Sunday, November 25, 2012

The Critical Mom's Guide to Firing the Cleaning Lady

Not that I want to fire mine!  She is the proverbial treasure.  Also a friend.  She's the mother of one of my children's classmates, and happened to ask me one day whether I knew of anyone who needed a cleaning lady.  Which I did not, at the time, but I wasn't altogether happy with the cleaning lady I had.  Alas, no cleaning lady is perfect.  Perfect would involve reading my mind to the extent that she knew not my secrets--no, none of that--but could experience my tastes, so that she knew exactly which shirts go on a hanger, which get folded (it's obvious, damn it, the idiot!! I mutter under my breath, feeling guilty, because she's so nice and helpful and what would I do without her?  But obviously this blouse is something I wear to work, so has to be on a hanger so it doesn't look all mushed up, and that other old one is just a shlumpy thing I wear around the house, and why can't she tell the difference?)
No, perfection is not one of my very good cleaning lady's traits.  But what's great is that she does exactly what I ask her to do, cleaning-wise.  She doesn't decide to go vacuum the stairs to look busy, when I've said please go clean the bathroom.  
So when Cheryl, my current cleaning lady, asked if I knew anyone I regretted not being able to hire her on the spot.  I waited until I felt exasperated with the cleaning lady I had at the time, who didn't know how to roll a pair of socks (she tied them in a knot instead).  Also when she couldn't find the mate to a sock, she just put it with any vaguely similar sock.  Also she loved to leave a bucket filled with wet, dirty cleaning cloths in our closet, despite my telling her that after every cleaning I soaked them in chlorox and then washed them.  She loved to clean with rancid old cloths that she'd stuck in that bucket . . .  and that was the last straw.  But I still hadn't figured out a way to fire, let's call her, Esmeralda, since she was so nice and her daughter had played with my daughter.  But one day Esmeralda took a vacation and in the course of that vacation my living room got so dirty that a mouse took up housekeeping there . . . my husband set traps and once swung a dead mouse at me as he was disposing of it and I screamed, "Eeeek!" just like Blondie Bumstead.  Yes I did.
And then I hit on a brilliant idea.  I didn't want to say, Esmeralda, here's twenty euros, we just can't afford a cleaning lady anymore because she'd know that was lame.  Also we'd pulled that one before with bad results.  On a previous occasion, we'd had a cleaning lady--let's call this one Hortensia--who liked to chat in the kitchen and have a cup of coffee while goo-gooing with our then two-year-old before she would get down to any kind of work.  Once she finally got going, I'd be sitting in my study typing and hear crashes and slams straight out of Dagwood and Blondie coming from the bathroom, and go in and find her slamming our stuff to the side and also throwing away tubes of ointment and toothpaste that were less than half full.  I remember thinking she must have broken something, going in and not finding any broken item but seeing her scooping up our half-full toothpaste tubes and telling her to take them out of that plastic garbage bag and put them back on the shelf, please.  She did, with a leer, "Oh, your nice things."  (Translation:  "You are a slob and I like to clean, and you should like to clean as much as I do, because cleanliness is next to Godliness or it's a good substitute for sex, which you, I believe, have too much of.") I was slightly afraid of her, and although she could remove all the various bodily secretions spewed by small children, she wasn't much good at anything else.  And then one day, as I was typing away, I heard another crash in the bathroom and a muttered, "Ach Scheisse!"  ("Oh, Shit!") and I didn't dare go in, somehow, I hated her so much by that time.  But then I did go in and found that the adorable swimming fish-and-ducky soap dispenser that we'd gotten in New York at the wonderful and now-defunct Lechter's had a huge crack in it--and we had to throw it away.  So with her we pulled the, "Hortensia, thanks, and here's an extra twenty euros, we won't need you more."  Now, Hortensia had always thought she was doing us a big favor because she was older than we were or God knows why, and she lived in  our neighborhood and she informed all the old hags her age that we had fired her, so that whenever I was walking the kids home from day care, Hortensia's hag friends would come out on their lawns and point and whisper and I'd give them the biggest smile I could muster, say "Guten Tag!" cheerfully and watch them shake their heads and all but spit on the section of lawn I'd just passed.  And I almost forgot the best part.  A week or so after we'd fired her, my son, then three, was at the playground with our wonderful former au pair, who'd come out of retirement just for us (she was at university by then) to take care of him so I could have a relatively calm week at home with his newborn brother.  The au pair informed me that when Hortensia walked past the playground, our firstborn went up to her, greeted her (she had, after all, goo-gooed with him a great deal when he was a baby) and said, "Hello, Hortensia!  You're not coming to our house anymore because you broke something really expensive from New York!")  In perfect German, said our au pair grimly.  With his friendliest smile.  "I didn't know where to look!" she offered, explaining that she'd collared him and led him off to another part of the playground, a good thing, since ole Hortensia would surely have vented her considerable frustrations on her or on our son.  
But the next cleaning lady we wanted to fire (I'm leaving out the ones in between who were okay, more or less) was Esmeralda, and I was desperate about how to do it, since I wanted to start Cheryl.  Finally I hit on this:  "Esmeralda, our niece is coming to live with us because she's going to university here, and she'll be cleaning and babysitting for us in return for our giving her the room downstairs.  You've been so wonderful!  Here's thirty euros."  The end.  And we thanked her for the phone number she offered so that we could call her when the niece was done with school and oh, yes, thank you Esmeralda, whom we never did call.  
And Cheryl is great--downstairs right now getting things ready for our belated Thanksgiving.  And she and I share recipes, too!


  1. Ahhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh...
    I remember this incident very well ;-)
    Now my husband and I sometimes stop talking (for example me saying something about him being not nice enough too me or us talking not so friendly about our "very nice" neighbours) because the kids are listening and they remember so well. I just picture them in kindergarden playing house giving away all our family "secrets". Thanks to your son I know that they do and sometimes think before I speak!

  2. Those little pitchers do have very, very large ears . . . yes indeedy. Thanks for writing!

  3. This is hilarious. Your details are wonderful and I can see and hear these people. I've been trying to hire my neighbor's cleaning couple (husband and wife), but they're too busy. I fear getting someone I don't know. You're lucky to have several people OFFER to become your house cleaners.

  4. Yeah .. . but in the long run, the best deal has always been a college student. They have energy, they don't mind being asked to do things my way, and they don't ask me to pay them both arms, a leg, and my firstborn child