Since I spend 1/3 of my life at work, it’s not surprising that I’ve developed some fun relationships around this place.
Naturally, I feel blessed to have amazing, fun and interesting colleagues. But one of my most cherished relationships at work is with .. our office cleaning lady.
I don’t know her name. Yes, one of my most cherished relationships at my place of employment is with a woman who remains nameless to me.
But before you judge, let me tell you a little bit about our bond.
The nameless cleaning lady hardly speaks English, and while I know that she is Hispanic, I haven’t the faintest idea from whence she came (but my guess is somewhere in South America).
Her face tells me everything I need to know, with its cavernous lines that point to her short and wiry gray hairs, her crooked and shy smile, and her thick, almost marbled, old glasses that shield her eyes from further inspection. She has worked hard her whole life — a life that I guess has been much more trying than anything I could imagine.
She emerges only after most have gone home for the evening, quietly entering the office with a faintly squeaking trash can that rivals her size. She executes her routine with precision, traveling from office to office to empty trash — and then to common areas to wipe tables and dust off surfaces. And then, she handles the extras. (I always notice the extras). Sometimes, she washes a dish left in the sink. Other times, she carefully stacks fashion magazines strewn about the lunch table, or ensures that a bag of chips is rolled up tight to prevent staleness. She works much faster than her much younger counterparts, all of whom arrive with her each evening in an unmarked passenger van from God knows where.
Sometimes I see her much more often than I should. As the antithesis of an early bird, I get my biggest burst of energy in the late afternoon, when most are spent from arising at 5 a.m. to run, or still trying to rebound from a burrito-induced lunch coma. But I come alive when the sun is close to setting — and once my wave of energy and creativity arrives, I ride it. What that means is that I sometimes stay at work later than I planned to take full advantage of the potential to dent the “to-do” list.
Initially, my interaction with the nameless cleaning lady was limited. As the sun was drifting downward on a spring evening, she’d lightly tap on the door and utter a quick and broken “Um, excuse-a-me?” as she meandered over to the wastebasket under my desk. I would roll my chair out of her way while continuing to jackhammer away at my laptop, smiling and saying “Thank you” as she dumped the can into her massive collection of the day’s trash.
One day, I got crazy.
I said “Gracias” instead.
“¿Habla usted español?,” she inquired.
“Un poco,” I replied (totally feeling like I was Penelope Cruz, by the way).
“Bien, bien,” she whispered as she rolled the giant wheeled trash can to the next office.
With that one “gracias,” I changed the game. Whenever I would see my friend, she’d try and talk slowly to me in Spanish. Most days, I didn’t know what the hell she was trying to say. Some days, I got it and could actually respond. And on those days, she smiled like a proud teacher watching her pupil grasp a new concept. She appreciated my effort.
And while we don’t speak the same language, I can literally sense what she wants to say in this strange, mother-to-mother, woman-to-woman, wise old sage-to-dumb young goofball sort of way.
When I was pregnant with my third child, I could tell that her internal monologue beckoned, “Girlfriend, get the hell out of dodge, go home to your two other babies and get some rest before you put yourself into pre-term labor.” If I was staying late on a beautiful summer night, I knew she wanted to scream, “If you don’t fold that laptop and go to the park with those yummy children in the gigantic picture on your desk, I’m going to karate chop you.” If I looked like I was falling asleep as I put some finishing touches on a document, I knew that she was restraining herself from sticking out her tongue and singing “nanny nanny foo foo — I told you that you were overdoing it, psychopath.”
On the many days that I left on time and caught her exiting the van as it parked, I could tell she wanted to do a victory dance for me and chant “Yes! I knew you could do it!”
To thank her for her enforcement of my work/life balance (and for the free Spanish lessons), I made sure that I always offered her what I could — free food from a party earlier that day, a wrapped box of chocolates from a client, or fresh, beautiful flowers that would otherwise spend their weekend alone and withering in an abandoned, hot office suite. Whenever I offered her these tokens, her face lit up as if I had passed along each of Oprah’s Favorite Things.
But nothing I gave her could top the gift she soon would give me.
In my office, I have a beautiful, wonderful, convenient …. ledge. (Yes, a ledge. A cheaply-painted, dirt brown ledge.)
While the ledge wouldn’t win any coveted office design awards, its ample depth provides a cozy home to my print version of “Kate, This is Your Life.” Spread erratically across its length are 20-25 photographs of my family, friends and fun moments from my career over the past 15 years.
If one stands close to the ledge, he or she will also have the (bonus!) opportunity to look out of the office window to see the lovely office park pond, replete with two swans and a glorious view of the local California Pizza Kitchen and Chinese all-you-can-eat buffet. Splendor, really (all things considered).
A while ago (key word being WHILE), my office manager asked me to clear the ledge. We were having services completed around the ledge and its adjoining friend, the window. My pictures all came down and were subsequently stacked all over my office. And while the service was wrapped up relatively quickly, for some reason, I couldn’t make the repopulation of the ledge a priority. I literally forgot all about it. True ledge neglect in its purest form.
My friend the nameless cleaning lady saw it as something deeper than ledge neglect. She saw it as her golden opportunity to finally communicate her wisdom to me — loud and clear, no English needed.
One evening when I wasn’t working late, she reconstructed my ledge. Every picture and every moment in time was carefully placed back (almost in its original order). And when I entered my office that morning, I stopped right away to take it all in, knowing full well who was responsible for this beautiful favor. I could see her face in my mind’s eye instantly and knew exactly what she was saying to me:
“Familia Es Muy Importante” (Family is Very Important).
She made sure that I wouldn’t forget it. Each time I glanced up from my computer, I took in the view of the ledge, which now served as a physical symbol of her edict and her desire for us to see less of each other.
About two weeks later, I ran into her in the hallway. She coming. Me going.
I couldn’t pull off “Did you reconstruct my ledge?” in Spanish.
So I winged it.
Using part sign language and part English, I asked her if she put my pictures back. For the first time, I was close enough to her to see the intelligent and strong eyes behind the murky bottlecap glasses.
“Sí,” she said, smiling. ”Sí. Sí. Sí.”
Giving her a big hug, I said:
“Gracias, mi amiga. Gracias.”