Leonina Heringer

Vignettes from a collection titled
“We, the new people”
Read these vignettes in Portuguese


Things to do

          To get to the fourth floor of that building in the shape of a long box in the vertical position, with balconies like drawers in each apartment, downtown Boston, I just had to tell my name to the concierge at the desk in the lobby and he’d allow me to the elevator. The hard part was knocking at the apartment door. “I take sinus medicines; so if I don’t hear the bell, please, knock hard”, the owner had told me. Sometimes it would take me half an hour standing there, knock, knocking, till the pleasant man in his mid thirties would come, eyes swollen by the day sleeping, to greet me at the door. The door itself took some time to be opened. It had about three latches, a cross bar and a couple of chains, besides the normal lock. I could say this was quite a secure place. The guy co-owned a nightclub on the Fenway, which explained his day sleeping. He often traveled to Florida on business and was generous to me. The price I had given him for cleaning the whole apartment was forty-five dollars, but sometimes he’d give me sixty or even ninety dollars and most of the time he’d say “clean just the bathroom and the kitchen”, or “just the kitchen, bathroom and the living room”, where there was a beautiful salt water aquarium with exotic fish. Sometimes he would use the word “skip”, which was new for me at first, but that I soon learned the meaning of. “Skip the living room”, or any other part of the house. I liked the skipping game, maybe a way he found to compensate my knuckles for having knocked so muck in order to wake him up.
          At one point, I also cleaned his sister’s apartment on the ninth floor. It made things a lot easier for she’d wake him up for me. But, as soon as her apartment was in a decent shape, she told me to wait until she called me, and then never did.
          Still, I was happy to knock-knock on the guy’s door. At the time, I was starting my career as a house cleaner; the money wasn’t bad, plus there were not many houses where they’d tell me to skip this or skip that. The guy was pleasant to work for, always thanking me for my good job. And there’s nothing that’s more encouraging to a beginner, than the words “good job”.
          But he had his mood swings. One day, I heard him screaming at his young roommate, a handsome guy who looked about nineteen. “You like the money, don’t you?” I was surprised and a little scared. Then one of my friends advised me that chains and bars on the door were not a good sign, but I was a though girl. I wouldn’t get scared so easily. The fact that I had to knock hard on the guy’s door was a bit of an inconvenience, also. But what were my knuckles meant for, but for knocking?
          One day, I even got to clean the man’s bedroom. It was a nice bedroom, but a mess, a real challenge. Yet what can please a house cleaner more than a messy place where she can show her guts to clean? The bigger the challenge, the bigger the adrenaline rush you get from it. So, I promised it would be a new bedroom that day, after I cleaned it. I started on the blinds (had they ever been opened? I doubt they were). Nobody would see the dust anyway, living like an “owl”, sleeping all day.
          I got the lamps, the baseboards, even under the bed. Gee, how could someone hide so many things under the bed? Videos and magazines galore… and how could they be so “dirty”? I was in my thirties and had never seen so much. Not that I wasn’t familiar with the Hugh Hefner publications and the likes. But this was really gross, especially a “black on white” series of pictures on a magazine. For a moment I thought if the guy would want me to get that deep in the cleaning… I was dizzy…
          I decided not to take everything out from under the bed. I’d be embarrassed if either of the two guys would come and see me handling this. I moved on to clean the mirror on his dresser. There, in the upper corner of the mirror, I spotted a “to do list”. It was neatly handwritten. It said, among other things: “Pray more, visit mom and dad more often…” My heart just melted for that guy.
          Unfortunately, after a while, my knock, knock seemed to have lost its power. I’d knock until my knuckles were red, but nobody would come to open the door. I waited for the guy to call me, but he never did. I even called and left messages to no avail.
          I decided to make my own list of “things to do”. It started with “Pray more…”

