The Day Grace Came

What enlightened employers, I thought when I heard that their domestic worker lived in their house with them, and not in servant’s quarters. Now their parents were coming from overseas for a two-week holiday, so they were booking her into our Air BnB round the corner for that time. They forgot to mention her name.

She stepped out of her employers’ car on arrival, huge and stately, carrying herself with aplomb. Her hair was beautifully plaited and arranged mainly on one side of her head. In South Africa one needs to mention – none of them was white. When I stepped towards her, she touched my shoulder and inclined her head towards me. I felt an enormous need for acceptance, warmth. Her name was Grace.

Two days passed, and I didn’t see her. She was gone when I got up at 7, and came home after I’d taken Irang out for her last wee walk at 9pm. When she came home on the third day, still looking groomed, I mentioned that she was working hard. “Yes, my schedule is hectic,” she smiled, so dignified. Hectic? I thought. It’s exploitive, and now I know why they want you in the house. But I bit my tongue because I’m running the BnB for someone else. Don’t stir.

The next day Puseletso, our house helper two days a week, was scheduled to clean that room and change the sheets and towels. However, she came to me to announce, “I can’t clean that room. It’s too untidy. Clothes everywhere. And she’s only slept on the sheets for two nights, so she’s all right.” Now Puseletso is experienced and I’m a stand-in. Also, when I’m taken by surprise, I tend to react on the lenient side, a fact which my children exploited brilliantly. So I didn’t say, No it’s three nights, or Let me check with the owner. I said, “Oh. All right then.”

The next cleaning day was Thursday, which was Human Rights Day. Puseletso would not be working, of course, but of course Grace was. So I was on cleaning duty, and when I went into Grace’s room, I saw what Puselesto had meant. It looked as if a bomb had hit it, but I tackled it with determination. Pick up one tissue at a time, I thought. Fold the clothes and put them in piles on the desk – blouses, underwear, socks.. The really dirty clothes were in the laundry basket – it was full. I didn’t think about it. Too much to do. Ah, here’s the lid for that open jar of cream. Ah, this must be the net that keeps her gorgeous hair in place while she is sleeping. Another plastic shopping bag with left-over KFC. It was clear to me that she took all her rage out on her own body. I told myself not to judge. With hours like that, all she could do was eat take-aways for comfort and drop into bed to sleep at night.

Eventually the towels and linen were on the washing line and I could vacuum and dust. I brought the fresh sheets and made the bed; replaced the towels. Now that looks welcoming, I thought. She deserves it.

Then my eye fell on the corner of the laundry basket sticking out from under the bed. Our policy is that guests may use the washing machine. We show them the ropes, and it’s over to them. That works well with vacationing Parisians, but when would I show her? When would she do it? I remembered my childhood – there was always a black woman to pick up after me, do our laundry, cook our dinners… Mom never expected them to work hours like Grace’s, and we were taught to be respectful and say please and thank you. Big deal. Where were her kids? I had never asked. And this was Human Rights Day.

I took the basket to the scullery and put on another load of washing, hung it out and folded it neatly when it was dry. Thank you for the chance to pay it forward for one day. I hoped she wouldn’t be too grateful. I wanted her to be the madam – this was my Madam and Eve moment, I smiled to myself. It occurred to me that she would not know what usually happened at an Air BnB; how should she?

Indeed, when I saw her that evening and mentioned, “I didn’t iron any of your laundry,” the queen could not have been more gracious. “Never mind, dear. I appreciate it.”

That weekend I was out for much of Saturday morning. When I got back, I heard Grace talking in the kitchen area; I thought she was on her phone. I’d been looking forward to a swim, so I put on my swimsuit, wrapped a towel around myself and headed through the dining room towards the pool. Around the dining room table were five people. Grace happily introduced me to her two sisters, brother-in-law and niece. We had a pleasant chat and I went for my swim. While I was swimming, I remembered that one of the house rules the owner had mentioned was No Visitors. I’m not suited to doing this job, I thought. Surprised again, and too lenient again, but what should I have said? Walking back, I exchanged pleasantries again and noticed the glasses of sugary cooldrink, KFC boxes and more all spread out for their little party. Back in my room I worried. Could Grace think the Air BnB services included this kind of cleaning up? If they did clean up themselves, would they use the recycling bin properly?

I was still wondering how I would deal with the situation when I fell asleep. I woke up to a roar. Good heavens, that sounded like our vacuum cleaner. Yes, for sure, and it got so close to my door that Irang gave a protective yap. Grace must be vacuuming the entire house.  She must have, like the pro she is, easily found the vacuum cleaner in the owner’s linen cupboard and taken it out to use. Wow! When I’d changed, I went to make a cup of tea. First, the dining room – oh great; spotless. The glass on the table shining without a smudge. What about the kitchen? Ditto. I opened the waste and recycling bins – nothing. The visitors had taken all the scraps and litter away with them. Bless their hearts. Grace is never going to hear from me that visitors are not allowed, I vowed. She had mentioned that they hadn’t had a chance to see one another for the longest time.  I realised how ugly my thoughts had been, that she might not clean up when she had a chance. Shame on me.

Next Thursday I will do her laundry again, although Puseletso will object. I am so grateful for the day that Grace came into my life and heart.

So, one fight more…                              Diversity Story 5

Stones

I did it again today. Oh no, don’t congratulate me. It was so easy.

