Our Cleaning Lady’s Bar Mitzvah Year

April 19, 2013

I’ve heard it told that friends should never share cleaning help. But my cleaning lady came blessedly into my life on the recommendation of my friend Susan, whose own mother-in-law Anna made the initial shidduch that brought Susan’s house to order. I am forever grateful to both of them.

I’d already been through numerous cleaning people over the years, most of them lovely. The exceptions were the ones who kept breaking things and the one who cast aspersions on my housekeeping skills, which was just silly. If I had stellar housekeeping skills, I wouldn’t have needed her services in the first place. 

In any case, they spoke a multitude of languages I could not understand. I then worked full-time, commuting three hours round-trip each day, and was never home when they arrived. The combined result was an entirely unproductive enterprise, since I had to leave it to them to decide what it was that I needed done. 

So Susan’s recommendation was a godsend. For starters, she spoke Serbian, a sister to the Croatian language I thankfully learned to speak years ago. As she took her place in my trifecta of immigrants from the former Yugoslavia who have enabled me to manage my life (sort of, anyway), my Croatian husband had a good chuckle about my being some kind of Balkan magnet.

The first of the threesome was our babysitter, Blanka. We met in the elevator of our building when I was pregnant, returning from the hospital with bed rest orders. She kindly asked me which floor. I recognized her Croatian accent and three days later, she was keeping my older boys – then mere toddlers – busy on Shabbat mornings so my husband could go to shul. Though we now rarely need a sitter, she is still a part of our extended family. 

Years later, when we moved into our fixer-upper home, I sought recommendations for contractors to render it livable. Coincidentally, two of the three were ex-Yugoslavs. We chose Zak, the one from Croatia, before we could even ask that personal of a question. He, too, has since interwoven himself into our lives, in part because he still fixes everything that breaks in our house (we have boys, so let your imagination run wild).

But it is really Jovanka, our cleaning lady from Serbia, who has steadied my universe since she first walked through the door. She always tells me that I’m “naša,” the equivalent of a landsman; that I was born in New York is irrelevant. She shares riotous tales and village wisdom as it applies – or not — here in New Jersey. For thirteen years now, she has taken me under her wing, even if the resident elves restore the house to its former state of disorder just hours after she leaves.

Every year on my youngest son’s birthday, she recalls watching me writhe in agony while on bed rest. She was sure that I would not survive his pregnancy and worried herself into knots. Tell me, though, how many people can say that their cleaning lady prays for them? 

Once I’d hung a picture above the beds in our room. I came home the night after Jovanka had been here to find it leaning against the wall. We put it back up, but the next time, sure enough, the picture was down again. It seems a woman in her village had died when the picture hanging above her bed had fallen on her. Years later, still nothing hangs on that wall in our home. I wouldn’t dare.

Jovanka loves that I cook and especially that I bake challah, like a good village woman who makes her own bread. This only proves to her that I’m really a Balkan sister. That said, she has choice words for me because I don’t iron my husband’s shirts. To placate her, I taught her how to make knaidlach. It seems to have worked.

The relationship has been wonderful, long may it reign. Still, there has been one fly in the ointment: my boys’ rooms.

For years, I’ve complained to her about their mess, about their lack of fastidiousness, about their inability – despite their athletic prowess – to get their dirty clothes in the laundry basket, not on the floor right next to it. With a wave of her hand, she would poo-poo my concerns, saying, “Aaah, decki (boys).” So I’d lock their rooms, and she’d find her way in, cleaning them anyway.

Last week, though, clear out of the blue, she declared that it is now time to teach them to clean up after themselves, put away their own things, and hang their own clothes. I nearly plotzed. Surely, she knows that I’ve been trying for fifteen years to do just that, though clearly without much success and sometimes without her complete support.

In the to-the-point yet loving way in which she states everything, she added another round of village wisdom: “They are no longer little boys.” I realized then that all along I’ve been asking them to clean for me. The time has come that they do it for themselves.