Helen Le Pu

My mother once told a friend how frustrating it was to communicate with her new housekeeper, Helen. Her friend said, “But, Lorraine, you speak Spanish, don’t you?”

My mother said, “Yes, but Helen is Polish.” 

Helen has worked for my mother for so long, the only way we’ll ever know her age is by counting the rings around her waist.

I didn’t see Helen often, but when I did, she was always very pleasant.

After Richard and I got married, moved to an apartment, had two children and a cat, we couldn’t keep things as clean as Richard liked.

Richard worked two jobs, and, when not being the loving, devoted mother, wife, and crazy animal lady I have always been, as a freelance journalist, I was frantically meeting deadlines for several magazines.

The cat shed, and so did our children. They were half “Chase,” after all, and we come from hairy stock.

When Richard found hairballs in his shoes, we asked Helen to come every three weeks.

As winter descended, Helen wore a beautiful Camel Hair coat. By February, I suspected Helen had taken a lover because she began to wear perfume.

But, it was not love I smelled in the air. It wasn’t a whisper, or a hint of a fragrance. It stunk up the air with the greatest of ease.

I only had to endure the stench every three weeks, but having always had a rather sensitive proboscis, I began to get headaches and feel nauseated every three weeks, too. I had to say something. But, what?

I didn’t know any Polish. Which words would convey that it was the smell of her perfume – – not her – – that I didn’t like? I didn’t want my words to translate to, “Helen, you smell like a rotting appendix.”

One afternoon I walked into the the living room ready to talk to her about her perfume, just as she finished and left to clean the kitchen.

I took a big sigh of relief, but in doing so, I realized the stench remained the same. How could that be?

I deduced that the smell couldn’t be wafting directly from her person. Like a Bloodhound, I was on a mission. Slowly I crept, step by step, sniff by sniff, until I found the source of the offending odor.

The Eau du Helen was coming from the coat she always put on top of the radiator. The closer I got, the worse it smelled. The heat must have been intensifying the noxious chemicals.

Once I knew from whence the smell came, I was able to try to ask her to please hang her coat on the banister in the hallway, just outside our apartment.

She did. Our encounter went very well. Maybe, a little too well. As a precaution, I didn’t lose sight of my cup of coffee in case she felt compelled to give me a sneezer latte.

One wintery Saturday, when she opened the door to leave, her coat was missing. It suddenly dawned on me that we’d left a bag of Richard’s dirty* shirts in a bag on the banister. The dry cleaner guy must have seen (and smelled) Helen’s coat, and taken it to be cleaned.

I called the dry cleaner and found that my assumption had been correct.

Helen took two busses and a train to get to and from our apartment. If she left later than her normal departure time, she might miss a bus or the train, and possibly not arrive home until the next day, conceivably in a different time zone altogether.

I’ve always disliked story problems, so I was relieved when Richard solved everything by calculating that he could drive the two blocks to the dry cleaner, pick up the coat, and then take Helen to her first point of departure.

Needless to say, we later had to have the car detailed.

After moving into our new house, we parted ways with Helen. She’d have had to take twice as many busses and trains to get there, only leaving her one hour to clean before having to catch the additional busses and trains.

Years later, I stopped by Mom’s one Wednesday afternoon. As soon as my finger reached for the doorbell, I knew Helen was there because The Smell was coming from inside the house.

Helen gave me a big hug, launching my nausea ad nauseam.

She looked me up and down, and said, in the few English words she pronounced so well, I’d swear she’d had lessons from Miss Manners, herself, “You look so good! So fat!”

I smiled, said a quick, “hello” to my mother, and got the hell out of there.

After taking a shower and boiling my clothes, my mother called to try to explain that in Helen’s culture, calling someone “fat” was not meant to be offensive. It was actually a compliment that meant “you must be doing well.”

I didn’t care what Helen meant. My ego had been deflated. I’d worked really hard to only be that fat.

No matter how my mother tried to spin it, the fat was out of the bag. I think Helen seized the opportunity to get me back for the smelly coat extravaganza.

How long had Helen planned her back fat…I mean pay back?  How long had she practiced those exact words in English so she could say them to my fat face?

I am usually not one to hold grudges, but I haven’t stomped foot in my mother’s house on a Wednesday between 9:00 AM – 3:30 PM since.

Fat chance I ever will again.

*Richard’s shirts have never been dirty. He sent them out because, even after lessons from my friend Juliet, I was unable to iron them to his specifications.

There’s still time to submit words for The Mad Libs Project! Please read the blog post from February 8, 2015, and e mail your words to lesliejochase@gmail.com.


Cleanliness is Next to Richardly-ness

photo (8)When Richard and I first got married and had full-time jobs he suggested I hire a cleaning lady twice a month. Personally, I thought we did a pretty good job keeping our apartment clean, but he has always held higher cleaning standards than most biochemistry laboratories.

He learned that chocolate made me more task oriented, but there wasn’t enough Godiva produced in the world that would make me want to scrub a bathroom floor with a toothbrush.

I’ve always felt weird having someone else clean my house when I’m home, but Saturday was the only day the new cleaning service could fit us in. A van full of women pulled up outside our building and a man brought one of them up to our apartment on Hinman Ave. in Evanston (who didn’t live on Hinman Ave. in Evanston when they first got married?)

I’m pretty sure she said her name was Earwig. Since Earwig didn’t speak English well, and I didn’t speak cleaning-ish well, Richard had to explain in English what needed to be done so the man could tell Earwig in Polish.