The Power of Prayer

          Seeing the blue lights of the police car in his rearview mirror, Antonio Serafin felt a chill on his spine. Where had that cop come from?
          -“I’m dead”, he thought. He was late for work, so he had crossed on the yellow, but the yellow had turned red while he was in the intersection.
          He pulled over and reached for the glove compartment to get the car registration. The cop approached his window and asked solemnly: "Do you know why I stopped you?" Antonio didn’t dare to respond not even to look up; he just nodded yes. "Can I see your driver’s license and registration, please?" With hands trembling, Antonio handed over the car’s registration and the only personal identification he had with him: an international driver’s license he had gotten at a notary public on Main Street. He knew it wasn’t a valid document, but, in the past, it had fooled policemen. Or maybe, the cops were instructed to just ignore the fact that they were just bogus documents. The cop took a look at the driver’s license and explained to him that it was not a valid driver’s license, so he was driving without a license. Furthermore, it was a fake one, which was even a worse crime. Antonio nodded again, his head about to explode. The word crime wasn’t one he was accustomed to. He had always thought of himself as an honest, hardworking person, like most undocumented immigrants who couldn’t get a driver’s license. In the rear mirror, he watched in distress as the cop slowly walked back to the police car.
          Waiting while the cop checked his records on the computer was torture for Antonio. It seemed that all passersby were staring at him. Worse yet, he knew what was going to happen when the cop accessed his records. He had been caught crossing the Mexican border and released on the promise that he’d show up for the court hearing, but never did. The same thing had happened to his cousin, stopped at a traffic violation, he had come to the attention of Immigration and been deported.
While he waited, Antonio called three of his friends on his cell phone and asked them to pray for him. Antonio had been in a church once since his arrival in the US, brought by a friend who said that church was the best place to find work. You spread the word and soon there's someone who either hires you or refers you to someone else. Church was where Antonio had gotten his first job in America, in demolition. He went from there to become a contractor himself. His business was doing great, he had plenty of work; he wasn’t ready to go back to Brazil, not yet. His wife and children were there and he sent money every month.
          Antonio hadn’t prayed for years. But he closed his eyes, took a deep breath and asked with all the ardor of his heart he was able to gather: Lord, please, help me! After a while, he saw the cop coming back from his car. Out of the corner of his eyes, Antonio could see the ticket in the man’s hand.
          "Mr. Serafin, are you on your way to 34 Holland Street, aren't you?" Antonio wondered if this cop was also a psychic. Or could it be that just by looking at the computer and checking the registration of his car, he could track Antonio’s comings and goings?"
          "Yes", he mumbled.
          "Don’t you recognize me, Tony?" the cop asked, taking off his hat. "You’re working at my house. I gave you a ticket for traffic violation, but I’m not calling the Immigration on you. Please, don't miss the court date this time. Now, you can go to work, you’re already late. I’ll meet you there when I finish my shift.
          Antonio took another deep breath, this time very relieved. It was as if a rock weighing several tons had been lifted from his back. His fate was a lot better than his cousin's and of a thousand others.
          He bowed down before leaving and prayed, thanking God that all had been just a big fright and a ticket. From that day on, he'd wait for the green sign even if he had to lose all day in traffic or wake up one hour earlier to get to his destination. And, sure, he’d find a church to attend. And not leave prayers just for time of crisis.


