Recalling domestics humble and regal
A gentleman in his 80s who is distant kin to me, and a widower of several years, writes that his housekeeper is retiring and he hopes to find her replacement. He says his hopes are not high -- he would like to find a woman maybe in her 50s who drives a car (if she doesn't have one, he'll get her one), bakes bread, won't raid his raspberries and will go easy on the lobster, and who can play a slide trombone (secondo) by ear. The reason he related this to me was not with any hope that I know of anybody thus qualified, but he was telling me that the newspaper wouldn't let him run an advertisement to that effect.
The girl behind the counter made him cross out everything discriminatory (age , sex, color, and tempo), so that when the notice appeared he got an application from (amongst others) a young man 31 years of age who said he thought he'd like to try housekeeping and see if it appealed to him as a career. My kin was shaken somewhat by this and stammered his answer, to the effect that he would think things over. My kin isn't much impressed by a male with that ambition, even if presumptive, and true it is that in our Maine way we think of a housekeeper in the feminine.
Besides my bride (who bakes bread but blows no trombone) my own life has touched upon two housekeepers. I just barely remember the first, who was Lizzie Jordan. She was a vast woman who was otherwise prominent because of what was politely known as an impediment in her speech. Only those who had known Lizzie a long time could understand a word she said, and my grandfather, who was her employer, had not known her quite long enough, so that some of the household routine got snagged up in faulty communication. In later life after our old farmhouse was ashes and Grandfather was gone, Lizzie married, but she was single as a housekeeper and the only instrument she played was the Edison phonograph.
As a boy, coddled and mothered by Lizzie whenever I went to visit Gramps, I was not so much awed by her as I was curious. I can say I never really got accumstomed to her, and this was a shame because she was a good woman. Her cream-tartar biscuits were so light they needed weight to hold 'em on the table, and she knew how to build up a custard pie so it was about four inches, sill to ridgepole. Lizzie, I know now, was uncouth, which was a result of a faulty fetchin'-up, and the way she'd bawl at Gramps to make him kick off his muddy boots before he entered HER kitchen was worthy of a Billingsgate huckster. You could eat off her floors. So I always looked at Lizzie in wonder.
And having Lizzie in my experience, I was not at all ready to make the acquaintance of the second housekeeper to come to my notice. This one was an aunt, and she, neither, played a trombone or was married. Knowing Lizzie, I understood very well (I was 6 or so then) what Aunt Hepsie was like when they said she was a housekeeper. Vast, booming but with odd sounds, and touchy about kitchen floors. I had this notion of what Aunt Hepsie was like for a year or so , and then one day my mother was in that vicinity and we stepped in to call on Aunt Hepsie.
It was my first meeting of recollection with Aunt Hepsie, and she was nothing at all like Lizzie Jordan. We applied at a back door of a considerable home in a Boston suburb of merit, and a young lady in cap and apron led us up a set of stairs and into an office with a bay window. Aunt Hepsie, trim, was behind a big desk dictating to a secretary. She waved the secretary away and rose to greet us in family fashion. She hugged me real goo-ood. I noticed the lace collar, and I noticed the watch on her bosom, held by a golden fleur-de-lis. Aunt Hepsie, of course, was an executivem housekeeper, managing a household of some 14 servants. The ownership of S. S. Pierce considered her important.
Aunt Hepsie lived into her second century and on her 100th birthday had a cable from The Queen. This amused me, because the way I saw things, Aunt Hepsie was more regal than Her Majesty. For that matter, Lizzie was somebody, too.