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Housekeeping chronicles

Novdec Lunaticloung

Dashing from room to room, I tried to ignore the band of my underwear, which had twisted itself into an infinity loop. The button on my jeans was a part of this mess, and I’m grateful my shirt was long enough to cover the frenzy bunching of cloth happening at my waist. I had three minutes left to finish cleaning this apartment, and I still had to mop the kitchen floor; there was no time for fashion adjustments. 

This clothing mishap is just another to add to the disaster pile that was my life. I just moved back home from Chicago after completing the comedy writing program at the famed Second City training center. I intended it to be a one-way move, but, after months of not finding a job, I had no choice but to come back home. My sister had moved with me and was not interested in coming back. I was jobless, penniless, and, for the first time in my life, sister-less. 

My sister and I cleaned houses for extra money in high school. We kept it as a side hustle to pay for college, then developed it into a full-blown business after graduating. We ran it successfully for seven years, until I wanted to do more with my writing and moved to Chicago. I fell back on cleaning once I returned home, because I was out of money and needed something fast. I got a job at a senior living community as a housekeeper, cleaning eight small apartments a day. I was used to cleaning mansions on the beach, so an apartment was small potatoes. Or it would have been if I still had my sister, who cleaned bathrooms and kitchens while I did living rooms, bedrooms, and all the vacuuming. Now, every task fell on me. Time schedules for each apartment were unreasonable, my anxiety was spiking, and my morale was nonexistent. 

I was in foreign territory dealing with seniors. Some had cognitive issues: Alzheimer’s, dementia, effects from a stroke. Some had physical ailments others had attitude problems: they were demanding, petulant, and entitled. Working with seniors is delicate emotional territory; it requires spades of patience and is a job not everyone can do. I had additional social challenges as well. I had to get comfortable walking into a stranger’s home, negotiating expectations, doing the daily chitchat. My more outgoing sister used to do that stuff; she was also the only person I ever worked with, so having coworkers was new to me. I was on a steep learning curve at work and completely in the weeds in every other aspect of life. Some mornings, I’d drive to work (in a truck I had to borrow from my dad) with my head in a fog. I was despondent, feeling abandoned by my writing, and convinced I’d be a housekeeper for the rest of my life. My dad didn’t see it that way. He’d give me little pep talks when I told him about struggles on the job. “Think of all the people, all the stories you can write about!” 

I remember almost nothing about the first six months on that job. But I remember the day it all turned around. I was in a rush to dust the legs of a coffee table and laid down on the floor—physically and metaphorically as low as I could go a small move that made me contemplate my existence. “If I crawl far enough underneath,” I thought, hiking up my insubordinate underwear, “I can disappear forever.” My wallowing was interrupted by my resident. She had limited mobility and watched from the couch as I scrambled. “I would give anything to trade places with you.” A statement so honest and forlorn it stopped me in my tracks. Until then, I saw my residents as passive recipients of a service I begrudgingly provided. (And the abysmal pay certainly made it feel like charity.) But her comment was the lightbulb moment when I began to see fully dimensional human beings, with interests and curiosities just like me. I began to learn about who they were. Some told me about their families. One resident was trying to write a memoir, and English was her second language, so she’d ask about certain words and if she was using them properly. One former professor quizzed me on current events as soon as I walked in. He loved big vocabulary words; the day I described Bernie Sanders as “cantankerous” I thought he’d burst into tears.

I was fascinated with the unique challenges of aging and how they were handled. Some took it all in stride, cracking jokes along the way. One week, I caught a resident unprepared for her cleaning, eating chips in her recliner as I announced myself. She looked at all the crumbs surrounding her and panicked. “Oh no,” she shrieked. “Caught like a rat in a trap!” Another resident told me about his upcoming sixty-fifth wedding anniversary: “And they said it wouldn’t last!” He then quietly answered himself, “and six times…they were almost right.” We both cackled as he winked at me and walked away. The ones who maintained their humor were the ones I studied, hoping to unlock their secret to aging with grace and kindness. 

Eventually, the residents started their own magazine and word got around that I was a writer, so they asked me to contribute. My first small step back into writing. As the editor read one of my pieces, his face lit up. “You know, that Harry Potter lady got a late start. There’s always hope for you, kid.” 

For so long, I resented being a housekeeper, thinking my life in service kept me from a life in writing. Really, life in service enhanced my writing. Housekeeping brought me to working with seniors, something I loved then and still do now. It galvanized the lesson that giving is not only the best way to receive—giving can produce the best kind of stories, contorted undergarments and all.

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