Catch up on the ketchup

                Maria and her husband Juvercino are Brazilian immigrants, who work as caretakers of several houses in Martha's Vineyard, including the house where they live year round with their two children. The house is owned by a lady from New York, Ms. Brainner, who writes biographies of famous people. In winter, there’s not much to do; the houses are empty. But in the summer, Juvercino works in construction also, so, both are quite busy. A few summers ago, they were caught off guard when the owner of the house, Ms. Brainner, who usually comes in July, arrived a few weeks earlier with a short notice and the house wasn't quite ready for her. Maria and her husband had fallen a little behind on their household chores. The owner advised Maria that she had a lot to catch up on in the cleaning of the house. Maria, in spite of living in the US for many years, didn't understand everything that was said in English. After listening to the whole discourse, she extracted only one thing from all that was said: Catch up. She actually became very upset by the expression. She thought to herself that the lady wasn't being fair with her. "With all the things I have to do around the house, now she wants me to make ketchup..." She called her husband’s cell phone to get his advice. “If she wants you to make ketchup”, Juvercino said, “…then do it.”
          Maria had never made ketchup before, not even had a recipe for it... But, her husband was right, if that was what her boss wanted, that was what she was going to do. So, she left the deck chairs she was washing and headed to the supermarket for three pounds of ripe tomatoes. Once there, though, she remembered her boss injunction “a lot ketchup”, so she kept adding to the bag and came home with six pounds of tomatoes.
          After washing the tomatoes, she chopped them in big chunks, put them in a kettle, brought it to a boil and cooked them for about fifteen minutes. Then, she put it in a blender to smash it and passed it through a sieve to get rid of peels and seeds. Then, she consulted at the small bottle of ketchup in the fridge, to figure out the other ingredients that go into the making of ketchup. Tomatoes, salt, vinegar, corn syrup, onion powder and spices. She was in luck. They had corn syrup for pancakes, vinegar, onion powder and plenty of spices in the cupboard. What she wasn’t prepared for was the time she had to spend, stirring the watery and bubbly mixture in the stove. After more than one hour, the sauce still hadn’t thickened. Maria just realized how grateful she was for those bottles of ketchup she bought at the supermarket. Was her boss going to want everything made from scratch from now on? Imagine if she had to make the pickles, the mayonnaise, or fresh homemade buns every morning... That would be too much...
          At around 1:30 in the afternoon, her boss returned from the beach, to find the household chores still not done. The deck chairs Maria was washing when she left were there with soap in them. Yet, the house smelled good; there was a sweet aroma coming from the kitchen and a very hot and sweating Maria stirring into a pan over the stove . "Maria, what are you doing?" she asked. "I’m making ketchup." "Ketchup?" "yeah...", Maria answered sheepishly. Then, Ms. Brainner took a spoon in a drawer and went straight to the stove, She caught a tinny bit of the mixture and put it into her mouth. It was delicious, but what she needed was that Maria finished cleaning the house. And opening the refrigerator, she said: "Maria, there's ketchup here on the fridge..." handling the plastic bottle to her.
          Well, now Maria was more confused than ever. Ms. Brainner seemed to have liked her ketchup, but, in fact, she hadn’t. After her boss left, shaking her head and went to the bathroom to take a shower, Maria called her husband again to say to him that she had done everything possible to make the best-tasting ketchup she could, but Ms. Brainner didn’t like it. However, her husband was sure she hadn't tried hard enough, “Maria, you don't know how to make ketchup”, he said scornfully. "You should practice and learn how to make it better".
          What neither realized, of course, was that Maria needed to catch up on the English lessons she had begun, and then abandoned because she had gotten too busy working.

“Being seventy…”

