Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Lessons from Tia Nanny

(Originally posted on Tales From the Crib blog on Monday, October 6, 2008.) 

We don't really call her Tia Nanny. She is "Abuela" to the boys and "Tia" to Ed and I. She is Ed's aunt, a woman who lived in his house in East LA growing up and is very much a mother to him. She is an immigrant, the first in her family to arrive in the US. She is a US citizen. She is a fervent orthodox Christian, no longer Catholic. She is the best cook you could ever imagine....her kitchen is a studio and she is the artist. And for the summer, she was our nanny.

Before I get too far, I want to say that we were very appreciative of Tia Nanny's help this summer. She took extremely good care of the boys, allowing Ed and I to work in good conscience. I directed a summer enrichment academy and could not have managed without her. We really needed to make a chunk of extra income this year, between our oldest son's autism therapy expenses and a car that will need to be replaced sooner than later. My job and her service provided this for our family.

A lot went down this summer, a lot I am still processing here in October. There were some funny moments. The fresh mint that kept appearing in Tia Nanny's morning tea and the eventual realization that she was pilfering from the neighbor's garden. The day I left for work admiring my blooming hydrangea and then came home to see it pruned back to a nub.The short haircuts that she insisted the boys wear so they could resemble Barack Obama. 

There were some less funny moments. The petty fights she had with our neighbors, relationships that we are still working to mend. The expensive tickets we purchased for her and Ed to spend an evening at a flaminco performance, only for her to change her mind about going at the very last second, putting us in a lurch. And the various cultural barriers that often felt like mountains that I just didn't have the energy to climb.

While our goals for the summer were to get ahead financially and for our boys to know their abuela, Tia Nanny seemed determined to turn me into a traditional Mexican housewife.

In the interest of full disclosure, I am a mediocre housewife and I am fine with that fact. I have no Martha Stewart aspirations. My house is generally clean and organized, at least at the end of the day. I usually fix quick meals for dinner, but once a week or so I'll spend a couple of hours preparing a nice dinner. I don't bake bread, but I would like to give it a try someday. Same with sewing something besides curtains. I could always do better, but I don't exactly need a housekeeping intervention.  When I'm working full time, Ed does a good share of the housework as well.

Each day after I returned from work, Tia Nanny was waiting for me at the top of our staircase...motioning for me to come see her. She always had a criticism to share, complete with visual aides and a teaching lesson on how to do it the right way. You folded the laundry wrong (but it's folded).This ironing is NO GOOD (why do I need to iron the boys play clothes?).This food is NO GOOD for the boys to eat (well, it's somewhat nutritious and they'll eat it). Why you only buy the tiny bags of rice? (cause that's all they had at the store).

My reaction to her lessons depended greatly on my mood. Some days I was amused and made furious mental notes so I wouldn't forget to share the high comedy of her daily rant with Ed. Some days I just endured....waiting out the lecture until I could be free to spend some time with my boys, both of whom I had missed so much during the day. Some days I wanted to yell at her and tell her to leave and that we didn't need her help after all. But I never did. Out of respect for Ed, and also because we really did need her help.

One day after work I returned to the aroma of flautas and rice on the stove. We never expected Tia Nanny to cook our meals, but it was always a treat when she did. She showed me how to fry up the flautas (something I had done a million times, but I indulged her). She told me that she was going to her room to rest, but to be sure to heat up the rice on the stove (NOT the microwave, the microwave NO GOOD!) and to serve Ed freshly fried flautas when he returned home from work. And not to eat my own food until he was served.

By the time Ed returned from work, it was much later. The boys were fed and I was playing with them out front, trying to squeeze out just a little more fun from the summer evening.  Ed went into the house and heated up his own meal. We thought nothing of it. Like most couples of our generation, Ed and I operate under rules of pragmatics rather than tradition. We do what needs to be done and we don't pay much attention to traditional gender roles.

Returning from work that next day, Tia Nanny met me at the top of the stairs unusually agitated. Que paso? I asked. You didn't serve his dinner last night did you? No, I replied and tried to explain that I was watching the boys out front when he returned home. Apparently, last night had been my Good Housewife 101 final exam and I got a big fat F.

It makes me very sad that you do not take care of my son, Tia Nanny whimpered, dangerously close to tears. That he returns home from work each day and has to heat up his own hurts my heart.

I was upset, but not because I had disappointed her with my lack of good housewifery. It is just not in me to be that wife. I was deeply saddened that she felt my husband was not cared for in our marriage. That she had lived with us for the entire summer, but had failed see the ways that we take care of each other. The affectionate hugs, the long walks and late night talks, the general positivity that runs through our marriage, even when things are hard. That she couldn't see how we cared for each other so deeply, now that was hard to take.

It's a cultural thing. That's a sentence I mutter often to myself when I am with Ed's family. Love in Ed's parent's home is expressed in a clean house, a fridge crammed with food, a dinner feast served every evening and freshly laundered  clothes in your drawers. It is a lovely and important way to show that you care for your family, but it will never be my own chosen signature of love.

I wanted to tell Tia Nanny all of this, everything in my heart. But my Spanish just wasn't going to make it there. So I looked straight into her eyes and said, "Lo siento, Tia." And I meant it, I was sorry.

No comments: