We said goodbye to our housekeeper one evening back in November.
Jovanka had been coming to our home for more than 20 years, yet we’d never gone over to hers. The truth is that we hadn’t expected a social invitation, the reasons having nothing to do with the fact that we kept kosher and she did not. Rather, I chalked it up to that invisible divide between employers and employees, no matter their bond or the length of their relationship. Once we knew she was leaving the country, we finally called her and asked to come.
For months, I noticed her catching her breath. “I’m OK!” she insisted. It was only when she found out her kidneys were failing that she finally admitted that she was not.
She started dialysis in a whirlwind, quickly losing her strength. We cried together over the phone as she told me she’d already bought a return ticket to her native Serbia, where she would continue her treatment. But she missed knitting, driving and working in the meantime.
She could have retired there years ago. Yet even after her husband died, she remained in America, cleaning other people’s homes. I often felt ashamed that she saw the intimate details of our day-to-day existence reflected in our mess. She, however, loved her work and was proud of it.
“Good cleaning help is hard to find,” many said when I told them she stopped coming to us. Our connection with her was about more than housekeeping anyway.
She had been with us through so much — two births, the passing of my grandmother and in-laws, a big move and the annual cleaning of our refrigerator for Passover. After my surgeries, she tucked me in as if I were her child. And she gave each of our boys a bar mitzvah gift — a little gelt in a Serbian Orthodox Christmas card. To her, we shared one God. Little else mattered.
She read the story of our lives in our detritus like tea leaves. I, on the other hand, had none of the clues her home would have given me. I learned only what she told me, all of it pointing to an essential way of being: work hard, eat simply, love fiercely. I wanted to know more. She would shrug, saying that that’s all there was to tell.
When we met, she’d already lived in the U.S. for some time, having left the former Yugoslavia years before it deconstructed into a bloody civil war. She didn’t care much for politics, and it was never a discussion, let alone a point of contention, that she and my Croatian husband hailed from opposing former Yugoslav republics or that their immigrant stories were unrecognizable from one another. She even called me, a born “Amerikanka,” one of her own.
Though I lived in Zagreb in the early 1990s, it was Jovanka who taught me how to prepare proper Balkan coffee. She loved that I baked challah and crocheted in a world where so much comes ready-made in plastic packaging. However, she admonished me for refusing to iron, and I her for never vacuuming beneath the bed.
Our circumstances changed when I began freelancing instead of working full-time. Home to shoulder most of the cleaning, I could no longer justify the expense of regular help. But my husband and I wanted to keep her on until she retired, owing her that after all this time.
On the evening we went to say goodbye, we struggled to find her house on a dimly lit road, though we soon realized we had passed it countless times on the way to Target. Touched to see us, she talked about her health and her plans to enjoy being near her family. She was grateful for her years in the States. Still, she knew she could never afford to retire here.
I glanced around, hoping in vain to find the missing pieces of her story. Most of her belongings were on a lift already at sea. She smiled when I spotted the pretty coffee jar I once gave her, telling me that everything she owned was either from the people she cleaned for or a yard sale. Only the television was bought new, and she planned to leave it for the person taking over the lease.
With that, she shifted in her chair. We presented her with a gift, and she gave us her address — just her name and the city with a post office nearest her village. And then, for the first time, she invited us to visit her home, should we ever find ourselves in Serbia. “Nothing would make me happier,” she said, though the tears, hers and ours, would come as we stood to go.
In a final embrace, Jovanka told us how much she loved us. The proof? She said she ironed only for me, confessing that her assistant liked cleaning our house least of all.
As if she’d been with us always, as if we’d continue to see her every other Thursday, we then stepped out into the night.
We already missed her fiercely.
Merri Ukraincik, who lives in Edison, N.J., is a regular contributor to this space. She writes a column for The New Jersey Jewish News.