          My cousin Mariza was just nineteen years old in 1987 and far away from home for the first time in her life. She had come from Brazil two months after me, and we were living together, just the two of us and another girl, Ana. No wonder she bonded so much with the people she worked for, like this old Jewish lady, Mrs. Baum, who emigrated from Eastern Europe and lived in Newtonville. The house was a two family, two small side by side apartments, each with a living room, kitchen, a den, two bedrooms, a bathroom and another small room that could be an office or a bedroom, but hers, was transformed into an improvised second bathroom, with no sink or toilet bowl, just a shower stall. Her son had seizures and it was dangerous for him to use a bath tub.
          Mariza cleaned the apartment just once a month. Mrs. Baum had a very fancy vacuum cleaner, the ones that are self-propelled (which I don’t particularly like, but Mariza did). She worked for several wealthy families, who owned such awful vacuum cleaners and told Mrs. Baum what a nice machine she had. The lady answered that they weren’t wealthy enough to afford to buy bad quality appliances. Mrs. Baum was in her late seventies, but didn’t need much help; she was still very active. Her son was in his early forties, lived with her and worked at Lord&Taylor, in spite of being epileptic. He hardly ever had to miss work, for he took medication that controlled the disease. He was also diabetic and there was a series of stuff he couldn’t eat. She cooked a special diet for him.
          Now, the two married daughters had made her sell the house in order to move to a nursing home. So, she called our house and left three messages in a row for Mariza. Her voice hoarse and trembling, as if she had already cried, she asked her to go to her house, although it was not the regular cleaning day.
          Mariza hurried there. Mrs. Baum needed help packing, labeling clothes and personal belongings, selecting the least of things to bring to her new dwelling in Roslindale. Tears fell copiously from her swollen eyes. How could the daughters do that to her?
          After all, Mrs. Baum and her husband had such a hard time raising their children, being immigrants, speaking very little English and working odd jobs, in order to buy a decent house in a good neighborhood and give them a good education.
          “Life would be very dull without the cooking my son appreciates so much and he’ll miss it, he will…" She told Mariza.
          The old lady went slowly through her closet, putting dresses aside as if touching something sacred, discarding just a few of them. The daughter, a stern woman in her late forties, inspected the ones she selected and shouted, “Why take a dozen of them, if three are enough? Furthermore, they are old and only good for the trash.” “Kitchen utensils? She won’t need any there.” The daughter puts everything in boxes and plastic bags to go away, probably to a charity place.
          “No, this one I want…” The old lady tried, with no success, to rescue some of her favorites, to only have the daughter take them abruptly from her hands. When the mailman came, she offered him the dog, saying they needed a good family to take care of the animal.
          Mariza wanted to help, trying to make the situation a little easier. “At least you can bring your plants.”
          “No, dear, I can only bring three of them. If you want, you can take some to your home.”
          The daughter just wished to empty the place as soon as possible, for she had a deadline on the closing of the house. She handled the situation with cold steeliness, like an official of justice accomplishing a mandate from a judge, in a stranger’s house. Or, maybe, she was really concerned that, in a few years, her mother wouldn't be able to care for herself, her brother wouldn't be able to do that either, and they had better move now rather than later. But Mariza thought she just wanted the money from the house.
          “I like this house so much!!!” The old lady murmured softly to Mariza, so that her daughter wouldn't hear it.
          “How about your son?” Mariza asked.
          “He’s going to a special place also. Do you promise to go there to the nursing home to visit me?”
          “Yes, of course…” Mariza replied.
          The old lady was about to give Mariza her new address, but the daughter reprimanded her, saying she’d take care of that. (But she never did).
          When Mariza was about to leave, Mrs. Baum took her wallet in order to pay her. “You don’t have to pay for this visit," she told the old lady. Then, the two of them embraced each other, but it was a brief hug, for fear that the daughter would see it.
          That day, not far from there, at the First Unitarian Universalist Society of Newton, on the stone walled building, the sign posted outside, where they had interesting quotations they changed from time to time, read “Being seventy isn’t a sin.”
          Maybe for others, maybe for Mrs. Baum, after she got used to the new place and made friends there, and after her son also adapted to his new life at the special place.
Then, both could realize that it was the best solution for them, after all.
          But, on that day, at least, for Mrs. Baum, being seventy seemed to be a capital sin.

Sayings on the billboard at First Unitarian Universalist Society:

Dec/10/2010- “Always try to be a little kinder than necessary.”
April/01/2011 - “We get our living by what we get. We get our life by what we give.”

Copyright © 2013 Leonina Heringer
Leonina Fortunato Heringer was born in Brazil in 1953 and immigrated to the US in 1986. She is the author of "Contestado," a genre called String Literature, peculiar to the Northeast of Brazil, in which stories are written in verses and the brochures hung in strings in the streets. She also has participated in several anthologies of poetry, including "Poetas de Hoje", Editora Shogun Artes, Rio de Janeiro, in 1983; Vozes Submersas, a collection of poetry by poets of Portuguese speaking living in New England (from Portugal, Brazil, Mozambique, Angola and Cape Verde), published in Boston in 1990 and "City River of Voices" (with American poets), published in Cambridge in 1991.
For many years, she has  had a literary column in the Brazilian Times (Boston) in which she published famous poets, her own and reader’s poems. In addition she had a little corner called "Essa Vida Americana," a collection of immigrants experiences, mostly humorous stuff (many years before the starting of "This American Life" on NPR), which nowadays appears on “Bate Papo Magazine” (page 28)
She has won several awards in Brazil and was the recipient of a "2005 Cultural Heritage Grant Award" of the Somerville Arts Council for her autobiographical stories: “At home away from home - How a lawyer and teacher became a housecleaner in the United States”.

She also has been participating in many community causes, although, unofficially because of her immigration status.  She is on the Board of Directors of Abundant Life Counseling Center, in Cambridge and has worked with the Somerville Board of Health in the campaign against bedbugs, including the production of an educational video about "Bedbugs" with other members of Greater Boston Bedbug Task Force, in collaboration with Somerville Community Access Television.

Her latest work is a childhood memoir called “Cidade dos Vagalumes," which is published on a blog: