My mother always said, "They are never going to be like the ones who came before. Times have changed. They are not as dedicated. For them, it is only work."
My best friend said it better, "If you can do without them, then do so. Actually, they only become necessities because you choose to make them indispensable. But simplify your lifestyle and you don't really need them. Think First World!"
I wish it were that simple. But my best friend has a point. And my mother was spot on when it came to her reminiscing.
While I was growing up in Pasay City, we had a laundrywoman who was with us for more than forty years. I remember that even after some of our housekeepers left the employment of my family, they would come visit Mama and my Lola ... and they were treated as part of the family. Well, why shouldn't they? These women were around during all the highlights of the changing life of my family. They were there earlier than me ... and they would tell stories (in exquisite details) of what happened the day that I was born.
One of my fondest memories of my childhood was our old housekeepers gathered together to help my Mom and my Lola prepare the noche buena meal. They would all be huddled together deboning the chicken for the galantina, preparing the enormous oval kettle for the hamon Tsina or stirring an enormous siyansi full of ground yam mixed with condensed milk to make my Mom's delicious haleyang ube.
I clearly remember the faces of Teresa and Conda, babbling the day away with my mother and lola in the kitchen or out there in backyard under the avocado tree--- while the smell of delicious meals drifted into the living room. These are the memories of my youth --- and the housekeepers who were not considered katulong or kasambahay but rather kasamahan will always be a part of the sounds, smells and images of my past.
But now things are so different.
I still consider myself lucky that I have housekeepers who have stayed with me for more than 20 years. But still they are different. I realize that I am made to believe that they were irreplaceable out of habit ... or because you are too tired, too lazy to readjust to somebody else entering and living inside your abode to be a part of your life. It is the familiarity of a) knowing how many teaspoons of sugar you put in your coffee b) how you want the yolks of your sunny side up fried eggs to look like at breakfast c) how you want your shirts folded according to color inside your cabinet d) how you want your vitamins to be ready first thing in the morning, what newspapers you read and where to lay out the clothes you will wear for the day e) which foods and drinks you cannot take because of your allergies ...Oh, you can go on and on and on.
Suddenly, when they decide to go ("Kuya, magbabakasiyon po muna ako sa amin ...") or when you decide to let them go ("Inday, tapos na ang ating mga maliligayang araw ..."), you are confronted by changes in your lifestyle. And even the way you will face the rest of the day because of your state of mind right at the very first minute after you regain consciousness.
Consider for instance that after twenty-two years, one evening as I was busy Facebooking one of my housekeepers unceremoniously announced, "Kuya, aalis po ako." I was still focused on my computer, "Ah, ok. Uuwi ka ng probinsiya?" She said yes. "Kelan ang balik mo?" And she dropped the bomb. "Hindi na po. Gusto ko na pong mag-retire." That was when I fell of my seat. At the age of 43, she wants to retire. Fine. I am not one to argue with her about that. I would have wanted to retire when I was in my forties ... but that was not a practical thing to do.
That night, I un-friended about 30 of my so-called friends from Facebook.
So it all boiled down to that. I was going to lose her after two decades. And maybe I shouldn't feel so bad because:
(a) She held a consistent record of picking fights with all the other maids and drivers including a most dramatic event when she ran after a driver wielding a butter knife;
(b) She had this thing for Downey ... because everything she washed and touched had to have fabric softener in it.
(c) She did not believe in organizing clothes that she washes and irons ... After the deeds are done, she simply dumps them into the cabinet and looks at me with that Bahala na si Batman look.
(d) She knew a grand total of five dishes which she repeats, recycles and rams down my throat each night when I choose to have dinner at home. Her favorite dish involves bean sprouts --- so much so that I was positive that togue was coming out of my nostrils. (She was also very instrumental for the rise in my uric acid content.)
(e) She places the bottle of peanut butter in the refrigerator all the time.
(f) She threw away a whole block of blue cheese given to me by my brother because she said it already smelled and had amag.
(g) She regaled me with all the sordid stories of my neighbors.
(h) She pioneered interactive television: she spoke with the characters of her favorite telenovelas. After a while, I felt fear that she was actually having a virtual relationship with Dingdong Dantes.
And so she left and I had to look for an immediate replacement.
