There are a lot of things I learned from Sally. The older I get, and the further away I’ve gotten from that special relationship, the more those lessons resonate and come into focus. Here is my Sally story:
After my ex-husband and I separated in 2002, I spent a year cleaning houses as way to generate income. After being a stay-at-home mom for so long, I was heartbroken to consider putting my kids into daycare on top of the rest of the upheaval we were all going through. I had mentioned to my daughters teacher that I was looking for cleaning jobs, if she knew of anyone looking for a housekeeper. She connected me to Sally.
Sally lived in a condo, just minutes from my new apartment. To this day, I don’t have a clue how old Sally was. She was simply, old. She was quite short, clocking in at under 5 feet and carried close to 100 pounds more than her frame was built for. She had a host of health problems that made getting around and staying on her feet a challenge. Despite her health issues, Sally was a very active woman. She volunteered for multiple organizations, with the Children’s Zoo being at the top of her list. She also loved to entertain, hosting her friends for card night, book club, special dinners and holiday meals with frequency. Because she maintined such an active volunteer and social life, she had no energy for general housework. This is where I came in.
At the time I had about a half dozen cleaning jobs and adding Sally in once a week was going to be the key to keeping my head above water. We met for the first time and she showed me around her place and talked to me about what she was looking for. I was completely overwhelmed. Her house was a wreck. Honestly, if I had any other choice at the time I probably would have politely declined the challenge. As it stood I had three mouths to feed and really needed this job. This started a 5 year relationship that fed and nurtured us both.
It took 4 consecutive weeks to gain control of the chaos. I learned her behaviors and habits and came to know what to expect.
She faithfully received the newspaper, but rarely had the time to read it. Every day when she arrived home from whatever excursion she was on, she would stop at the mailbox, retrieve the paper and her mail, pull into the garage, waddle into the front hallway, and promptly drop any mail that wasn’t deemed important (most of it) and the paper.
Most weeks there would be multiple bags of groceries strewn about with the cold items (usually) removed and put away, but the rest left for me. She shopped like many of her generation, using coupons for items she really didn’t need. She had enough food at all times to survive the apocalypse. A few months into our arrangement, I decided to clean out the pantry only to find some items a decade old.
Her method to dealing with dirty laundry was to pile her clothes in her closet or in the bathroom outside the shower. Each week I would strip her bed and replace the sheets, collect her clothes, and do that weeks laundry. It wouldn’t seem like a weeks worth of laundry would be much, but she often went through multiple outfits a day. Incontinence is a bitch.
Shoes and jewelry could be found anywhere, but was most often on the TV tray next to her recliner where she ate her meals, on the back of the toilet or occasionally on top of the microwave. It almost became a game, to find all of the strung about earrings and necklaces and put them back on her holders. We had some good laughs about it.
The kitchen was always a hodge-podge of pans and dishes piled around the sink and counters. Sometimes I’d have to remove a whole stack of items from the oven, her favorite hiding place when company was coming before I was. She’d forget to tell me they were there until weeks later. I learned to check.
I’d occasionally have to deal with a pan that had all but caught on fire as she’d sometimes start dinner, and then fall asleep with food on the stovetop. I bought her a fire extinguisher.
Despite the chaos of the house, Sally was very particular about certain things. I might find it more pressing to clean the rotten food out of the refrigerator, but she would want me to feed the birds first. That was her priority.
I learned to dread the changing of the seasons because it meant the switching of the closets. Every 6 months she would ask me to remove everything from the closet in her bedroom and move it to the guest room closet, and everything from the guest closet, containing the upcoming seasons clothes, would go into the closet off of her room. I dreaded it because it took hours, I’ve never known anyone with that many clothes. On top of that, her closet was always a disaster, that was one area I hadn’t even started to tackle that first season. It always felt like a huge waste of time when the two rooms were 20 feet apart, but that was part of her routine.
One of the more enjoyable tasks was holiday decorating. She celebrated every holiday with gusto. She possessed 60 years of accumulated decorations for holiday and they were meticulously organized in boxes in the garage. She knew where every last piece went. Every holiday we would pack up all of the normal house decor, including the pictures on the walls, all of the Hummel figurines, the 20 miniature tea sets that sat on the table in the living room and get out the Easter eggs, Christmas decorations, 4th of July flags, Valentines hearts, or whatever was the theme of the particular holiday. Three weeks later, I’d undo it all and put back the everyday decorations. Every holiday.