There was a very thin, very dark man outside my bank in Fish Hoek. He had his goods displayed on a low wall at the entrance: stones, seeds and a small framed picture. There were about fifty ordinary little stones, selected for their pretty shape. The seeds were from the coral tree: plump and red with a black heart just peeping out. The faded picture was of a pretty garden path.

Why does no one stop? This man is as invisible to them as their own privilege. I think this blindness is a protection, because to look at his pathetic goods is to have your heart broken. Then he says, “I’m doing my best, Mama.” So like a Mama I ask him where he picked up the seeds, and say how beautiful they are. I tell him that I don’t want to buy anything today, but I want to give him a donation for good luck. His face melts with gratitude and lights up as he takes R20 from me. R20 – not enough for one of the cappuccinos I love. I used to think, along with thousands of others, that I couldn’t afford such a “big” tip, but I have repeatedly proved to myself that I can. R20 makes no difference to my well-being today, but it helps him, makes a big difference to him.

When I come out of the bank a while later, he places his hands in the traditional thank you position and bows slightly. Sweet Lord, forgive me. R20. I have to face it: this is cowardice. This is a feel-good escape. It’s not that I will stop doing it; it’s that it’s not nearly enough, and I don’t mean just the amount of money.

The battle is against systemic racism, and I have not engaged it head-on. Yes, my friends tell me that my actions, my example make a difference, but that too is a cop-out. I have to take my fight to where it won’t feel nearly so good. To the man in the hotel lounge, spouting a racist joke; to my own neighbourhood watch WhatsApp group; to facebook comments and bank queues…

“I was ever a fighter, so—one fight more, The best and the last!”
[from Prospice, Robert Browning]

 

Diversity Story 3: Not winds of change

lennox-by-kelly-shelton.jpg
In England I once hired a car and felt a total idiot when I pulled up for petrol, and saw motorists helping themselves. Oh my gosh! I don’t know how… I had to ask a man at the pump next to mine how it worked, and he explained, although he looked at me as if to ask, Which planet are you from?

I haven’t forgotten since then how spoilt we are in South Africa. There’s someone to help you 24/7. You just sit in your seat like a queen and make requests. I believe that most people tip the attendants; I hope so, because our society, framed in accordance with the mighty racist machinery of the West, amplified in South Africa, means that pump attendants are neither white nor well paid.

I pulled up at a pump the other day and a man who had helped me before came smiling up to my window. “Just R50 unleaded, because it’s the end of the month,” I joked. He nodded sympathetically and proceeded to do that and clean the windows.  He asked about the oil and water, but I said they were fine. Then I tipped him R4-50 and joked again, “End of the month tip.” He laughed.

Then I drove up to the door of the mini-market and parked there to get a chocolate. When I came out, he waved energetically and said, “Go and stay at home, Mama. You feel this wind – it is too strong. Stay in the house, please Mama.” I waved back and thanked him.

His love, because that is exactly what it felt like, rubbed salt into the wound of my guilt. Yes, it was the end of the month and my cash was tight, but would I forgo my slab of chocolate in favour of a halfway decent tip? Obviously not. White privilege first.

What was so touching was that he saw me go “shopping” after pleading poverty, but that did not diminish his enthusiasm. He knew he would get no further tip that day, but bestowed the full benefit of his charm on me anyway. Coals of fire.

Here is a man doing a humble job because education and opportunities were never his to take, as they were and are for white youngsters. History has not been kind to him and his people. No, let me say it: my ancestors were cruel and exploitive towards his. He knows this, but has chosen to be forgiving and happy. He’s clearly a happy man. I do not blame any person of colour who is bitter, and I don’t blame anyone like him who decides to live life as best he can within the parameters so unfairly defined.

Sometimes we just need to stay out of the wind. Love you too.

Photo of Lennox by Kelly Shelton.

 

 

Daily Diversity 2

What you get for R10-00.

I was leaving Fish Hoek’s only little mall to cross Main Road. A man (for these stories I have to specify: an ordinary-looking Coloured man of about 30) was sitting against a pillar. He was not begging, but when he saw me really see him, he brightened and sat up straight. “Please,” he said, “can you give me R4? I am thirsty  and I want to buy a drink.”

I did a mental knee-jerk. “Do you want to buy alcohol?” I asked. I already knew I was going to help him, but THAT is what came out of my mouth. Then I remembered the drought and that drinking water wasn’t easy to find. After that I realised that R4 would buy no alcohol of any sort. He looked a bit taken aback, but just muttered something. Then he saw that I was offering him R10 and said thank you as he took it, but the brightness was gone.

Of course the brightness was gone. I had lost the chance to be a fellow human being. What on earth is wrong with me, I thought as I crossed the road. Did I imagine that R10, not enough for a good cup of coffee, bought me the right to judge and dictate?  No, no, that isn’t me, I yelled back at myself. Isn’t it? Then why didn’t you say something harmless like Yes, it’s hot today? Entitled, arrogant, that’s what I was; still locked into all the prejudices I had been listening to since my childhood. Heck, I wish he could afford a beer!  Whatever his story was, his life had been much harder than mine.

I noticed that another white woman had been watching me and was just opening her car door. She gave me a broad, approving smile. That was something; an awful lot of whites would say R10 was too much; don’t give money for nothing; don’t encourage begging… I took comfort from her smile. She hadn’t heard what I said and thought I was building better relationships. Bless her heart.