Letters To My Mother
Letters To My Mother Podcast
Old in the Service of the Young

Old in the Service of the Young

Or are we. Except I’m not that old yet. Old enough to be able to tell you stories about being young. Old enough to know better and still young enough to have real hopes and dreams.

The news flash is that just because I am older does not mean that I have stopped learning. It just means that I have stopped learning indiscriminately. Now I choose what I learn and actually choose what I teach too.

So many of the precious lessons we have collected and wrapped and offer, when requested, are old. Old as the proverbial hills. They are stories that come around again and again like wars and dangerous power plays.

So, how am I still living in a society that equates value with earnings.

Think about this for a minute. If we only ever listen to the people with the biggest earnings, and the most votes, and the highest polls, the most likes, and thousands of reviews how are we really going to learn. We are caught in a maelstrom of sameness.

And still we pigeon hole people - what is a pigeon hole anyway. My uncle used to have pigeons and when they arrived home after a flight they went through a door that only went one way - it had hanging sticks that could only be pushed inwards, their pigeon hole was a one way thing. Once they went through they were trapped. To pigeon hole a person is wrong.

I recently offered to help a young lady I know clean a great big tractor dealership, a facility for selling and maintaining harvest equipment. She was cleaning two evenings a week finishing around ten at night. The facility is all by itself out in the country and so big she became worried for her personal safety cleaning out there alone. Leaving at the same time each evening, hands full of paraphernalia. Walking out into the dark.

So I offered to come help her on those evenings - winter is coming and it is very dark out here in the night. In the country.

When I arrived for my second night cleaning with her - the door had been locked and she was unable to get in. Evidently the workshops had closed early because of the rain. It is harvest time. Though how that all works together defeats me. I arrived with two minutes to spare and she told me her boss had called the manager to come back and open the door for us. Evidently he lived close by.

Apparently she did not have her own key because - well - you know - security. Even though she worked in there alone after all the tractor men had gone home.

It is fall. Autumn. Not too cold yet but the night was wet. And dark. Thick with low clouds. Getting darker as we waited. We unpacked all the cleaning apparatus and rags and buckets of supplies while there was still light in the carpark and went to stand by the back door under a tiny amount of cover and one small light bulb; to wait.

We chatted - checked our phones - I thought about emptying one of the cleaning buckets, upending it and sitting on it. But surely he would be here soon.

After twenty five minutes a truck pulled in at speed and out jumped a handsome young guy probably late thirties, the manager apparently - his jeans fit very well and he wore those cowboy boots that the Midwest boys wear wishing they were cowboys but without the horses. He had a full head of black hair and slung himself from the truck with an enviable fluid control of all his long young limbs. He would be described by an older friend I have out here as a ‘long cool drink of water’. An expression I have yet to decipher never having been that parched for a man.

He threw open the door, stepped briskly down from his truck, his phone clasped between his ear and his shoulder. He stalked up the path, leaving the truck door swinging open, his boots clicking on the concrete, he was obviously going to play the part of the very busy man.

Watch this, I said to my young friend.

He will not even see us here.

Narry a word will be spoke. He is a very busy and a very important person.

His long legs striding out with confidence were at odds with his head twisted to the side into his raised shoulder to keep his ear plastered to the cell phone. Part giraffe. Part crab. I bit my lips together not to laugh. He was making hmm mm noises as he rushed over to where we stood all alone in the dark surrounded in bags of rags and mops and vacuum cleaners. Using both hands he flicked through his bunch of keys to find the right one - leaned through us into the door, unlocked it with one hand while reaching up for his phone with the other and as he pulled the key back out I moved from the wall to grab the handle and open the door. As his key pulled out of the lock his body reversed right back out, without a nod or a smile or a word. And I would have seen a nod or a smile or a word because I was watching his good looking face very closely to see if my old self had judged him right. No eyes.

He was half way back down the path before I had a chance to call out Thank You, so much (loudly), bad mannered git (softly, under my breath).

I wanted to have not helped him out, I wished I had remained leaning my shoulders against the wall. I wanted a scarf tied up around my head and bright red lipstick and to be taking a long slow drag on a smoke watching him through slanted eyes before smiling knowingly and teaching him some manners.

