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Voices / Column

Remembering Violet

Elayne Clift writes about women, politics, and social issues from Saxtons River, Vt. (www.elayneclift.com)

Saxtons River

She came to us for a year and stayed for 20. Our lives were made comfortable and our lifestyles possible because of her. (My husband and I both had careers that involved travel.) She had a competent hand, a generous smile, and a gentle soul.

She was never that overplayed cliché: “like family.” She was family.

I remember the day she came to us, sight unseen, having been referred by a friend in the Dominican Republic. Our daughter was 4; our son, 1.

Her flight arrived, but no Violet emerged. Worried, I called my friend in the D.R. and was told that she had boarded there, and there had been no transit call from Miami. I waited for the next flight, and sure enough, Violet disembarked. She had the widest smile I’d ever seen. “Violeta,” I said, hugging her, “qué pasa?”

“I wasn’t goin’ nowhere without me suitcase,” she declared. (The case had not cleared customs in time for her connection.) With that, she held my daughter’s hand, took hold of my son’s stroller, and entered our lives.

* * *

Violeta Anthony Sanchez never went beyond primary school. As a small child, she walked miles each morning to fetch water, then carried out her chores. She slept on a mattress on a pallet, and to her dying day, she was petrified of frogs because she frequently found one in her bed when she was small.

But I never met a woman with more dignity.

That’s why she was so offended at the way people treated her in the States.

“Why they do be treatin’ me that way?” she asked me one day after opening a bank account. “I be tryin’ to put money in the bank, not take it out!”

Violet lived with us for almost all of the 20 years she was in the U.S. Each year, she went home to visit her husband, Oscar, and each year I fought with the U.S. Consulate in Santo Domingo to obtain a visa for him to come to this country.

Eventually, she became a citizen, Oscar arrived permanently, and they found their own apartment. But they still stayed with our kids when we were away and joined us for holidays, parties, and family emergencies.

To the day she died of chronic heart failure at age 76, my adult children called her as often as they phone me. Like us, they had visited her in the house she built in Haina, a Santo Domingo suburb, where she was the community doyenne.

I was moved to write about Vi because of reading Mrs. Woolf and the Servants by Alison Light. The book raised guilty feelings I’ve harbored as a liberal feminist for employing another woman to do work I loathed.

Although there was never an “Upstairs, Downstairs” in our home and no one — outside of a few diehard Socialists — could accuse me of exploitation, I was always aware of the politics of our situation.

I was an advantaged white woman employing (for a fair wage and good benefits) a poor black woman to provide child care and to keep our house so I could be freed from domestic responsibilities to do work I loved, and like Virginia Woolf, to write.

Despite Woolf’s left-leaning tendencies, she lived in a world divided by class. I wish to be no part of such an us-and-them world, and yet, am I like the Bloomsbury set by virtue of my lifestyle?

In the preface to her book, Light (whose grandmother was “in service”) says, “I first found it hard to think of domestic service except as exploitation, a species of psychological and emotional slavery — ‘dependency’, with its pejorative overtones.”

Writing the book, however, “brought home to [Light] how various and different ‘servants’ experiences were,” so that she “tried to see service in terms of what it had to offer them, and what they made of us.”

* * *

What having Violet in our lives offered us is clear, and precious. What she made of being in ours was both material and meaningful.

When she came to us, Vi had two dresses, a borrowed sweater, and a few toiletries. By the time she left, she had built a small home and furnished it invitingly in a way that made her life easier.

She and Oscar were able to retire on Social Security. Vi lived her last years surrounded by loving friends and family, sleeping comfortably in a big bed without fear of frogs.

What she gained beyond that security was a new family who loved her deeply, a family with the children she never had (because of poverty, she once told me), and a new set of experiences that enriched her life, even as they asked of her certain sacrifices.

The age of “masters” and “servants” that framed early 20th-century life in Great Britain is, thankfully, gone. Even Virginia Woolf, writing to a friend (ironically named Violet) in 1906, said, “I think [housekeeping] ought to be just as good as writing, and I never see where the separation between the two comes in.” (A somewhat disingenuous claim since Woolf often spoke ill of her “servants.”)

Still, for the socially conscious, there remains something distasteful about having live-in “housekeepers” and babysitters. The whole idea smacks of privilege — who has it and who doesn’t.

Nevertheless, in the reality of our time, it can be a win-win situation (unless, perhaps, children must be left behind, often the case with women from Latin America.)

For me, the bottom line is, yes, we were lucky; we had help. (And who doesn’t need help while working and raising a family?) But more than that, we had Vi, whom we loved and who loved us.

We miss her deeply.

All the rest is academic.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #99 (Wednesday, May 4, 2011).

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