and then to a newly independent Barbados where the marriage swiftly disintegrated. One day she snatched up her children and brought them to Boston, forbidding us any contact with our dear father. In Boston, my mother, who performed on television in Barbados, disappeared into the crowd of invisible Black immigrants. When she met a Jamaican lady who cleaned houses for rich people, she became part of an underground network, scrubbing floors and doing laundry for a pittance. 

One Saturday, I accompanied her when she worked in a large house on a leafy street in Brookline. I perched on a mahogany chair in a grand dining room as she applied lemon-scented polish to the furniture. She sprayed and wiped; I worked on my homework, translating stanzas in the Aeneid for my Latin class. I don’t remember the section but I like to think it was this one: 

Facilis descensus Averno:

noctes atque dies patet atri ianua Ditis;

sed revocare gradium superasque evadere ad auras.

hoc opus, hic labor est.

Rough translation: The descent into hell is easy but climbing out to reach fresh air, now that’s real hard work. 

Sitting there, if I had considered my mother’s situation, crouching, holding a stiff brush, glaring at a stubborn spot on the tile as the homeowner peered at us from the hallway, I would have been unsympathetic. I resented her and despised our new life in the shadows, living hand to mouth, dependent on the whims of rich White women. 

Household service workers in Barbados, known colloquially as “helpers,” are unionized. The women I knew who did this work there were the Anansi spider women, the mischief makers, the ones who did bad things and got away with them, at least according to the ridiculous song and dance of their employers.

“But I can’t believe this!” my aunt was known to say in high drama as she presided over her holiday table: “I went inside the kitchen to check on Maisie and I saw the Christmas turkey only had one leg! Maisie cut off the leg and gone with it! And I gave her some good Xmas money out of the kindness of my heart! How Maisie could do me so? She must have put that turkey leg in her purse and headed straight to the bus. Stupse. I don’t know why I put up with this foolishness at all, at all.”

The worker who came to our house in Barbados was a stocky lady who could have made a name for herself in the boxing ring; her shoulders were broad and strong and she was quick on her feet. On occasion she would lift me onto the kitchen counter and pace in front of me yelling: “Wunna born wit de silver spoon in yuh mouts!” Our entire family was terrified of her. 

Once my parents traveled to Europe and left her in charge. She knew how to drive, and roared along the West Coast road in Dad’s sporty silver car at top speed, as I bounced around shrieking with fear on the back seat. She was gleeful, leaning out the window to hail her friends, “Yes! Is me driving the big man car!” toot-tooting on the car horn, blasting calypso from the car radio. 

Rough translation: The descent into hell is easy but climbing out to reach fresh air, now that’s real hard work. 

The cleaning service which sends workers to my home in D.C. is called the “Maid Brigade.” Its competitors are “Merry Maids” and “Maids in Black” and “Maids in Brown.” It seems Americans prefer the label “maid,”with all its class-related connotations, to the more egalitarian-sounding “helper” or “service worker.” For the most part, this labor force, typically women of color, is not protected by national labor laws. Congress deliberately excluded domestic service workers from legislative protections when the New Deal was being struck. Nothing has improved since then, and much is worse. Indeed, the National Domestic Workers Alliance, a group advocating for a Domestic Workers Bill of Rights Act, has found that many domestic workers are afraid to speak up about wage theft, discrimination and unsafe working conditions because they fear losing their jobs or being torn from their families by deportation.

The Brookline homeowner, a large red-cheeked older woman who wore a curly blonde wig, took an interest in me. When she paid my mother, she handed me a small book with a shiny cover. It was an illustrated guide to the museums of St. Petersburg. She told me I didn’t need to worry about trying to read it because it would be very difficult going. I thanked her graciously as my mom counted the money.

Sometimes I want to say to the household workers I meet: “Look at me, sister! The dream lives!” as encouragement for their labors. I can’t though, because every day, another rung disappears from that ladder out of the pits of hell.

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One Response

  1. Carla M

    I’m Bajan-American. This rings so true. Thank you for writing.


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