That kind of behaviour makes me want to misbehave. As I pushed myself off the wall to grab the door handle this boy/man, he knew I would do this. He knew I would catch the door so as not to be locked out again. He was only there to twist the key not to open the door for us.

My body swung back round to catch him, to cup the phone off his ear, to have a word, but this was my friends job. Having me revert to my fishwife origins with language to match would not help her.

My young friend grabbed the door before I let it fly shut again.

Because you know the saying - men are afraid women will laugh at them but women are afraid men will kill them. And it was dark and we were all alone out there.

So I heaved up my share of the cleaning stuff and followed her into the empty building. This story I am writing already constructing itself in my head.

I had met this boy before. And all through the decades he has not changed.

I bet he would not be able to pick us out in a line up. The cleaners. When was he taught that the people who clean his floors are not worthy of a word. He does not realize yet that without us he would be knee deep in his own filth. I hoped he would wake up soon. He is missing out on some pretty cool stuff locked down in his perfect little safe world mumbling into his phone.

I have always believed that there is a time in our lives - when we wake up to life. For me this happened when I was about 26. I already had five children and was facing down a dying mother and a ruined marriage. Out of nowhere, all at once, all the experiences of my life to that date coalesced into a well balanced meal of revelations. I survived that and in fact thrived and learned through that period. I have gone back to sleep every now and then over this last how ever many decades but I have seen some people - safely, sleep walk through their whole lives. They believe that fear is a fair companion. That fear will keep them safe. But fear is not your friend. Fear is your enemy. Safety is your enemy. Anxiety is good. It is fuel. Embrace it. See us.

To stay asleep and safe holding the people around you at arms length in their predetermined roles (roles you might imagine for them) and leave them twirling in flight patterns that remain unchanged for years does not serve us well at all, my friends.

Lessons in humility are like this too. They strengthen us. They are good for us.

I choose to help my friend clean that big showroom and the mens huge toilets and the little one for women. I see it as paid exercise actually. Mopping an acre of floor gives the belly muscles an excellent work out. Not to mention the steps. And my lady arms. But as we work in the silence of a humble job such as cleaning be careful not to judge us as unworthy of a smile or a word or even ( god help us all) a thank you. Because our service people are just as essential as those who have big names and big egos and are the big news.

We are not invisible you know - we are actually here in the room with you cleaning up after you.

I know he was checking his security tapes in the morning to make sure we didn’t touch his stuff but did he look at our faces?

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When I was first selected to go to the USA as an exchange student in 1977 (this story) my family was presented with a bill. You may be the cleverest in your class but these places are not free you know. Thousands of dollars had to be found from somewhere and later I discovered that a friend of my fathers - a woman from his church sponsored me anonymously paying the majority of that invoice.

But I also had to work after school and in the school holidays to raise as much as I could towards it. Which led me to my first job as a cleaner in a private surgical hospital at age sixteen.

The ward that I cleaned was beautifully designed in a circle so every room had a view of the park.

My job was to clean each room thoroughly each day whether it was occupied or not. I had a cleaners cupboard all of my own with a low sink and hot water and this is where I kept my cleaning trolley and mop and bucket. I hung my coat here and changed from a loud teenage girl into a cleaner no one noticed.

I remember being very aware that I did not have the right shoes for the job. We only ever had two pairs of shoes. We had black lace ups for school and church and netball boots for sports. Roman sandals in the summer.

I chose to work in my black school lace up shoes. The hospital gave me a uniform and I changed in my cupboard. I need not have worried. Except for the other women who cleaned and cooked and served (and we were all women) no one noticed me at all.

Every morning cook made the most beautiful hot griddle sandwiches. All the left overs were finely chopped on her huge chopping board, placed between two thin slices of buttered bread, the crusts were cut off then these tiny sandwiches were scorched on a hot plate. My favorite was onion and cheese. These were taken out to each room on the tea trolley. Dispensed by the tea lady. Even though the patients in the wards changed frequently she knew everyones name and how they had their tea and whether they liked cookies or a hot sandwich. She also memorised how their visitors took their tea as well. She never faltered in her service of dispensing hot drinks three times a day. Her memory was incredible. Yet she was just the tea lady.

