She is 47 years old. I find her infinitely fascinating, and she is the recipient of much of my affective admiration. Never since I was a child have I learned so much in such a short amount of time as in the past several months. My eyes have been widened to a whole new view of the world, one which has rather tempered my notions of pragmatism and nobility. It’s not just her observations about the world that are full of wisdom; it’s the way that she speaks to you, too. She says she thinks about being a counselor for troubled youth. Everyone says she has a way of communicating with young people, and they are right. She’s constantly leading me to new discoveries by asking me questions that force me to think. I can only imagine the effect she has on people with problems much different than my own.
My first day, I didn’t like her very much. I had been warned beforehand that she was bossy and slow and annoying. She came flying down the hallway in one of the houses to tell me not to stop vacuuming for even one minute. I indignantly replied that I had only turned it off to move a piece of furniture and, annoyed, switched the vacuum back on. I’m told I’m over-sensitive to criticism, and that’s 100% correct. I was personally insulted by her assumption that I would waste time, though her request was far from an affront on my character. Still, I moved through my day in irritation and couldn’t wait for work to be over.
At first, I tried to just ignore her when I worked with her. She talked constantly and I couldn’t even hear above the roar of the vacuum half the time. Plus, she spoke primarily of people whom I had no knowledge of so it was easy to only half-listen to everything she was saying. Gradually, though, her voice started to become louder and louder in my brain. She is clever and quick and full of wit. I slowly started to realize that she was a woman who I had much to learn from; no matter what I may feel about her. And then one day, as we cleaned the small, endangered apartment of one of our elderly clients, my opinion was greatly improved. I had been working there around two months, and was no longer receiving constant instruction and correction from my boss. However, I wasn’t receiving much praise or feedback either, and I secretly agonized over how well I was doing. My chronic neurosis led my thoughts to the wilderness with endless worry about my performance: was I fast enough? Was I thorough enough? Was everyone still coming behind me and fixing my mistakes? That day, I vacuumed seriously, stoically, secretly suffering the martyrdom of Cinderella and longing for my prince to come rescue me.
I had finished the vacuuming and was looking around or something to do. I had learned that it was very bad to simply stand around while anyone else was working. So I grabbed a rag and knelt down to help her with the kitchen floor as she mopped the other side of the room. She told me conspiratorially that she saw more of an OCD streak in me than in our other co-worker. I would scrub every spot with a vengeance in the attempt to make it disappear completely, even if the effort was in vain.
“But you know, the thing is,” she said cheerfully, with a sly tint to her voice, “I have to say that you got good, and you got fast.”
At this bit of encouragement, my opinion of her started to soften. I had picked up bits and pieces about her life from conversations at work. She was disabled because she had been in the wrong place at the wrong time and was shot in the hip. She had a better job before this one, one where she was making $3,500 a month. She gave that job up so she could keep her disability. I marveled at that, curious why she would not take the paycheck if it was so much more.
“I couldn’t guarantee I’d always have the paycheck. Companies are willing to drop you like that. People who worked there ten, fifteen years- just let go one day. And there will come a day when my body won’t let me work anymore. The pills don’t always help me. I can’t lose the disability because it’s the only way I know I’ll always have enough money.”
Her reasoning was so sound and logical. I was deeply impressed at her foresight and my lack of common sense. It was increasingly obvious that I had gaping holes in my day-to-day deductive reasoning. Bits and pieces of other wisdom and stories were beginning to emerge. She had two sons and it seemed there was constant drama surrounding them. She took her niece’s boys for a month out of the summer to give their weary single mom a break. One of my favorite things about her is the way that she’ll rant and rave about whatever problem she’s having with any given family member when we’re in the car between houses. And then she’ll promptly call them on her cell phone and repeat in Spanish what she just told us in English to the guilty family member. I took French, so I know shamefully little Spanish, most of which I learned in 7th grade. But, as most teenagers do, I did learn the cuss words. This is how I know that she is repeating her rehearsed lecture; I can pick out almost enough words to stay on top of things.