My other housekeeper recommended a kababayan of hers who was supposedly in her mid-thirties, a mother (both a plus and minus factor) with relatives in the Quezon Province. OK, fine. I was not about to be choosy since I was not going to mess up my life trying to figure out a viable replacement for my crippled household.
I am lucky enough to have an excellent driver (who dresses better than me because he is always in long sleeves while I am in t-shirts and shorts) but that would not be enough for me to subsist. Thus, the new maid was brought home, trained by the other housekeeper and then left to her own design and imagination.
And there lies the rub. Or rubs.
The new housekeeper was --- uh, presentable enough. I mean, I was not exactly hunting for someone who could be mistaken for Shamcey Supsup, right? But what was categorically disturbing was that ... she looked sorta kinda bloated. (My exiting maid whispered to me, "Kuya, buntis ba yan?" to which I replied, "Hindi. Malusog lang.") Then came her certain ...uh, sanitation problems which I will not elaborate in exquisite detail lest this writing deteriorates to the tasteless. Let me just put it this way: she does not believe in the magic of Downey.
Ok, but I am only getting started. Let me enumerate her other ways:
(a) She cooked a dish involving breast of chicken with melted cheese. I was kind enough to complement her: "Masarap ito, ha?" She said thank you and fed me that same dish five times in a single week.
(b) She was the only creature I know who could burn fried eggs.
(c) She only knew three dishes. One of them was the chicken with melted cheese. The other was what was supposed be hamburger that certainly did not look or taste like one.
(d) She had this thing for washing. In a week's time she washed everything she touched including the curtains of all the rooms, my bed sheets, pillow cases. And she did not believe in Downey.
(e) She watched television at the slightest provocation. The tv set in the kitchen was always on. Even at ten in the evening, the tv set was still on ... as she cooked, washed, cleaned.
(f) She had a very strange ring tone in her cell phone. If I am not mistaken, it was Thus Spach Zarathustra or the theme from 2001: A Space Odyssey. I failed to ask her if she was a fan of Kubrick.
But if I were to list the top hit of my new maid's unparalleled achievements is her Most Unique Sandwich Award.
For the past six years, I have the same lunch over and over again during weekdays. Maybe I have Asperger's syndrome ... whatever: I am indeed a creature of habit and regularity inasmuch as I must have my cup of coffee at the end of every meal --- my serving of Metamucil and Berroca in the evening --- and that is without fail.
So every lunch I have salad, fruits and a peanut butter sandwich on wheat bread or wheat ciabatta. That is almost like a religious ritual. One of my housekeepers exercises her creativity by making my peanut butter sandwich a bit more varied: she adds jams and jellies (strawberry jam and guava jelly, actually). And my new maid saw this.
I will not blame her for what happened. Not completely.
One day I had this strange compulsion to buy wheat pan de sal and coco jam from a branch of Pontoja's. I had this thing that I wanted to have pan de sal and coco jam for breakfast the next day. That would at least spare me of the burned fried eggs ... which my doctor told me was toxic. (Now I am wondering if the new maid is out to kill me.) But I should have realized that if she was going to commit any act of murder, it did not involve burned egg whites. It was through peanut butter.
I was quietly eating my packed lunch from my office when a strange taste suddenly filled my mouth after my first bite into the wheat bread. What the f--k is this? For the first time in my life ... or anybody's life ... a new culinary innovation was made: peanut butter with coco jam. I was ... uh, petrified. I was too numb to react ... except to laugh.
I can go on and on and on. Well, at least, the new maid had this thing for fixing my closet too. She would arrange and rearrange all my clothes ... in some system that exists in her mind. I believe she fixes them in alphabetical order.
But despite all the pluses and minuses of her presence in my household, I had to eventually let her go. And the reason did not involve the peanut butter sandwich ... or the unusual amount of consumption of powdered detergent since she came into my life. A speculation was confirmed: she was not malusog. She was really buntis. She told this to my driver,"Akala ko mataba lang ako pero buntis pala ako uli..." It was then that I found out the truth: she already had four children back in the province.
Miracle of miracle, she is about to have her fifth kid.
This weekend, the newer maid came into my life. So far, so good. She is very respectful and positive. To everything I say, Yes na lang siya nang yes.
I am still smiling. And praying. We shall see. We shall wait and see.
And I remember what my mother always said, "Iba na sila ngayon." Yes, Mama. They don't make 'em like Teresa and Conda any more.