Once I found where Richard hid them, I showed Earwig our small assortment of cleaning supplies and asked her to begin in the living room of our one-bedroom apartment. She started in the bathroom. Close enough.

I had a cold so I sat in the living room and watched Saturday morning cartoons with a mug of herbal tea and a box of tissues that matched my robe.

Suddenly we heard a loud shriek. Richard went running to the bathroom to make sure Earwig was okay, and I shuffled behind him in my puffy pink slippers. Earwig slowly emerged from the bathroom holding a once-white, now filthy-black rag. She looked at me like a dog that had just pooped on the pure silk Isfahan rug of central Persia that sold at auction for $4,450,0000 in 2008. I thought she was going to rub my nose in it, but she just said, “Missus! Oh my Got!”

Richard ran out of the room laughing as Earwig continued to lecture me while rolling her eyes, “No baby? Two people? So dirty?”

I quickly brewed fresh coffee and offered her doughnuts for the next four hours. I was afraid if I didn’t pump her full of caffeine and sugar she’d tell all the other ladies in the van on the way home what disgusting pigs we were. (I have been asked to place a disclaimer here saying this statement is in no way a reflection of Richard.)

But, I needed this woman, so I had to act fast. I shoved everything obscuring my bedroom dresser into a drawer. Then I quietly stole a rag from her bucket and snuck into the other little areas of the apartment before she did, trying to wipe away several inches of dust that had probably been there since the 1940’s.

Then, I got busted.

Earwig saw me and began walking toward me. I was frightened, Aunty Em! But all she did was smile and gently pull several dust-balls out of my hair while speaking to me in a soothing voice as if she either felt sorry for me or thought I was mentally-challenged. “Missus, you no dust. I clean. I come every two weeks.” She handed me my matchy-matchy box of Kleenex and led me back to the loveseat.

An hour later the man came to pick her up. Narrowing her eyes in a playful way, she pointed a finger at me and said, “Two weeks!”

I said, “Okay! I keep clean!” Earwig rolled her eyes and left with the man.

Just before Veronica was born we moved into a larger apartment at which point I decided I had suffered enough of the wrath of Earwig and hired my mother’s cleaning lady, Helen. I remember my mother telling a friend how difficult it was at first to communicate with Helen. Her friend said, “Don’t you speak Spanish?” My mother said, “Yes, but Helen speaks Polish.”

My mother and Richard have similar unattainable cleanliness standards, so I didn’t have to pretend to know what needed to be done. The hard part for me was having Helen at our apartment for seven hours while I tried to write freelance articles, take care of Veronica, and follow Helen around with coffee, scones, and the occasional soufflé.

The minute I became pregnant with Lucas I was so nauseated and dehydrated I couldn’t move. I’d felt the same way when I was pregnant with Veronica, too, but now I had a “spirited” child to care for and non-stop waves of nausea.

This was not a time to follow someone around with pastries. We had to let Helen go in order to be able to afford a personal assistant for Veronica so I could lie in a dark room trying not to revisit the juice from the grape I’d just sucked. But I did finally reach my Weight Watchers goal weight!

A few months after Lucas was born we bought a house and I decided it was time for a clean start with housekeeping. My friend recommended “The Lightning”: three people who buzzed in and out in one hour leaving the house squeaky clean.

Helen still worked for my mother on Wednesdays so I brought the kids over to see her one day. When she saw me, Helen said, “Oh! You beautiful!”

I blushed.

“So big and fat!”

I left and haven’t visited my parents on a Wednesday since.

Once when “The Lightning” was at our house I went into the bathroom and began to unzip my pants. Out of the corner of my eye I saw someone in the shower stall. I zipped back up and opened the shower door where I found one of  the lightnings scrubbing mildew. Because there were three of them it was hard to keep track of who was where. I said, “I’m so sorry! I didn’t know you were in here!” She said, “Iz fine. No prrroblem.”

“No prrroblem?” Did that mean she planned to just keep cleaning the shower stall while I tinkled? Iz prrroblem for me.

When our kids were older Richard instructed them (and me) on the proper way to clean a bathroom and make a bed. He received a trophy, complete with an engraved inscription, during a special camp ceremony congratulating him for achieving the highest honors ever awarded at camp during cabin inspection — every year—beginning at 11-years-old.

He learned at an early age how to sanitize bathrooms and make beds quickly because his grandfather built and operated The Rio Motel on Lincoln Ave. in Chicago. It was called a “no- tell motel” because people checked in for an hour or two at a time. All four grandchildren became efficient help because, as my brother-in-law David recalls, “We had a 400% occupancy rate every day!”

A few years ago we hired a woman named Blanca who my friend Rosa recommended. She is Disneyland packed into a five-foot tall woman with a perpetual smile. She’s the happiest person on earth.

Since I’ve decided to write full-time my office is filled with file folders, inside and out of file drawers, open bags of Gummy Bears, and a few days’ worth of coffee mugs I forgot to put into the dishwasher. There are napkins and scraps of paper towels on which I’ve scribbled story ideas, two dog beds, 503 dog toys and a drum set I swear I am going to learn to play someday. Every week Blanca asks if she can clean my office, and every week I answer, “next week!”

I kept my promise last week and her impossibly big smile got even bigger. She was so happy it was as if she had won the lottery at a surprise party I’d thrown in her honor. (Please see photo above.) I didn’t put everything away as much as I threw it all into a big laundry basket and picked it up off the floor, but the effect was the same.

I vow to respect, honor, cherish, and obey Blanca, in sickness and in health, for as long as we both shall live… and as long as she’ll have me. Plus she always tells me how beautiful and thin I look.