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Sirens of the Kitchen Sink

Welcome to My Green Vermont - A Blog by Eulalia Benejam Cobb.
By Eulalia Benejam Cobb

The window of my childhood bedroom opened into the inner courtyard of our apartment block in Barcelona, as did the kitchen windows of the neighboring apartments. As I closed my eyes and tried to sleep at night, the maids in the apartments would stand at their sinks, singing as they washed the dishes. They sang Cuban boleros and the occasional tango. And because most of them were from the south of Spain, they sang long flamenco laments about blood and death, passion and sorrow: Ay pena, penita, pena / Pena de mi corazón…(Oh sorrow, little sorrow, sorrow/ Sorrow of my heart…).

Those maids were not shy about their singing. Encouraged by the well-like acoustics of the place, their voices resounding off the cement walls of the courtyard and accompanied by the clatter of china and cutlery, they sang their hearts out. And, like Odysseus on his ship, I on my bed would sail into sleep, mesmerized by those disembodied voices.

They were the voices of girls who had left their impoverished Andalusian villages to work as servants in Barcelona in the hard years following the Spanish Civil War. They worked among strangers who spoke what was to them a foreign language (Catalan) for food and lodging and what must have been scanty wages. They got one afternoon a week off, plus time to go to early Mass on Sundays. They never went home or called their families, since the train fares were beyond their means, as were the charges for long-distance phone calls. And yet despite all this, or perhaps because of it, they sang.

My mother’s maids, however, did not sing. This was because my mother preferred to employ middle-aged women, ostensibly because they were more experienced and reliable. (In retrospect I wonder if part of her reason may have been a reluctance to have a nubile female presence in the apartment 24/7.) My mother was kind to the maids, addressing them with the formal usted as a mark of respect and giving them time off in their room for a rest in the afternoon. She insisted that I treat them with the same deference as the other adults in the family.

The earliest maid I can remember, Luisa, had hair so black it seemed almost blue, and always dressed in black. She was a stern disciplinarian, and I found her as intimidating as the German nuns. She was certainly as obsessed with punctuality as they were, and I would pant to keep up with her as she rushed me to school every morning and afternoon. The next maid, Florentina, wore her gray hair in a straggly bun and had problems with chilblains in the winter. She seemed perennially unhappy, worried about her two daughters who were also in service and had boyfriends in the dreaded Guardia Civil.

Our last maid before we left for Ecuador, Maruja, I adored. She was younger than the others, and entertained me with wild stories of the Holy Week processions in her native Málaga. She was witty, an expert seamstress, and would dress up in high heels and fancy dresses with cinched waists and wide skirts to meet her fiancé on her afternoon off. I missed her almost as much as I missed my aunts after we left.

Years later, when we arrived in Alabama and were maid-less for the first time in our lives, it became my job to wash the dishes. And as I soaped and scrubbed and rinsed at the kitchen sink I too would sing, trying my best to imitate the remembered Andalusian accent and flamenco style of the maids, singing about my sorrows as, like them, I labored to  make my way in a strange place and a strange language, far from home.





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