Sally loved to entertain her friends and it was always a BIG event. She had special plates, special decorations, napkin rings, cups, for every single type of gathering. Card night, Valentines Ladies night, Summer gathering, 4th of July party, holiday gift exchange. All themed. She taught me what it meant to entertain old school with tables that were set with precision. She was the consummate hostess. The following day I’d go back, clean it all up, and hear all the stories about who came, who didn’t show, and who was having what health issue.
Not a single holiday or birthday went by that I worked for Sally that she didn’t surprise me with a gift, not only from her, but also from her dog Murphy. Cute quirky items that a broke single mom often had little use for, but they were thoughtful and sweet and almost always made me cry at her kindness.
About a year after I started working for Sally I went back to work full-time and she asked me to stay on. I dropped to every-other weekend and would spend that Sunday morning working as fast as possible to get her caught up. She’d follow me around as best she could from room to room updating me on her last two weeks and asking about mine. Apologizing for having done no laundry and leaving it all to me, and me explaining that I didn’t mind. Sometimes I timed my arrival so we would only have a short time before she left for Church. I knew how much she looked forward to our visits, and often felt bad about my impatience. There was twice as much work as there was when I was going weekly, and I was always exhausted from my full-time job. Sometimes I just wanted to get done so I could get home to my kids or home to my bed. Those were long days back then.
Despite or shortened time together, we developed a nice friendship. She was a passionate Michigan fan and was very proud of the fact that Michigan was one of the first major universities in the country to allow women to attend. I can't tell you how often she told me this. She had the picture of her class hanging in her bedroom. She had gone to Michigan to become a teacher, and taught school for somewhere around 35 years. In the 1980’s she had a partial mastectomy from breast cancer. This story was told as I walked in on her in her room, buck naked, as she was struggling to get dressed for church one Sunday morning. Sally wasn’t shy.
She did find some of her other physical ailments more embarrassing, and would call me from time to time in the middle of a week and ask if I would come clean up some accident or another that had happened. She hated these episodes, they frustrated her, they embarrassed her greatly. Not only to lose control of her body, but also to have to call for help to clean up the mess. The sheer number of medications she was taking wreaked havoc on her digestive system. If you know me at all you have no idea how hard it was for me to handle these incidents. But you can’t hear the voice of a woman who is embarrassed and upset and not run over and take care of things, as awful as they sometimes were. It was life.
Sally had never married and had no children of her own, but she had adopted several families over the years that she became a surrogate grandmother to. Every holiday season I would help address and stamp hundreds of cards and mail piles of Christmas gifts to people all over the country. She was a generous soul.
Even when I was tired and dreading going to clean, I found my visits to Sally to be a respite from my life at the time. I had lost all my grandparents by the time I was in my early 20’s and she filled the role nicely. She told me stories and anecdotes and gossiped about her friends. She talked about the ones she liked, the ones she found to be irritating and phoney, but that she had known for 45 years . . .she distracted me from my own angst.
One Sunday morning, I timed my visit a little later than normal. I was short on time so I headed over when I knew she would have left for church.
As soon as I walked in the door, I felt uneasy. The entry way had its usual amount of newspapers and mail strewn about.
In the living room her “important mail” was piled up on the TV tray. A pile of earrings sat on the tray next to her can of coke. She knew she wasn’t supposed to drink it, but she loved it so much.
The kitchen was surprisingly clean. No pans in the sink. I headed to her bedroom.
The mattress was missing from her bed.
I hadn’t even noticed, Murphey hadn’t met me at the door.
With shaking hands, I flipped through her address book to the number of the woman who had introduced us five years ago, my daughters teacher.
“Mary? It’s Heather. I just came to clean Sallys . . .”
Pause. Breath. “Oh my god Heather. It never occurred to me to call you. Sally passed this week”
I sat in the living room I had dusted for the last 5 years, completely stunned. And just cried. Deep wracking sobs.
One time when I was cleaning, Sally gave me 6 large insulated cups with cards in the plastic, her old cards night tumblers. At the time I remember thinking “what in the world will I do with these?” But I took them home. After she died I was grateful for those silly cups. I would use them for years, and think of her.
I regret not asking her more. Did she love someone once? A man? A woman? Who was she when she was young? She told me what she wanted to tell me. This is what I learned:
Family is who you surround yourself with.
No matter what life hands you, keep moving forward.
Do what you love.
Feed the birds.
Give your heart generously and you will receive more back than you can imagine.
Entertain even if the dog pees on the carpet, your friends won't mind (except that bitch Edith, she ALWAYS has to make a comment!).
Use the nice dishes.
Drink the Coke even when your doctor tells you to stop.
And when you get the the point in your life that you have to chose between volunteering at the zoo and cleaning your house, hire a young single mom to do it for you. You wont regret how you spent your time, and she will never forget you.