Gather 'round, you housewives, and I'll tell you of my woe. I've found a cleaning woman — now I want to know . . .

Dorothy Sangster February 1 1967


Gather 'round, you housewives, and I'll tell you of my woe. I've found a cleaning woman — now I want to know . . .

Dorothy Sangster February 1 1967


Gather 'round, you housewives, and I'll tell you of my woe. I've found a cleaning woman — now I want to know . . .

Dorothy Sangster

IT’S A QUARTER past nine on a rainy morning in Toronto the Good, and here I am again, standing at my front door, waiting for the new cleaning woman.

She was due at nine. But not to worry — arriving late is par for cleaning women. Some of my best cleaning women have arrived late, anywhere from 10 minutes to an hour late, depending on the weather, or their sense of direction, or their ability to make up a good excuse.

Question is: will she arrive at all?

If she doesn’t, she won’t be the first. Hell is paved with the names, but not, alas, the good intentions, of cleaning women who promised to come on Thursday but never showed up.

The woman at the employment agency says that’s what I get for hiring women from the classified ad section of the daily newspaper. Whenever a rare commodity like a cleaning woman takes the trouble to advertise her occasional availability, her line is jammed with the calls of distraught housewives with dirty houses. And when, after two hours of busy signals, I finally get to Edna (let’s call her) the inquisition that follows is an absorbing study in the 20th-century mistress-maid relationship.

Where do I live? asks Edna. Centre of town, 1 assure her — “and it’s very easy to get here.”

“Hmmmm,” says Edna. Do I have a house or an apartment? How big?

A house, I tell her. “But it’s really quite small, just seven rooms and three of them have tile that you needn’t wax, and there’s no silver to polish and . . .”

“Seven rooms . . . hmmmmm,” says Edna. “Will you be home when I’m working?”

I inform her that I work downtown in an office and she’ll be working unsupervised. “Who,” she demands, “is going to cook my dinner at noon if you're at the office?”

I promise her that I'll leave it ready in the oven.

Pause. Not even hmmmmmm. I cross my fingers, hold my breath and commune with St. Jude, procurer of the Impossible. He must be on the job today, for Edna suddenly tells me she’ll come. She asks directions to my house; promises to telephone if she gets lost; informs me that she won’t wash walls, mind children, clean cellars, or do any outside work. She hates ironing. Her fee is $10 plus carfare and she leaves at three o’clock. Take it or leave it.

I take it. I’d take her if she had one leg and two heads and spoke Zulu. I hang up. I dance a jig. Help is on the way. Thursday, blessed Thursday, will find my windowsills scrubbed, my mirrors polished, my bathtub scoured, my furniture dusted, my kitchen floor a shining dream.

Well, here it is Thursday. Edna, where are you?

If the woman at the employment agency is right, Edna is at this moment perking herself a second cup of coffee in the bachelor apartment of some single business girl whose furniture consists of a dayhed, two chairs, a table, a television set, and a couple of pots of split-leaf philodendron. She has selected this choice berth after an evening of conversation with a couple of dozen housewives scattered all over the city. Half of them she has turned down outright; the other half she’s promised to come on Thursday. Right now, at half past nine, the city is full of women like me, all standing at their front doors, waiting for Edna.

That’s what the employment agency woman says: “They promise you

they’ll come and then they don’t.”

Why, then, don’t I get a girl from the employment agency?

Because they come, and they’re awful! I’ve had them and I know.

Let me tell you about Mary, from Yugoslavia.

Because I was working at home when I needed Mary, I asked the agency woman. “Please send me somebody who works quietly and doesn’t talk much.” “I'll send you Mary,” she said. “Mary speaks little English.”

continued on page 58

EDNA, WHERE ARE YOU? continued from page 32

Then there was Petrushka. A jewel. So where did she go?