The tea lady always made sure to pop a plate of left over hot grilled sandwiches and a cup of hot milky tea into my cleaners cupboard after she had done her rounds. She kept me the cheese and onion ones which are still my favorite.

I tell you this to show how the service people there looked after each other and especially looked after this teenager. Even though her work and mine were not highly paid and everyone worked around us, we were essential.

There was a small admin wing that had none of the prettiness of the wards but I cleaned this too and was wending my way through the offices when a well dressed man in a suit appeared through the connecting door.

Is there anyone here, he called out.

I was holding the handles of a huge orbital floor polisher. This machine was as big as me, the spinning foot was about three feet wide and swerved at will. It literally took body weight and balance to keep it under control. The moment you engaged the spinning polish wheel it flew out and into the nearest wall. You had to brace yourself well and work right on the edge of being out of control the whole time. Sometimes it literally pulled me airborne. Naturally I loved it. Though I was given a wide berth when I worked with the polisher.

Even though the polisher was out to kill me I loved the satisfaction of a perfectly polished floor, I loved how powerful it felt to control such a beast.

Everyone in administration had left for the day so I was cleaning their offices. The first thing I did was grab all the little paper bins and empty them, into the big bin on my trolley, then leave the clean bin outside each office on the wooden handrail attached to the wall. The last thing I did in each office was place the empty and cleaned bin (we did not use bin liners in those days) back beside the desk; this is how I knew the room was finished.

I watched this man from behind my polisher, I watched him look around, importantly, quickly, busily, straight past me. Then through me. I had my mouth open and my head slightly up to return his greeting and answer his question when he caught my eye. But he didn’t. He only said something to himself about everyone must have gone home early then pulled a tiny cake from the brown paper bag in his hand, tossed it into his mouth, balled up the brown paper bag and threw that at a little bin I had just emptied leaving a trail of Hansel and Gretel crumbs, then he turned and just walked straight back out the door. The little paper bin wobbled on its handrail and crashed to the floor in his wake.

The door swung slowly shut after him and closed with a tiny click.

I looked at my reflection in the big glass windows. And raised my eyebrows at myself. I was invisible.

I walked to the little bin and picked it up and emptied it again into the big bin on my trolley. I dusted it again with my bin cloth then replaced it again, like a little sentinel back on the hand rail outside the partially finished office. Then went back to my polisher.

As I worked I realized with sudden teenage clarity that this person thought that by throwing his rubbish into the bin he had finished with it. It disappeared from his mind. He never thought of the hands that emptied the little bin into the big bin, then the hands that took the big bin to the skip outside and the person in the truck who collected the skip and took it away to the dump, the person at the dump with the bulldozer. And on and on. There was no thought past ridding himself of that brown paper bag into the nearest receptacle and leaving.

And he did not even notice this little girl behind a huge industrial polisher who with a flick of a switch could have polished him all up.

I was at a Starbucks in California a while ago. I had my little coffee cup in my hand and as I approached the Starbucks door I heard a rumble behind me. Along the footpath was coming a young man pushing a huge wheelie bin. I looked at him, he slowed down to let me in the door ahead of him.

Oh no, I said.

I opened the door backing out onto the footpath and opened it as wide as it would go and stepped behind the door to wave him through. I know what it is like to try and get anything through those heavy swinging doors.

HIs head came up, his eyes straight to mine and we smiled at each other, we saw each other, he nodded his thanks as he gratefully and easily wheeled the bin back into the shop and through the gap and out the back. I hitched my bag further up my shoulder and followed him in.

I stood in line and was met with the same man a few minutes later as he dried his freshly washed hands, pulled on his black apron and took my little ceramic cup. He made an excellent piccolo latte, too.

So, next time you have a chance to pass by the cleaner or the door man or the dishwasher, or the server, or the man bussing your table or a fellow pushing a big bin through a reluctant door. See them. Smile.

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One of the most important things you can do in all your life is see a person fully. And let her know you saw her. And let her know her value.

Hands up who has worked as a waiter or a bartender or a cleaner or washed dishes in a restaurant. Now, hands up who would do it again.

Me too.

Letters To My Mother
Letters To My Mother Podcast
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