By Martina Reaves
She first arrived at our front door when we lived in Albany at the top of the hill. Skinny and dark black, she looked like a Kenyan long-distance runner and seemed ageless. “Hi, I’m Wanda, your new housekeeper from Marvel Maids.”
We picked Marvel Maids because it paid Social Security, withheld taxes, and presumably paid reasonable hourly rates. Wanda came every other Friday, and was usually finishing up just as I came home from work. Wearing sweatpants, a T-shirt, and a bandana, she’d usually be on her hands and knees washing the kitchen floor, which she always did last.
We often chatted about books and found we had the same taste—well-written mysteries and fiction. She devoured the books I loaned her, returning each one the next time she came.
Several months after she started working for us, I mentioned how much I appreciated it that the art on the walls wasn’t hanging crooked when she left. Her predecessor, William, always left everything a little askew.
Wanda said that housekeepers were trained to move tchotchkes and tip pictures on the walls so that clients would know everything had been cleaned. I told her that it often seemed to me that William just moved things!
“I did a William today on the basement room,” she said the next time she came. “I ran out of time.”
From then on, I’d tell her which rooms only needed “a William” and which ones needed a thorough cleaning.
One Friday, she said, “I am so tired. And I still have to go into San Francisco.”
“I have to go every Friday after work to take my checks to the company. They scheduled me in the Oakland Hills this morning and here this afternoon. It took two hours to get here by bus, so I got started late.” It was now 5:30.
I was incensed. It would be another two hours of public transportation simply to deliver the checks and get back to her house in Berkeley.
“What do they pay you per hour?” I asked.
I no longer recall her exact answer, but it was something like $8 or $10 an hour of the $25 per hour we paid the company.
“Wanda, if you went out on your own, you’d get the whole $25 per hour. There are plenty of people who would hire you. We’ll help you. Our friends would hire you.”
In those days, I was ready to fix the world when I thought anything was unfair.
She was reluctant. “I don’t know,” she said. “I’ve been thinking about it. I’ll let you know if I’m ready.”
A year later, Wanda proudly announced that she was leaving Marvel Maids and going out on her own. Since there was a non-competition clause in her contract, she was going to keep us and one other couple as clients. Everyone else would be new.
“Go for it,” we said. “If they hassle you, just let us know.”
And sure enough, someone from Marvel Maids tracked Wanda to the other couple’s house. Terrified, she brought us a threatening letter from their lawyer. My wife Tanya wrote them on her lawyer letterhead, informing the company that Wanda had a free lawyer who would fight this to the bitter end if they continued to harass her.
Thankfully, nobody heard from them again.
Wanda loved the Raiders and margaritas. Each year, she went to a few games with friends, dressed to the nines in black and silver, ready to be rowdy and have a good time. She regaled us with stories of her clothes and her friends and the party scene at the games. Once, Tanya made jars of margaritas from the Zuni Café recipe to smuggle into the game. Wanda reported they were a big hit.
Wanda worked for us for twenty years or so–from the mid-1980s until she moved to Las Vegas to help care for her parents, sometime around 2005. After she moved, we talked three or four times a year by phone and got together occasionally when she came to town to see the Raiders play.
When I spoke with her last December, she was struggling with the lung/flu problems that she seemed to get every winter. But this time it felt different. She sounded weaker. I was glad her daughter Cheryl lived nearby.
We knew the end was near when she missed calling for both my birthday and our son Cooper’s birthday in February. Everyone else might occasionally forget or be late, but Wanda always called on the very day of our birthdays.
Wanda died a few months later in the spring.
So for the love of Wanda, we were going to her celebration-of-life party. I was both nervous about going and honored to be invited. We’d met some of Wanda’s children and grandchildren over the years, but we weren’t actually woven into the fabric of her life. Still, we’d been connected for more than thirty years.
We received multiple phone invitations from Cheryl with the date, time, and address of the party, and even got a reminder by text the day of the event. We were not going to miss this occasion.
Loaded with beer iced in a cooler and two enormous pizzas, we asked Siri to direct us to the address in Richmond. Winding along a circuitous route off Highway 580, we arrived at a small house on a treeless street on a hot, sunny May afternoon a week before what would have been Wanda’s 76th birthday.
Her ashes were in a plain wooden box in the living room. I said hello to her as we passed through the dark, cool house and emerged into a bright backyard filled with picnic tables adorned in checkered tablecloths. Cheryl threw her arms around us. “You came! You came!”
As I expected, we were the only white people in a group that eventually swelled to 150 or so.
“How do you know Wanda?” I asked a regal older woman sitting at the table. She wore an elegant dress and hat in earthy tones and sat straight, shoulders back. She and Wanda had been lifelong friends, she said, and Wanda cleaned her house, too. As we talked, I learned that she was 93 and still driving. Her children and grandchildren came and went, bringing her drinks and food and hugs as if she were the queen.
One of her daughters sat next to me. Dressed in a tie-dyed dress, she looked no-muss, no fuss, more prepared for a barbecue than her mother did. When she mentioned work, I asked what she did. An investment analyst for Wells Fargo for more than 20 years, she was wondering what she might do next. It was clear that she didn’t love the bank, so I told her my horror story of working for Bank of America in the 1970s, describing the way they treated women and their sexist dress policies. She told me it was better in banking now—“but not that much better,” she grinned.
An older woman arrived, dolled up in Raiders gear: silver necklaces, a flamboyant hat, high heels, sparkling black clothes. All of Wanda’s kids greeted her warmly. When she got to our table, she said, “You must be the lawyers. She talked about you all the time. She had The Lawyers and The Poets.” The poets, both internationally acclaimed, were the other couple she had kept from her Marvel Maids days. I wondered why this woman figured we were the lawyers and not the poets. Was it that obvious?!!
“How long were you and Wanda friends?” I asked.
“Since we were five years old in kindergarten,” she answered. “Wanda was my Raiders buddy. I went to Las Vegas to help take care of her in the last few months of her life.”
A tall, handsome man arrived. He looked at Tanya and me and pointed, “I know you!”
“It’s been ages,” I said. At first, I wasn’t certain who he was, but when he smiled, I realized he was Wanda’s son.
“It’s been a few years,” he said.
“More than that,” I said. “It was before Wanda moved to Las Vegas!” And we mumbled all that stuff about time flying by.
“Here’s a story that you’ve never heard,” I said. “Remember when you helped move that wardrobe from Tanya’s mother’s house to Wanda’s house?”
“All Tanya’s mother talked about for weeks and weeks was that you were the handsomest man she’d ever seen. When we told her we were coming here today, she told that story all over again!”
He grinned. “A lot has changed since then,” he said, pointing to his graying hair.
After more than two hours of eating and socializing, Tanya and I decided it was time for us to leave. But as we got up, all of Wanda’s grandkids stopped us. “Wait, just for a minute. Please.”
They scrambled around and stood in a line before the group to thank everyone for coming. And then they said they wanted to especially thank the people who had done extras, like Jeannie, whose house we were in. And us. We had sent a check to help with expenses after Wanda died. They gave Tanya and me a red plastic basket with two wine glasses, a bottle of bubbly apple cider, and two white satin roses.
As we left, I got more hugs than I’ve gotten at any event in my life except our wedding. The red gift basket sat on our kitchen table for a month, until our fourteen- year-old great-niece arrived and broke open the bubbly apple cider.
Martina is a retired mediator of family and neighbor disputes. She lives in Berkeley with her wife Tanya Starnes. She writes personal essays and is putting the finishing touches on her memoir about raising her son Cooper in a two-mom household and surviving a diagnosis of terminal cancer.