I thought that, between her powerful command of Spanish and the fact that she Hispanic; she was from an immigrant family. I figured she had either grown up in Mexico herself or was raised by parents who had. I was astonished when I found out this wasn’t true.
“I never wanted anything. My mom and dad worked hard to make sure we weren’t wanting. I took Spanish when I was in high school.” Considering that she dropped out in the tenth grade, I wondered how she had such a grasp of the language.
“It was my first husband,” she tells me. “We went down to Mexico for a baptism. He asked me if I would be willing to move down there. I said that, as long as I could have everything I had in the United States- running water, a decent house- I would do it. So we went home and packed up all our stuff and drove back down past the border. We were there for two years and I learned Spanish quick. Then I was pregnant with Steve, and we moved back right before I had him.”
She tells me about being pregnant and the time her older son, two at the time, climbed up a ladder set against the neighbor’s house while repairs were doing done. As soon as she saw her toddler’s mad design, she flew up that ladder as quickly as an 8-month pregnant woman can and snatched his collar as her teetered near the edge. I can see her in my mind: younger, thinner, vibrant and beautiful. I can imagine the way her weary pregnant hips must have sprung into action despite her swollen belly, all because of a motherly instinct to protect her young. I love this story. It sticks playfully in my contemplations throughout the day. She is becoming more and more interesting to me every day.
Her cleaning knowledge is expansive. She knows tricks I never would have dreamed of about everything- cleaning carpets, removing stains, scrubbing mold, how to best get white sinks white again… The practical things she knows are a far cry from my world of intellectual theory and social ideologies. The longer I’ve worked this job, the more that I’ve realized the importance of such day-to-day practices. Though I still believe there should be a support network for the social good, I am coming to see how much more smoothly life goes if you play the game right. And she is a brilliant example of what luck and faith and determination can do for you.
Her second husband is an immigrant, and an illegal one at that. He drives her absolutely insane because he refuses to do much to help her out, even though she’s constantly dropping what she’s doing to come to the aid of her family and friends. She won $10,000.00 on a scratch ticket a few years ago, and devoted the funds to attorney fees to fight his deportation. She has to travel the hour to Denver every other Tuesday to attend immigration court, where she has to repeatedly prove that she is disabled and needs his help. Despite all the effort she makes in his life, he wasn’t even particularly interested in fixing her car so she can have a way to work. As the months go by, I start to notice a change in the way she speaks of him. I am the first to pick up on the fact she has kicked him out. I question her about it curiously, as my separation from Ian started at around the same time.
“Men get lazy, and then they start to forget. They take you for granted and don’t realize that you still need that romance, that passion. Or that you need help with the home stuff. So every couple years I kick him out so that he’ll remember. But I love my husband. He just needs to stop forgetting. A few more date nights and we’ll be cool.”
“Do you now want a divorce because you’re Catholic?” I ask. Another lame assumption. She laughs.
“No, I don’t want a divorce because I don’t want one. He was a choice I made.”
But as time goes on, she has fewer and fewer stories about date nights to tell us. I’m curious about this, but don’t ask. I know she’ll say something about it eventually. In true form, she answers my questions with style.
“Ay, I want a man tonight,” she sighs one day. “But just for tonight. I want him to be gone by morning.”
She looks at me with that mischievous grin she wears so often.
“Aren’t I bad?” she laughs. “I don’t even want to cook him breakfast in the morning.”
