I’m not sure what brought her to mind, but I nearly had to pull over driving. Have you ever had a moment where the enormity of a gesture passes you by in the moment, only to surface years later? Seven years later, in this case.
Juannie was recommended to me by my friend Nan, the local saint-in-residence of our Texas-Mexico border town. Juannie, the sister of Nan’s own housekeeper, needed a job and Nan thought she would be perfect for us. At the time, I was a pregnant homeschooling mom, struggling, as usual, to keep my house clean. When Nan recommends a person to be in your life, you pretty much accept it as an assignment from on high, even though, at the time, I was unsure about the expense. She told me Juannie was sweet and reliable. She did not tell me that Juannie was mentally retarded. So the first time I met Juannie, a U.S. citizen, I tried English. Blank look. Next, I tried out my very imperfect Spanish. I saw a shy smile emerge, revealing a combination of gray and capped teeth, but still that blank look in her eyes remained. While my Spanish was never perfect, I could usually communicate with native speakers on a basic level. Maybe I was rusty. Sticky notes, I decided, were my way around my shaky lengua de espanol, so little yellow squares dotted my appliances the next time she came.
It was after finding a favorite shirt ruined that I realized that Juannie was illiterate. My sticky notes were for naught. Juannie had attended high school in Michigan (I am guessing her parents were migrant workers), so I know she had an education, but other factors pointed to her simpleness, beyond illiteracy. In her thirties, she still lived with her aging mother and father. In fact, her little father always dropped her off and picked her up, so she had never learned to drive. Juannie also walked and moved carefully, not from physical frailty, but as if she had to really think about it to make her body move. She was fearful. I learned that I needed to be home when she worked, or she was too afraid to work. But Nan was right, she was sweet and reliable, which goes a long way with me, even if she did occasionally break things or do jobs wrong. I adjusted, and took her permanently off of laundry, realizing that her mistakes were becoming expensive. And no matter what her other shortcomings were, she could really clean my fridge, instantly making her my own Amelia Bedelia.
One day, I found a large cardboard box was sitting on my kitchen counter. Twenty aseptic cartons of expired mango juice were packed inside. Twenty. My kids were ecstatic, as I rarely buy juice. Yes, they drank it. The juice had only expired by a month or two and was delicious. I knew that Juannie loved my kids, so I was touched by the gesture.
Another evening, my doorbell rang and Juannie and her father carried in a huge, waxed box of cold, fresh broccoli. Huge. After giving some of it away, I stayed up late parboiling and vacsealing the rest of it to freeze, as there was no way I could have used it all before it spoiled. As I was storing a bit of the reserved fresh broccoli in my vegetable keeper, I noticed that the deli tray lid of my fridge was broken. Juannie had cleaned the fridge earlier in the day. Thinking back to the juice box day, I remembered that Juannie had broken a pull string on a lamp.
After that, whenever Juannie brought used stuffed animals, kiddie sunglasses, or chocolate covered marshmallows, we knew to look for something broken or ruined. You might wonder why I kept her on, but I develop a deep affection for anyone willing to clean up after me, so firing her would have been like firing my mother for burning my toast. Besides, like I said, she could really clean a fridge, even a deli-tray lidless fridge.
At the time, I knew Juannie’s gifts were very touching, especially because I was aware of her poverty, but I also felt bad, as I didn’t want her to feel like she either had to “pay us back” or lose her job. But as I was driving I suddenly pictured her selecting her discount juice, or thinking of my little girls as she picked out a stuffed bunny. I still can’t imagine how she got a hold of all that broccoli. Juannie wasn’t afraid of losing her job, or interested in paying us back. She was recognizing that she had broken something of value to us, and wanted to acknowledge that. She was thanking us for accepting her, the way she was. I grieved for all the ways I should be thanking the people in my life for bearing with me while I have said the wrong thing, hurt their feelings, or even broken their heart.