The Cleaning Lady
Father Kelly is a rumpled, elfin, Methuselah straight out of Central Casting for a supporting role in a Spencer Tracy or Bing Crosby movie. He cleared his throat with a large sigh, waited for silence, and recited Psalms in a lilting tenor from someplace betwixt Limerick and Cork. He made the obligatory references to faith in Jesus and to eternal life, to Gertrud and Tommy reunited in The Next World. With surpassing eloquence, Kelly reprised the hoariest of Irish jokes dealing with the Resurrection — the one about poor Paddy, who had had a wee too much at the pub, and on his way home took a wrong turn through the cemetery and stumbled into an open grave. He told it with such earnest grace that we all chuckled anyway.
At my age I am as often invited to funerals as to parties. Every few months, it seems, some friend or kinsman loses a parent or sibling, and I interrupt my schedule to honor another completed life, as my friends did when my own parents died. So when Marianne, a treasured friend and softball teammate, telephoned at midday —she knows that I don't like calls when I'm writing — and said my name, I heard the catch in her voice and I knew that her mother was gone, that the agony had ended.
I knew Gertrud O'Neil as a stout, graying grandmother with a German accent thick as a Munich bratwurst, and a zest for nickel-ante poker. Marianne brought her to team parties, where she ate sparingly and nursed a single beer for the entire evening —but eagerly pulled up a chair the moment we set up the card table. If Gertrud never quite grasped the nuance of betting a winning hand to build a pot, or even knew with certainty that a full house beats a straight, she nevertheless delighted in the wagering and table talk, winning or losing a few dollars with equal enthusiasm.
Over the years that we have played on teams together, Marianne told me a bit about her mother. In her teens, Gertrud had served as a spotter on the Luftwaffe base where Messerschmitt tested the world's first jet fighter, and had survived several Allied attacks on that airfield. She was one of the so-called war brides, escaping the poverty and devastation of postwar Europe by wedding a G.I. She must have been desperate, I thought, to find the courage to marry among her former enemies, to come to a foreign land where she knew no one and barely understood the language.
I learned also that Gertrud had endured epic tragedy: A husband who took his own life, leaving her to fend for two children. A son rescued from death's door after a horrific traffic smashup, but minus a huge chunk of his gray matter. Tommy O'Neil, more than a vegetable but far less than the vibrant, likeable young man who had delighted almost everyone whom he met, spent 22 years on a VA hospital ward in Westwood. One day an attendant left him alone in a bathtub, and Tommy was scalded by near-boiling water. He lingered three days before death brought its mercy.
I came to appreciate Marianne as the rarest of friends, entirely dependable, an unselfish soul who genuinely cares for others. Early in our friendship she volunteered to help me convince my own mother to sign herself, yet again, into a mental hospital, a heart-breaking, daylong task that for decades my ailing father had handled, and an effort that left me exhausted and forlorn. It came to me on that day that Marianne could only have learned such devotion from her own mother. And sure enough, I found that every single week over all those years that Tommy had languished in his private hell, mother and sister spent hours with him, trying to communicate, trying to ease his suffering and fear.
But not until her funeral did I have a real sense of the woman Gertrud O'Neil had been. Under the midday sun in Santa Monica's Woodlawn Cemetery, an open grave awaited her unadorned coffin. People drifted in to cluster near the casket, dozens of Marriane's teammates and opponents from decades of play, a handful of relatives—and three generations of Gottleibs, near a dozen strong, some from as far away as Texas and North Carolina. The Gottleibs had been Gertrud's employer.
After the priest spoke, Marianne described Gertrud's last months, when despite the agonies and indignities of diabetes, amputation, heart disease and finally, unspeakably, cancer, she never complained, never cried out, never felt sorry for herself.
Then, one after another, a succession of Gottleibs spoke about their cleaning lady. Through tears and sobs came anecdotes of the humble, hard-working immigrant who for some thirty years had scoured Gottleib floors and toilets, scrubbed Gottleib dishes, dusted Gottleib curtains, vacuumed Gottleib rugs, polished Gottleib furniture, changed Gottleib diapers, washed and ironed Gottleib clothes, cooked Gottleib meals, cared for sick Gottleibs, bandaged Gottleib toddlers' skinned knees, sang fretful Gottleib infants to sleep, comforted troubled adult Gottleibs, advised and counseled and chastised and encouraged adolescent Gottleibs.
Determined to support her children but with few marketable skills beyond the ability to scrub and sweep and polish and vacuum and wash, Gertrud had begun her association with the family as a once-a-week cleaning lady. In time she granted the Gottleibs a second day a week, then a third. As the years slipped by she gradually gave them all her working hours, laboring on weekends and holidays to help out with social events or to deal with minor catastrophes. The Gottleibs were a two-income family, comfortable but far from the wealthiest in their part of Beverly Hills, and they paid Gertrud a fair wage, probably more than she could have earned dividing her time among several families, but not enough, until the passage of decades, to afford her own car. And so a succession of teenaged Gottleibs took turns chauffeuring Gertrud to her South Bay home at week's end. Gertrud, I learned at graveside, often took these occasions to share her views of acceptable behavior. "One day you'll have children of your own," she told one rebellious teen. "Until then, think about how you would feel if your own daughter behaved the way that you have toward your mother."
An older Gottleib recalled sharing with Gertrud the despair that she felt after divorcing her husband of many years. "She took me in her arms and comforted me as though I was her own child," recalled the woman who paid Gertrud's wages.
Over decades of this enamored servitude, Gertrud became the central figure in this family, more than a servant, more even than a second mother, the matriarch in all but name. Standing next to her coffin, the children whom Gertrud had helped to raise, now parents and spouses, revealed that as babies they had been unable to pronounce "Mrs. O'Neil." Parents and children had called her "Neil." Not her own name, nor even that of her late husband, but good enough for Gertrude.
As Gertrud became family, the Gottleibs provided. They bought her a serviceable car, paid her medical insurance, gave her assurances and peace of mind. Even when she grew too ill to work, the family continued to pay her salary, invited her to weddings and family gatherings, treated her with respect and deference.
On my way home from the cemetery, I passed a small brown woman wheeling a fair-skinned baby in a carriage, one of the many who spend their days working in my upscale Westside neighborhood. They are from Mexico and Guatemala, from Korea and Thailand, from Lebanon and Armenia, economic refugees from around the world, and as Gertrud did long ago, each has struck a bargain. In exchange for cleaning house and tending children, for allowing their employers a higher standard of living and the other satisfactions and rewards of pursuing their careers, these housekeepers are able to support their own families and to live in relative safety. How many of these immigrant women, I wondered, give themselves to their employers as wholeheartedly as Gertrud had? How many will help shape the mores and values of a generation of upscale Angelenos with the wisdom and attitude of a Third World émigré?
And then I realized that maybe I was asking the wrong questions. What I really need to know is, How many Gottleibs are there out there?
The Cleaning Lady, Copyright © 2000 Marvin J. Wolf
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FROM Marvin J. Wolf
On this page are true stories, magazine articles, excerpts from books and unpublished works, short fiction, and photographs, each offering a glimpse of my life, work and times. Your comments welcome. © Marvin J. Wolf. All rights reserved.