Personal Essay: She ironed my shirts, and did so much more
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Personal Essay: She ironed my shirts, and did so much more

Merri Ukraincik of Edison is a regular contributor to NJJN.

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We said good-bye to our cleaning woman on a frigid evening back in November.

Jovanka had been coming to our home for more than 20 years, yet we’d never gone over to hers. The truth is that we hadn’t expected a social invitation, the reasons having nothing to do with the fact that we kept kosher and she did not. Rather, I chalked it up to that invisible divide between employers and employees, no matter their bond or the length of their relationship. Still, once we knew she was leaving the country, we called her and asked to come.

For months, I noticed her catching her breath. “I’m OK!” she insisted. Only later, when she found out her kidneys were failing, would she finally admit she was not.

She started dialysis in a whirlwind, quickly losing her strength. We cried together over the phone as she told me she’d already bought a return ticket to her native Serbia, where she would continue her treatment.

She could have retired there years ago. Yet even after her husband died, she remained in America, cleaning other people’s homes and sending most of her earnings back to her family. I often felt ashamed that she saw the intimate details of our day-to-day existence reflected in our mess. She, however, loved her work and was proud of it.

“Good cleaning help is hard to find,” many said when I told them she stopped coming to us. For a long time, our connection with her was about more than housekeeping anyway.

She had been with us through so much — the births of two of our sons, the passing of my grandmother and in-laws, a big move, and two decades of cleaning our refrigerator in preparation for Passover. After my surgeries, she tucked me in as if I were her child. And she gave each of our boys a bar mitzvah gift — a little gelt in a Serbian Orthodox Christmas card. To her, we shared one God. Little else mattered. 

She read the story of our lives in our detritus like tea leaves. I, on the other hand, had none of the clues her home would have given me, speaking volumes in the way she decorated and the scents coming from her kitchen. I learned only what she told me, all of it pointing to an essential way of being: work hard, eat simply, love fiercely. I wanted to know more.

When we first met, she had already lived in the U.S. for some time, having left the former Yugoslavia years before it deconstructed into a bloody civil war. She didn’t care much for politics, and it was never a discussion, let alone a point of contention, that she and my Croatian husband hailed from opposing former Yugoslav republics. She even called me, a born “Amerikanka,” one of her own.

Though I lived in Zagreb in the early 1990s, I finally learned to prepare proper Balkan coffee when she taught me in my New Jersey kitchen. She cherished the fact that I baked challah and crocheted in a world where so much comes ready-made in plastic packaging. On the other hand, she admonished me for refusing to iron, and I her for never vacuuming beneath the bed.

Our circumstances changed when I stopped commuting to a full-time job in Manhattan. I was home to shoulder most of the cleaning and could no longer justify the expense of regular help. But my husband and I agreed. We would keep her on until she retired. We owed her that after all this time.

On the evening we went to say goodbye, we had a lump in our throats. Her house, set off a dimly lit road, was hard to find in the dark. Touched to see us, she talked about her health and her plans to enjoy being near her family. She was grateful for her years in the States. Still, she knew she could never afford to retire here.

I glanced around, hoping in vain to find the missing pieces of her story. Most of her belongings were on a lift already at sea. She smiled when I spotted the pretty coffee jar I once gave her, telling me that everything she owned was either from the people she cleaned for or a yard sale. 

With that, she shifted in her chair. We presented her with a gift, and she gave us her address — just her name and the city with a post office nearest her village. Then finally, after ages of waiting, she invited us to visit her should we ever find ourselves in Serbia. “Nothing would make me happier,” she said, though the tears, hers and ours, would come as we stood to go.

In a final embrace, she told us how much she loved us. The proof? She said she ironed only for me, confessing that her assistant liked cleaning our house least of all.

And then, as if she’d been with us always, as if we’d continue to see her every other Thursday, we stepped out into the night.

We already missed her fiercely.

Merri Ukraincik of Edison is a regular contributor to NJJN. Follow her at merriukraincik.com.

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