The Cleaning Lady
by Mike Ruby
April 04, 2020

I grew up in a large, five-bedroom house built in 1912. At times it seemed too small when my siblings and I were at odds with each other. At other times it was too big when we had household chores to do. Only once did my mother hire outside help to do some deep cleaning. She probably answered an ad in the newspaper.

I was ten years old when an old, frail lady rang the doorbell on a Saturday morning. A cigarette hung out of her mouth as she introduced herself to my mother. No one had ever smoked in our house, so I knew Mother was not pleased. Mother invited the lady inside, chatted for a few minutes, and led her to our dining room where instructions were given. I still recall that thin, haggard, woman on her hands and knees, always with a cigarette hanging from her lips, cleaning the oak floor with a scrub brush and bucket of water. Several of her teeth were missing, her shoes were scruffy, and her dress was tattered. She seemed too old to be doing such hard manual labor, but I was just a kid and didn’t dwell on it.

She did various tasks while lighting one cigarette after another, coughing and hacking her way from room to room, occasionally spitting into a dirty handkerchief. When she left several hours later, I knew Mother was unhappy and would not invite her back. The windows were immediately opened so fresh air could permeate the smoke-filled house.

A few weeks later our school hosted Parent’s Night, and I was excited to show Mom and Dad my 4th grade classroom that was spruced up for the occasion. During the event, one of my classmates, “Mary” and her mother were in the crowded classroom. I was shocked to learn the cleaning lady was Mary’s mother. My parents briefly chatted with her.

On the way home, I asked my folks about Mary’s mother. They didn’t know much about her, but confirmed the lady was indeed her mother, not a grandmother, and they reminded me how fortunate I was.

I felt humbled and sad, hoping that her mom did not tell Mary it was our house she had cleaned. Mary was an average student, quiet and polite. Her school clothes were noticeably worn but always clean. Her hard-working mother made an honest living and I respected that. Several years later, we received our high school diplomas and I never saw Mary again. I regret not befriending her. 

Who do you know who could use a friend? How can you reach out to them?

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