There are a lot of things I learned from Sally. The older I get, and the further away I’ve come from that special relationship, the more those lessons resonate and come into focus. Here is my Sally story:
After Steve and I separated in 2002, I spent a year cleaning houses as way to generate income. After being a stay-at-home mom for so long, I was heartbroken to consider putting my kids into daycare on top of the rest of the upheaval we were all going through. I had mentioned to Taylors 3rd grade teacher that I was looking for cleaning jobs if she knew of anyone looking for a housekeeper. She mentioned Sally.
Luckily Sally lived in a condo, just minutes from my new apartment. We met for the first time and she showed me around her place and talked to me about what she was looking for. I was completely overwhelmed.
To this day, I don’t have a clue how old Sally was. She was simply, old. And her house was a WRECK. Not hoarder wreck, but seriously, no one had cleaned up in a good long while. Honestly, if I had any other choice at the time I probably would have politely declined the challenge. As it stood I had three mouths to feed and no other source of income. This started a 5 year relationship that fed and nurtured us both.
Sally was a very active woman. She volunteered for multiple organizations, with the Fort Wayne Children’s Zoo being at the top of her list and she provided docent services there weekly. She also loved to entertain! She stood almost a head shorter than myself, clocking in at under 5 feet and carried close to 100 pounds more than her frame was built for. Additionally, she had a host of health problems that made getting around and staying on her feet a challenge. She maintained her extremely social lifestyle, but anything around the house that wasn’t deemed important, was left for me each week.
She faithfully received the newspaper, but rarely had the time to read it. Along with the mail, it would be retrieved from the mailbox on her drive to the garage, and promptly dropped in the entry way as soon as she was in the door.
Most weeks there would be multiple bags of groceries strewn about with the cold items (usually) removed and put away, but the rest left for me. She shopped like many of her generation, if she had a coupon she would buy it. She had enough food at all times to survive the apocalypse or more likely to her mind, a recession. A few months into our arrangement, I decided to clean out the pantry only to find some items a decade old. Something that shocked and amazed me once, I actually can relate to more these days.
Dirty clothes were piled in her closet or the bathroom outside the shower. Shoes and jewelry could be found anywhere, across a string of rooms but most often in a pile next to the shower or toilet. It almost became a game, to find all of the strung about earrings and necklaces and put them back on her holders. We had some good laughs about it.
The kitchen was always a hodge-podge of pans and dishes piled around the sink and counters. Sometimes I’d have to remove a whole stack of items from the oven, her favorite hiding place when company was coming before I was. She’d forget to tell me they were there until weeks later. I learned to check.
I’d occasionally have to deal with a pan that had all but caught on fire as she’d sometimes start dinner, and then fall asleep with food on the stovetop. I bought a fire extinguisher for her.Despite the chaos of the house, Sally was very particular about certain things. Sometimes it baffled me, how she determined their importance. For instance, I would want to clean all of the rotten food out of the refrigerator, but only if i had time to feed the birds first. That was her priority.It took several weeks of 3-4 hour visits until the chaos was controlled and there was a semblance of cleanliness to the house. Then fall came. I learned to dread the changing of the seasons because it meant the switching of the closets. For starters, her closet was a diabolical disaster, that was one area I hadn’t even started to tackle. And this “switching of the closets” seemed like an AMAZING waste of time. But this is what she did, every spring and every fall. Take everything out of the closet in her room, and put it in the guest bedroom closet and vice versa. The amount of clothes this woman possessed was astounding. This seemingly simple task was quite possibly the most dreaded of all tasks. It took hours.One of the more enjoyable tasks was holiday decorating. She celebrated every holiday with gusto. She possessed what felt like 60 years of accumulated decorations for each one and they were meticulously organized in boxes in the garage. She knew where every last piece went.
Every holiday we would pack up ALL of the normal house decor, including the pictures on the walls, all of the Hummel figurines, the 20 miniature tea sets that sat on the table in the living room and get out the Easter eggs, ornaments, flags, hearts, or whatever was the theme of the particular holiday. Three weeks later, I’d undo it all and put back the everyday decorations. Every holiday.
Entertaining was always a BIG event. She had special plates, special decorations, napkin rings, cups, for every single type of gathering. Card night, Valentines Ladies night, Summer gathering, 4th of July party, holiday gift exchange. All themed. She taught me what it meant to entertain old school. The tables were set with precision and she was the consummate hostess. And the following day I’d go back and clean it all up and hear all the stories about who came, who didn’t show and who was having what health issue.
