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The Maids, Part One

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

Until my parents and I came to the U.S., we always lived with a stranger in our midst: The Maid. The Maid lived with us in our Barcelona apartment, 24/7, except for Sunday afternoons, which she had off. She had her own bedroom–The Maid\’s Room–which was bigger than mine, but she shared our bathroom facilities (toilet in one room; sink, bathtub and bidet in another).

As I have explained before, in the 1940s and 50s, when Spain was recovering from the Civil War (1936-39), you didn\’t have to be rich to have a live-in maid: plenty of impoverished women were glad to get a roof over their heads, three meals a day, a uniform, and a salary. Since The Maids came from the poorer regions of Spain, they spoke Spanish. Barcelona is in Catalonia, so we spoke Catalan (all Catalans also had to learn Spanish, as mandated by the Franco government). This meant that, as a family, we spoke a language that The Maid could not understand, which gave us a measure of privacy. Otherwise, The Maid was in our midst.

My mother treated these women kindly. She fed them well, paid them the going rate, gave them rest periods during the day and addressed them with the formal usted. Since I was just a kid, the maids always called me tu.

Every morning, The Maid would get me dressed, put my hair in braids, and take me to school. Back in the apartment she made the beds, dusted, mopped the tile floors, washed our clothes by hand, and ironed. My mother normally did most of the food shopping and cooking. At midday, The Maid would fetch me from school and serve lunch. Then she would sweep the dining room, which had to be done after every meal because of the amazing quantities of crusts that fell to the floor every time you cut a slice of bread. Then The Maid would take me back to school (all this on foot) and go back to her room for a nap. If she was busy when school let out at six thirty, my mother would come to get me, which gave me great joy. The Maid\’s day ended after she washed the dinner dishes–like everybody else, we ate around 10 p.m.

The first maid I can remember was Luisa, a grim, dark-haired woman who always wore black, which meant that sometime in the last ten years someone in her family had died. Luisa was with us when I started first grade at a school run by German nuns. She was as obsessed with punctuality as the German nuns were. A slow, absent-minded child, I was forever being harried by cries of \”corre, corre!\” on the part of Luisa, and \”schnell, schnell!\” on the part of the nuns.

Luisa left one day in a mysterious huff and was replaced by Florentina, a red-faced widow also dressed in mourning who wore her gray hair in an untidy bun. Florentina wasn\’t much fun either, though she was less driven by the clock–but by then I had internalized the punctuality mandate, and would force her to run panting up the hill to my school. Florentina smelled of bleach, and in the winter she got chilblains on her fingers, from washing our clothes in cold water.

The best maid of all was Maruja, from Malaga, and she fulfilled all the national cliches about the wit and charm of Andalusians. She was younger than her predecessors, and, even though she wore glasses like me, she had a novio, for whom she would dress up on Sunday afternoons. She told thrilling stories about the Holy Week processions in Malaga, she told jokes, and she sang. In the spring, when the kitchen windows were open, you could hear the maids all up and down our apartment house singing while they washed dishes. Maruja was the best. She sang old boleros,

Dos gardenias para ti,
con ellas quiero decir:
te quiero, te adoro….

She sang them with feeling, and she sang them in tune.

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