A Problem Like Maria


One night we were talking about sharing the load of the dinner time clear up.  You know, a bit of a family meeting about chores and rosters. When you have a big family, chats like that need to happen from time to time.  Then:

“It’s not like you have to go to work or anything”.

The comment hovered, mid-air in front of me, from one of the teenagers.
I took a deep breath.  And gathered my thoughts.

I remember; being a teenager and feeling full of righteous indignation about the state of the world.  I believed that my rudimentary understanding of the world was in fact, a finely crafted and polished gem of wisdom.  I felt all injustices, chiefly my own, and took it all at face value.  I spent a lot of time thinking how unfair it all was. I thought, back then that I knew the answers to all the world’s problems. And when it came to my domestic world, I certainly thought something similar about my own mum.  I mean, it wasn’t like she had to go to work or anything. In fact, she even had help.

When I was a kid, we lived in Papua New Guinea.  As was commonplace there, we had a girl who worked for us, helping with housework.  Well, everything except our jobs.  Our chores, thanks to my uncompromising mother, were firmly off the to-do list in the interests of our character development. Our Haus Meri’s name was Maria. She was only sixteen when she first came to work for us.  She was still with us when she got married. And when her husband took to her with an axe to prove how much of a big man he was, it was our house she came to from the hospital.  She survived that attack and went back to him. And later, after her baby Hanna was born, she stayed on with us.  Then we went to boarding school and Maria was still there, helping Mum with everything.


Screen Shot 2014-07-08 at 1.59.42 pm
(picture credit below)

My Mum had a different approach than that of most expat ladies with house girls.  She insisted on eating lunch with Maria and would always make the lunch herself.  When Maria was caught stealing rolls of toilet paper, instead of summarily docking her pay, she asked questions and discovered that Maria didn’t have enough money for sanitary products.  Mum began supplying her with them. Maria’s pay was small, and with it she supported eight people.  Her life was difficult and Mum made sure that her time at our place was calm, ordered and not strenuous. She gave Maria food, clothes and motherly care. Sometimes, they sang together, gospel songs in pidgin English. I have an enduring image of them both, sitting on our sofa with their feet crossed and tucked beneath their chairs. Ladylike. Maria was a shy, smiley, lovely person. My mother was determined to do it her way despite being chided by her expat friends for her ‘too soft’ approach.

She was determined about a lot of things, my Mum.

Around that time; when I was about fifteen and a sophisticated madam, travelling home from boarding school on the plane every holidays, I thought I was ‘the business’.  I was full of my freshly minted ‘maturity’ and there was nothing that I didn’t know. Except for most things.  I remember returning home one holiday break and feeling so superior. I unpacked my things and called Maria in.
“My sneakers are dirty, Maria.  Can you clean them?”  I asked, loftily.
Maria nodded her head and quietly took my sneakers, padding softly out of the room on her bare brown feet.

I flopped onto my bed and contemplated what I would do over the holidays.

And then, my mother’s face.
White-lipped and syllables clipped.
“GET. UP.”
“-How dare you!”.  She stretched out each word, in that very scary, angry-quiet voice.
“-how dare you presume to tell Maria what to do.  Who do you think you are!?”

For the rest of the day, Mum had me do Maria’s jobs.  All of them.  Maria sat, bemused, pretending to read the magazines my mother had handed her.  I made lunch for them, following Mum’s instructions to the letter, while they chatted. I kept doing her jobs until they were done, long after night had fallen and the geckos were gathering on the fly screens. By then, Maria had gone home.  It had taken me so much longer to do her jobs because my work ethic wasn’t nearly as efficacious.  And I was working under the heavy load of humiliation and shame.  By the end of the day, I got Mum’s point.  Loud and clear.

Because it wasn’t like I had to go to work, or anything.

After the day’s work was finished, I cleaned my sneakers. And I etched that powerful lesson into my memories.  So when those throw away words were said to me at the table recently, I paused for this memory to wash over me.  And I explained exactly what ‘my work’ constitutes.  It probably didn’t make it past the teen-auto-protect-mind-shield, but I tried.

I said that ‘work’ is more than just what you get paid to do.  Work is how you get your job done.  Your job begins with you. But it isn’t finished until you have taken care of everyone in your circle, too.  It’s the opposite of being self-obsessed.  It’s looking out and seeing what needs to be done and finding ways to get it done. Somehow. Sometimes that job is much bigger than any kind of work you might get paid to do. The job of being a good human, chronically ill or not, is far more than nine to five.

And I know; on that day back when I was fifteen, my Mum did one of her best day’s work.


R.I.P Maria.
We were sad to hear that Maria died of Tuberculosis not long after our family left Papua New Guinea.  She was a tiny, beautiful person and I do so hope that her daughter Hanna is safe and well, wherever she might be.

The girl pictured above is Manu, a young Papua New Guinean girl featured in the ABC documentary ‘I am a Girl’. I will find a picture of our Maria when our renovations are finished.  If you would like to learn more about the documentary, about the plight of girls across our globe, click here: http://www.abc.net.au/news/2013-09-02/an–i-am-a-girl-doco-feature/4927910

4 thoughts on “A Problem Like Maria”

  1. This is so beautiful Rachel.

    It brings back so many memories.

    I grew up in South Africa and we also had house girls (or maids, as we called them). They worked from 8 until 3 for very little money. Like your mum, mine insisted we treat her with respect, so much so she was given authority to discipline us when mom was away from the house. She was incredibly houseproud and wouldn’t hesitate to yell at us if we made a mess. She was an extension of the family. She even named one of her sons after my brother. And funnily enough, her name was Marie.

    Thanks for the trip down memory lane xx

  2. It’s such a terrifying time – being a teenager… Nobody takes you seriously enough to trust you with what you know you know. Such a self-absorbed time too. so, sometimes lessons need to be learned the hard way… And, with hindsight, mum really does know best 🙂
    (why do I always cry reading your posts..?)
    A xoxox

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