Warming every room
I knew her simply as Louise; and I must have been ten before I learned that she had a last name. Nor did she have any particular title: to call her simply ''our cleaning lady'' or ''the washer-woman'' or ''the maid'' would have been so ludicrously to underestimate her role as to miss the point altogether.
She did, of course, clean. She alone could bring order to the chaos of opened letters, broken pencils, and yesterday's newspapers that littered what we called ''the round counter'' in the kitchen - throwing away nothing, but creating at least the semblance of neatness. And she did the washing - clumping down the steep basement stairs to the four-legged tub-washer which stood with its attached wringer beside the stone set-tubs. And she even answered the heavy black phone installed (as phones were in those days) in the downstairs hall - in full view of everybody, and out of no one's hearing.
But mostly, during the weekly mornings while my mother joined my father at work, she oversaw my upbringing.In those green pre-school days, with the world still a maze of nebulous certainties, Louise was the general Virgil to my wanderings. She was guide and policeman, nanny and overseer, all wrapped into a bundle with a calm mother-affection.She took upon herself no ultimate authority, leaving disciplinary matters to my parents. But neither did she sweep aside all responsibility. Equally judicious were her responses to my two most pressing and frequently repeated questions. ''K'nive sumpin teet?'' I would ask her with bulldog regularity about eleven o'clock each morning. Usually, spotting lunch just over the horizon, she would shake her head. But sometimes, knowing that an hour is a long time to a child who has not yet lived through very many of them, she would smile her yes - and then lay down strict rules about what and how much was to be eaten.
My other question (once I dared ask it) drew more varied answers. ''K'nie walk downathe blackiron fence?'' I would ask. And if both I and the weather had been good, she would bundle me up and set me forth. And such an adventure it seemed. We lived in a massive, square, white Victorian house - the kind which, in these days of high heating bills, is described simply as ''stately.'' Up and down the main street of our small New England town were others of its ilk - one, especially, which always drew my attention. It, too, was square: but the redness of its brick, and the slate-dark cap of its mansard roof, and the broad porches under spruce boughs surrounding much of its exterior, gave it an aloof and auspicious look. Between the town sidewalk and its aging lawn stood a once-magnificent wrought-iron fence, all spear-points and floral arabesques. That was my goal, the far boundary of a fascinating and formidible world.
I never went into that house - never swung open the rust-roughened gate, never trespassed upon that unkempt lawn, never violated the trust Louise placed in me. Nor, in fact, did I ever set foot in Louise's house. It was not that our family was unfriendly. It was part of the decorum of domestic service: she never thought to invite us, and we never thought to ask. For though we were, in a way, as close to her as to anyone beyond our family, we respected the boundary separating work from home. Nor, in that, were we doing anything strange. For just as no one in those days thought it odd that a family living on a professor's salary should hire a Louise, so no one expected that out of that hiring should come any inextricable tangle of personal relationships. It is a testimony to her professionalism, and to the uncluttered simplicity of the age, that we stayed apart from her life - and that she, for all her intimate knowledge, stayed outside of ours.
Or partly outside. For it is only now, looking back from an age in which domestic service has all but vanished, that I see how deeply she wove her ethos into my being - into, in fact, the character of an entire nation. It was not just that, as mentor and friend, she shaped my sense of discipline and opened me gently to praise. That, after all, is what all good teachers do: and there are still, for all the grumping, plenty of good teachers in the world. Nor was it just that, against the prevailing currents of haste, she stood unperturbed - dispassionate, self-assured, elegant in her simplicity. That kind of inner peace, too, can still be found - among those whom the world has passed by, and, more richly, among those who have passed by the world.
No, those qualities will last. What she added to them was an ability that was almost architectural in its breadth. She did not simply work in our house: she embraced it, understood its detail, mastered its intricate spaces. She was, in fact, its moral furnace - humming in the quiet basement of her thought, feeding every room with a living warmth.
And it is that capacity, in all its humble professionalism, that is fading. It may be that my generation holds the last great body of Americans to have been raised, even in part, by Louises. I went past our old house the other day. Main Street still looks much as it did. But the biggest of those old houses are now apartment buildings. Why? One hears talk of the high costs of heating oil. One hears about smaller families, more transient lives, shortages of housing.
Good explanations, those - as far as they go. But nobody talks much about a shortage of Louises. They say you can still hire cleaning services. There are laundromats in every town, phones in every room. But the essential Louisiness?
What would have become of our home without her presence? Well, I suppose we wouldn't have frozen up. But the chill would have been far more noticeable.