From Chicken Soup for the Jewish Soul

The Story of Mary the Maid

True humor springs not more from the head than from the heart; it is not contempt, its essence is love.

Thomas Carlyle

When I was growing up in Delaware, my dad was a Jewish communal worker, and my mom a professional Hebrew teacher. They were truly pillars of the community. Nevertheless, my mom took great pride in keeping a balbatisch (dignified, decorous) house, and training her daughters to do the same. It was her custom to clean windows, for example, the way most housewives did in those days. She would open the double-hung window, climb halfway out, and sit on the sill facing inward. Lowering the window onto her thighs to pin her in place, she would proceed to clean with huge sweeping motions with her arm. This meant she had to ignore the fact that she was dangling out over the street, and could fall two stories onto hard cement with one false move.

One day, my dad came home from work unexpectedly and saw her suspended in space, with her posterior hanging out. He was not amused. He thought it undignified for the wife of the executive director of the Jewish Community Center to be seen in this activity, and he considered it dangerous to boot. He really was quite upset by it, and he told Mom in no uncertain terms that she must get someone to help her. In vain, my mother protested that a maid would cost money, that no one could do the job as well as she, that she did not mind doing her own housework, and all of that. My father persisted until my mom reluctantly capitulated and agreed to hire a maid.

She was as good as her word. She told my father a week later that she had found a suitable candidate through Sylvia Rosenbaum, who lived across the street. Mary was a Polish woman with a long name consisting of a string of unpronounceable consonants. A divorced woman, she was the sole support of her two sons. The older was a no-goodnick who had a drinking problem and had recently joined the Marines, which she hoped would do him some good. The younger boy got good grades, and she was praying that he would get a college scholarship. Mother and her new assistant got along just fine from the start.

We never got to meet Mary because she came after we left for school and work, and she was gone by 3:00 P.M. Every Thursday, however, my father would leave a ten-dollar bill to pay her wages, and every Thursday night the house would sparkle, for Mary was a whirlwind with a mop and pail. Even mother admitted that her preparations for the Sabbath on Friday were much easier now that Mary was here.

All went well for the better part of the year, with Mother periodically updating us on Mary’s life and activities. We felt as if we knew her and her sons, and we were liberal with our advice about how to handle them. Then one day my father came home looking glum. There had been a domestic disaster, a broken boiler, an exploded carburetor; I don’t remember exactly what it was. But it was something that would be expensive to fix, and money was tight.

“How much do you need, Harry?” asked my mom.

“Four hundred dollars at least,” was the reply.

My mother got a thoughtful look on her face, then excused herself from the dinner table and ran upstairs. She returned with a huge wad of ten-dollar bills that she pressed into my father’s outstretched hand. “What’s this?” asked my father in bewilderment, looking down at almost fifty bills. Looking like the cat that swallowed the canary, and chortling in utter triumph, my mother exclaimed, “That’s Mary the maid!!”

We rather missed Mary, from then on, and not a peep was heard out of my father.

Naomi Bluestone

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