Revisiting a Relationship

I watched, rapt, as she worked at the ironing board. With a flick of her wrist, she moistened each item in the laundry pile with water from an old coke bottle corked with a sprinkling stopper. This was state of the art ironing technique prior to the advent of the steam iron. She wore a crisp white and blue uniform and a do-rag to keep her hair in place while she worked. From her seated perch on the stepladder, she could reach both the ironing board and the items of clothing waiting in the basket for their turn to be pressed and folded. Her feet positioned against the steps of the ladder made her skirt rise up to expose her legs and I could see the tops of her brown compression stockings tightly gathered at the top of her shins. Her knees were swollen from lack of circulation and calloused from scrubbing floors. She had been with me practically from birth so I never knew a time when Fanny was not in my life.

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Fanny Crawford lived in a rough corner of Flatbush in Brooklyn. She joined our family when I was nine months old at a time when my parents had returned from Topeka to be close to family as my father neared his death.  She came to us faithfully every Wednesday, following us in all our moves from Brooklyn to Manhattan to Queens, each move requiring a longer subway and bus ride to reach our home. She had found her work niche with my grandmother and her sisters. Mondays belonged to Granny. On Tuesdays, she cleaned at Aunt Sherry’s. Thursday was Aunt Cissie’s day and on Friday she went to my Aunt Jenny. I never saw where she lived and could not picture her life outside the loving confines of our extended family. Did she have one?

My mother loved to tell the story of their first meeting. She had arrived on the appointed day and introduced herself simply as ‘Fanny,’ addressing my mother as ‘Mrs. Pardell.’ My mother countered by referring to her as ‘Mrs. Crawford.’ A few go arounds like this and they came to an agreement to be on a first name basis with one another. It was a sure sign of how egalitarian we were. I never questioned the relationship in the context of our white middle class privilege and saw the whole arrangement as good friends – even as she washed my socks and ironed my pillowcases.

Fanny would occasionally come to stay over the weekend to babysit if Granny was not available. On those days, she would sleep in the extra bed in my room and share my bathroom. I remember the aroma of her hair products and the sight of her brown stockings hanging in the bathroom to dry. She had a husband – somewhere. Where was he on those weekends and did he mind her being gone to take care of her charges? I don’t believe she had any children, but I’m not sure I ever asked. 

I was about fourteen when I had my first glimpse into Fanny’s world. It must have been a summer day after school had let out on a Wednesday. Fanny was getting ready to leave for the day and I was simultaneously getting ready to meet friends in the city. We, for our two different purposes, were both heading out to ride the bus that would take us to the subway hub in Flushing. There she would board the BMT line to Brooklyn and I would hop on the IRT to Manhattan. We walked to the bus stop and got on the Q15 which stopped right on the corner, chatting as normal the whole way. 

But then something curious happened. Maybe I had never gotten on the bus at that time of day before, but I found to my astonishment that I was the only white person getting on the bus. Moreover, all the black women there were carrying the same kind of tote bag holding their dirty uniforms and wearing the same weary look. They greeted Fanny with a brand of familiarity that surprised me, and I was struck with the realization that these women were her colleagues – each heading home after a back-breaking day cleaning the houses of white people. I rode the bus silently all the way to Flushing – not feeling it was my place to be part of any conversation, as Fanny shifted her attention for the first time in my life away from me.

The last time I saw Fanny was at my wedding. I have one last picture of her wearing her best wig, a Sunday dress, and a corsage over her heart. I was being married at our home on Cape Cod. Wanting a 60’s style wedding to share with our group of friends, we chose to hold the affair with virtually no family present. My husband’s guests were his parents, two brothers, and their wives. My side was limited to my parents, my little brother, and two grandmothers. Grandfathers, aunts, uncles, and cousins from both sides would maintain hurt feelings for years afterwards. While blood relatives were not invited, Fanny was. My mother made it clear to her: she was there as a guest, not “the help.” But as I moved on to my married life and Fanny retired from her housecleaning days, she utterly disappeared from my life. Though she was the same age as my mother, she died a decade earlier. I don’t even remember if I was told about her death at the time.

I loved Fanny. I believe we made a good faith effort to treat her as a person of equal worth. But the differential in status caused an imbalance in our relationship so that, even now, I can only guess how that might have felt to her. I am humbled at my ignorance of how bathed in privilege I was and wish I could go back and ask her more questions. What would I ask her? What it felt like to iron another woman’s clothes? Care for another woman’s children? Clean a home so far and so different from your own? I would get back on that bus and join in the conversation with Fanny and her friends.  I would ask their names, find out where they lived, get to know their faces so I could say hello the next Wednesday and greet them properly. I don’t know if any of that would even make a difference. But all I can do now is remember her and remind myself that I loved a woman whom I did not really know but wish that I had.

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