Well . . . she was right, in a way. Mary’s English was certainly a mess But she didn’t let that discourage her. She talked incessantly. She talked in a loud, grating voice. She talked nonstop and all of it was about the trouble she was having. She talked of her children (they were disobedient, extravagant, rude). She talked about her husband (he was dictatorial, he didn’t make enough money, he yelled at her). She talked about her ill health (the doctor had suggested an operation). As the weeks went on, more and more of her talk concerned this forthcoming operation. She was scared of “the knife.” She was booked for the hospital. She was due in next week. I sympathized, told her not to worry, reminded her how glad she’d be in a few weeks, when the operation was a thing of the past and she’d feel fine again. We bid each other a fond good-by and she promised to ring me up as soon as she got home again.

That was the last I ever saw of Mary. The day of her hospitalization I thought of her. A week later I thought of her again . . . and a week after that . . . Finally, I phoned the agency and anxiously asked how she’d come through her operation.

“Operation? What operation?” said the agency woman. “There’s nothing wrong with Mary. She just found there was too much work at your place, so she quit. She’s working around the corner from you now.”

Why the long buildup, the elaborate lie?

“I guess she didn’t like to hurt your feelings,” said the agency woman, adding, “there’s nothing personal about it, you know. They all do that.”

So she sent me Petrushka. Petrushka was terrific. She swept through the house like a breeze. Dust vanished. Floors shone. The sink twinkled. Petrushka shook her head sadly at the story of Mary. Occasionally, I told Petrushka to slow down, to take things easy, not to overwork; what she didn’t do this week could wait until next week. Petrushka said, “It’s nothing. Your house is easy, lady.”

A month ago, on a Thursday when six people were coming to dinner, I got home from the office to find the house the way I had left it at nine o’clock that morning — dishes on the breakfast table, beds unmade, floor unwashed. What could have happened to Petrushka? Hastily, I grabbed my telephone list from the table. Petrushka’s name, address, and telephone number were buried deep from sight under rows and rows of thick black pencil! She must have done it the week before, just a few minutes before I paid her, thanked her, wished her a pleasant weekend! But why?

Next week the agency phoned to say Petrushka had come in for a new Thursday job. Why had she left me? “She said there was too much work.” Why hadn’t she told me? “She didn’t like to hurt your feelings.”

I tried another agency. They sent me Carmen. Would you believe Carmen, who turned up once and did a fine job; turned up twice, and was left at 9.30 a.m. polishing the fireplace, and then disappeared into thin air without a cent of her pay? When I got home at 3.30, wages in hand, there was simply no sign of her. Everything, except the polished fireplace, was as I’d left it — dirty. No note. And no, the agency didn’t know what happened.

It turned out that Carmen had cut her finger on a knife and taken herself off to the doctor. She phoned to say so, two days later. Did I want her back the next week? I said no thanks, because now they’d sent me Lena, and Lena — though far from competent

EDNA, WHERE ARE YOU? continued

— looked reliable. (The following week Lena didn't turn up and nobody knew where she was. The week after that, just as Betty, a new girl, was starting on the windows. Lena did turn up. surprised to find her place had been usurped. Where had she been the week before? "I lost your address and your telephone number and 1 just found it again.”)

Well, that’s how it goes. And lest you, dear reader, suspect by now that there's something fishy about all this

— that my house is larger, my demands greater, my work more arduous, my personality fussier than 1 have indicated -— be assured it's not so and things weren’t always thus. There was a time — as recent as last year, though it seems centuries ago — that I, like you, was the proud possessor of a gem of a cleaning woman. She stayed for four years and left to mind her daughter’s baby. Before her. there was someone else, equally wonderful, who stayed six years and then got a job in a factory. Before her . . . hut enough, enough! Why must I torture myself?

Especially since yesterday my telephone rang three times with replacements. First it was Lena, offering to replace Betty (now back home in the Maritimes) provided she could come on Saturdays. (”I would have phoned before hut I lost your number again,” she said.) Then it was Carmen, she of the cut hand, offering me every second Wednesday starting next month (it seems she got into a collision and her car won’t be fixed until then). Then it was somebody called Doris (Doris? Who's Doris? I don’t remember a woman named Doris). Anyway, this Doris phoned to tell me that she’s all booked up now, but her friend Marilyn has Fridays free “except, of course, in summer — that's when she goes to her brother-in-law’s cottage.” Could I use Marilyn?

1 told them all no thanks. I was satisfied. I had Edna for Thursdays.

Edna, where are you? ★