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
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
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
-“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
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
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
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
“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
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
Then, both could realize that it was the best solution for them,
But, on that day, at
least, for Mrs. Baum, being seventy seemed to be a capital sin.
Sayings on the billboard at First Unitarian
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.
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