The statement catches me off-guard but I love it. My feelings toward her have changed drastically. The endless knowledge pooling in her experienced brain is invaluable. I now know how wise and intelligent she is: I’ve seen how sharp and quick-witted she is. I have a blossoming respect for her on a level I’ve rarely experienced. Her life has been the stuff of Lifetime movies and it enthralls me. I look forward to hearing her stories and endless musings on days I have to work with her. And even though I often feel like an ignorant child when she points out things to me, I listen carefully and try to adopt her suggestions as best I can. Her teaching style is respectful and calm; she carefully walks you through the steps of a problem until you see the solution yourself. And if you don’t get it, you don’t get it. Sometimes it takes me hours or days to see the thought she is leading me toward, but I’m getting much quicker and more accurate as I go. She is the sort of woman who keeps you on your toes.
In time, I’ve found out the story about her hip. She hasn’t told me directly, but apparently she had a boyfriend who was a dope dealer. She just happened to be at his house during a bust. It was the wrong place, right time. Her man was killed in front of her and as she jumped up in fear, a round was fired into her hip. She had to spend a lot of time in the hospital and then live in the halfway house to serve out her sentence. She is terrified of cops. I can’t blame her.
I can see it in her eyes when we swap stories we’ve heard about screwed up police. I can see it in the way her eyes flick coldly over patrol cars as we pass them on the street. I can hear it in the reverent scorn she uses when she speaks of them.
“But to be fair, they have their place. They’re just people like you and me, earning a living. But that’s why I understand that it matters who you’re with. And I can’t get the boys to see that. They see me, I suffer every day. Ay. Why won’t they listen?”
She uses that phrase a lot. “To be fair…” And it isn’t a self-serving habit. Her arguments are as often against her as they are in her favor. She reserves judgment on situations and calculates the best way to proceed. As she says, “I don’t panic, I think.” This is exceedingly clear for me as I watch her operate the strings in her family, every conversation intended to accomplish a specific goal. Her knowledge of people is astounding; she understands exactly how they work and what they respond to. When she needs to yell, she yells. (Mostly at her own kids.) When she needs to be quiet and sweet, she’s quiet and sweet. (To her sisters and their children.) The phone calls between houses can be long or short, and almost end with an abrupt, “OK, bye.”
It makes me sad on days that she speaks of color. She wants to be as white as possible; she doesn’t care for her naturally darker skin. She says it would be better i she was white because “people treat you better.” She is right, and I know it, and it makes me feel kind of guilty. No, it isn’t my fault; it was just a matter of chance. But it’s undeserved, and that bothers me. I have no qualifications for being treated better. I feel very strongly that, if it was just a matter of luck, it’s my responsibility to use that luck to try and make things more equal. I don’t want a single little girl to ever feel shame that she isn’t white; that her eyes aren’t blue, that she doesn’t look like a perfect blonde Barbie. When I see a lifetime of injustice reflected back to me in knowing but forgiving eyes, the need for this quest is ever more obvious to me.
She always finds a way. She gets whatever she wants through innovative thinking and willingness to work. Despite the fact that she is slowing down because of her hip getting worse, she still insist on coming to work and earning a paycheck. And she does all sorts of random jobs on the side to earn extra money. Because of this, she lives very contentedly with the material luxuries she enjoys and close, even if exhausting, family relationships that make life worthwhile. And this is one of things I find most wonderful about her. Unlike too many over-worked and over-worried people in the world out there, she truly loves her life. She experiences it. She dances like no is watching. She doesn’t care what people think about her. She’ll work hard for what she wants but money isn’t her first priority. And she’s always able to find a way through her obstacles; she plans ahead with grace and meticulousness but without needing excessive time and panic. She’s further proof to me that women can be just as logical as men, and more so. How lovely life could be if I were as apt at crafting my own reality. Though I may learn slowly, I am still learning. I can see the value of her wisdom and her patient explanations. And this is how I know she has much to offer: she gives me hope in the face of hopelessness. She gives me relief in the face of stress. She challenges me to think critically, even though I was always taught that was a skill one needed special training in. (i.e.: school.) She is an inspiration to me. She is the one who showed me the capacity for good and achievement in the everyday man. She is the one who truly opened my eyes to the inequalities, and yet, possibilities, of the world.