771. Maid: On Caring for Those Who Serve You

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"Rent plus groceries plus utilities plus laundry plus insurance plus gas plus clothing minus an hourly paycheck of barely more than minimum wage and the scant assistance parceled out by the government with spectacular reluctance — the brute poetry of home economics recurs throughout Land’s book."


A book review by Emily Cooke in The New York Times last winter, quoted from above, prompted me to read Maid: Hard Work, Low Pay, and a Mother's Will to Survive, a memoir by Stephanie Land. Land is a young woman who made many mistakes that cost her in significant ways, including connecting with and getting pregnant by the wrong guy and at the wrong time. Raising her daughter on her own and needing to earn a living, she became a maid who worked for a cleaning service and also for her own clients.

Read this book if you ever wonder about who is behind the ads for cleaning services or ever wonder about the woman who cleans your office space or perhaps even your home, if you ever see or think about the woman who cleans your hotel room. Land writes of her very difficult life trying to provide for her daughter, trying to keep her warm in the winter, trying to provide enough food. She writes of the struggle to care for her when she's sick because the means aren't easy to come by, neither money for cough medicine nor paid time off to stay home with her.

When I was in early grade school, my mother had a "cleaning lady" come in sometimes to help clean our three-bedroom rambler. I'm not sure exactly why her help was needed and it didn't last long. In fact, I don't remember much about it, but here's what I do remember: every time she came, my mother set the table to serve her lunch. I can still picture the plate of food on the cloth placemat and a beautiful paper napkin, usually a floral design, folded on the left side of the plate. I remember my mother served her. I remember that she and my mother would sit in the living room and talk. I also remember having to clean my room before she came. More than a means to obtain a clean house, those few months or however long it lasted taught me something important about caring for people, a topic about which I still have so much to learn. Land wrote of a few similar caring customers and her deep gratitude for them, but far too many were of the sort that she had to endure in order to be paid.

Who is the person waiting on you or waiting on me at the grocery store or the drug store? The person bringing the mail to your door? The man handing me stamps at the post office? The woman pouring your coffee at lunch, or the woman picking up my dirty towels from the hotel room floor, leaving behind perfectly folded towels, clean and fresh?

Many years ago I read something written by Margie Haack, co-director of Ransom Fellowship and author of the quarterly, “Letters from the House Between,” about tipping hotel maids. I'm sorry to admit that I'd never before thought of doing that. But I started right then leaving cash and a note of thanks and have been doing so ever since. Sometimes I get notes back, with thanks and often a hint of surprise, as if no one before had ever left them a tip.

Let's make life easier for each other, not harder. More kindness. More respect. More sharing. I have a long way to go in this myself, and am so grateful for those in my life who have taught me and those who continue to teach me, like Stephanie Land has done in her book.

Read Maid. Look at the faces of people who serve you and care for them. Leave a tip next time you stay in a hotel.

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[Photo: taken of a view within the Minneapolis Central Library]