Not a single holiday or birthday went by that I worked for Sally that she didn’t surprise me with a gift, not only from her, but also from her dog Murphy. Cute quirky items that a broke single mom often had little use for, but they were thoughtful and sweet and almost always made me cry at her kindness.
About a year after I started working for Sally I went back to work full time and she asked me to stay on. So I did. I dropped to every other weekend and would spend my Saturday or Sunday mornings working as fast as possible to get her caught up. She’d follow me around as best she could from room to room updating me on her last two weeks and asking about mine. Apologizing again for having done no laundry and leaving it all to me, and me explaining that I didn’t mind. All the while, trying to be patient and trying to deal with two weeks of disaster. At times getting impatient but trying to understand and be gracious knowing how much she looked forward to our visits. I was always tired. And sometimes just wanted to get done so I could get home to my kids or home to my bed. Those were long days back then.
Over time, we developed a nice friendship. She was a passionate MI fan and was very proud of the fact that MI was the first major university in the country to allow women to attend. I cant tell you how often she told me this. She had the picture of her class hanging in her bedroom. She had gone to MI to become a teacher, and taught school for somewhere around 35 years. In the 80’s she had a partial mastectomy from breast cancer. Of course she tells me this as I walk in on her in her room, buck naked, as she was struggling to get dressed for church one morning. Sally wasn’t shy.
She did find some of her other physical ailments more disconcerting, and would call me from time to time in the middle of a week and ask if I would come clean up some accident or another that had happened. She hated these episodes, they frustrated her, they embarrassed her greatly. Not only to lose control of her body, but also to have to call for help to clean up the mess. The sheer number of medications she was taking wreaked havoc on her digestive system. If you know me at all you have no idea how hard it was for me to handle these incidents. But you can’t hear the voice of a woman who is embarrassed and upset and not run over and take care of things, as awful as they sometimes were. It was life.
Sometimes I would take the kids with me if I needed to go over on a kid weekend. They didn’t particularly like going, but they liked Sally well enough and I’d often find them fun little jobs to do. She really enjoyed having them around. Sally had never married and had no children of her own but she had adopted several families over the years that she became a surrogate grandmother to. Every holiday season I would help address and stamp hundreds of cards and hundreds of Christmas Gifts for her to mail all over the country. She was a generous soul.
I found my visits to Sally to be a respite from my life at the time. I didn’t have grandparents anymore, even at that age, and she filled the role nicely. She told me stories and anecdotes and gossip about her friends. The ones who she liked, and the ones she found to be irritating or phoney but that she had known for 45 years . . .she distracted me from my own angst.
Then one day I went to clean and the entry way had its usual amount of strewn papers and mail.
The living room had another stack of mail and newspapers next to her recliner under the tv tray where she ate her meals and watched her shows. Her can of coke sitting on the tray. She knew she wasn’t supposed to drink it but she loved it so much.
It was a Sunday morning and I knew she was probably at church. I timed my visit a little late, knowing I was short on time that day.
The kitchen was surprisingly clean. No pans in the sink.
And the mattress was missing from her bed.
With shaking hands, I flipped through her address book to the number of the woman who had introduced us.
“Mary? It’s Heather. I just came to clean Sallys . . .”
“Oh my god Heather. It never occurred to me to call you. Sally passed this week”I sat in the living room I had dusted for the last 5 years, completely stunned. And just cried. Deep wracking sobs.
One time when I was cleaning, Sally gave me 6 large insulated cups with cards in the plastic. They were the cups she used for card night, but had found new ones she liked better so she gave me the old ones. At the time I remember thinking “what in the world will I do with these?” But I took them home. It was about a year later that she died, and I was so grateful to have those 6 silly cups.
I regret not asking her more. Did she love someone once? A man? A woman? Who was she when she was young? She told me what she wanted to tell me. This is what I learned.
Be the first. Be brave. Family is who you surround yourself with. No matter what life hands you, keep moving forward. Do what you love. Feed the birds. Give your heart generously and you will receive more back than you can imagine. Entertain even if the dog pees on the carpet, your friends wont mind (except that bitch Edith, she ALWAYS has to make a comment!). Use the nice dishes. Drink the Coke even when your doctor tells you to stop.
And when you get the the point in your life that you have to chose between volunteering at the zoo and cleaning your house? Hire a young single mom to do it for you. You wont regret how you spent your time.