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Work and Play 1

Freda Isaksen

As far back as I can remember Emily lived with us as our household helper. In my memory she always appeared elderly with grey hair pulled back tightly into a bun and had a slightly stooped posture. She always wore a long apron and a colorless unattractive dress, laced up boots and of course never a trace of cosmetics and she was ageless.

She was there in our house seven days a week because she had no other home and no interests besides her daily duties and our family. Along with my mother she did all of the household work other than the small chores which were assigned to the five children, my job was to clean the table silver and scrape the salt which was purchased in solid blocks in those days. Emily was also the babysitter and was definitely considered to be part of the household, although her place was in the kitchen. She was at the family’s beck and call whether it was a weekday, Saturday, Sunday or a holiday. She didn’t want or need a day off. As young children we loved to keep her company when she was not working because she liked to play card games with us, Rummy or Old Maid were her favorites.

It was a joy to be in the kitchen because it was warm and friendly there, old English houses can be very cold and draughty when each room is heated individually with coal fires. Besides there were always cookies and sweets to munch on. Emily herself was a sweet soul and the kitchen a haven on a foggy, cold winter day. Emily loved and played with us as if we were the children she never had.

As time went on it became apparent that Emily was mumbling to herself as if she were tired but she never complained and somehow she was not such pleasant company as before. She became more stooped and slower in her movements so mother hired someone to help with the laundry, this weekly chore was done in the scullery where there was an old fashioned boiler built into the wall. Gas and a water outlet were attached to heat the water, the soiled clothes were placed into the boiler and they were boiled clean.

There was also a gas cooker in the scullery but most of the food was prepared in the main kitchen on the coal burning stove which also heated the water for the family so it was most efficient, besides there were three steps down to the scullery so it was an extra effort and tiring to use the gas cooker in the scullery. My mother was in charge of all the cooking.

After a while the family became aware that Emily was having difficulty climbing the stairs to the bedrooms on the upper floors, so we realized that her time of working for us was limited. One day things came to a head when my brother rushed into the dining room where my parents were eating breakfast and screamed, “Emily slobbered into my porridge, I refuse to eat another bite if she serves it!” It was agreed that the time had now come when our long time friend and helper could no longer work for us. But where would she go? She had no other family or home. My parents arranged for a pension to make it possible for her to live in a home for the elderly.

Mother still needed help in the house so Eleanor was hired. She was a pretty girl in her early twenties who turned out to be a treasure. We now had youthful energy around us, she was eager to please and performed her work perfectly. All was well until she started to move heavy furniture. “It is not necessary for you to move the furniture alone, you will strain your back,” said my mother. “There must be dust behind it,” she answered. Her actions became clear when it became apparent that our young maid was gaining weight, unfortunately all in one place. Eleanor was obviously pregnant. When she was told that she would have to be dismissed she cried and begged to be allowed to stay because she was alone after her family had abandoned her in her distress and she could not return to them.

I suppose the younger members of the family did not understand the situation because we too cried and objected to the dismissal, we had all become so fond of Eleanor so she was allowed to stay in our home until the baby was to be born, although during the last month she had to confine herself to her own room in the attic of the house.

At this point in time my father insisted that we had helped out enough, he had not approved of her continued employment with us and he would not allow the mother and baby to return to our house after her confinement in the hospital. My aunt came to the rescue to offer a happy solution to Eleanor. My mother’s sister was willing to give her employment in her home, she could bring the baby and attend to her child whilst attending to her household duties.

By my aunt’s act of compassion she had a grateful willing housekeeper and Eleanor and her baby had a good home.

Footnotes

  1. For the context of this story, see Freda’s Autobiography. Emily’s story, told from her perspective, appears in Emily’s Kitchen.


Copyright Freda Isaksen 1986–2006. Permission to reuse for non-commercial purposes is granted, provided that the text is unaltered and the original source is acknowledged. For more information, contact isaksen at math.wayne.edu.

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