the rivers of it, abridged

New York City skyline at night


Fall 2010



My Helpmate
by Talia Carner

There were consequences to shattering the glass ceiling with my head: cracking my own skull was one of them. Eventually, though, I healed and moved on—even changed careers—putting it all behind. Or so I thought.

In the early 80s, dressed in a pinstripe suit, the bow at my collar mimicking my male colleagues' ties, I was clawing my way up the corporate ladder in a men's world steeped in misogyny, official gender discrimination, and corporate-endorsed sexual harassment. My first boss at Redbook magazine didn't even know I had children. After outshining my twenty male colleagues in annual revenues for the second year running (while earning half their salaries because "you have a husband,") I hung a photograph of my little girls on my office wall. "We don't hire mothers," my boss said upon spotting the photograph. Promoting a woman to management had never been considered before and now, with the revelation of my children's existence, I was out of the running for good. The irony that Redbook magazine targeted young mothers was lost on our management. Even our Editor-in-Chief was an aging man who advised millions of young women each month how to manage home, kitchen, and children. The underlying editorial assumption was that wives' sole reason to work—feminists were yet to convince the establishment that being a homemaker was "work"—was due to their husbands' failure to provide.

My daily commute from our suburban Long Island home to New York City added to the hours I was absent from home. Even as my husband Ron shouldered much of the household responsibilities, including the care for the two little girls I brought into the marriage, he had an office to run and a daughter and a son of his own to shuttle about. I needed a live-in housekeeper to manage our life as a combined family. I needed a wife.

Enter Malaya. After a string of failed housekeepers, Malaya responded to my newspaper ad. A middle-aged spinster from South Africa, where her Filipino origins with the lightest tinge of African blood marked her as "colored," she had arrived in the United States ten years before with one family, and had spent the recent six years with another. From the moment she entered our home, dressed in an off-white skirt suit, I liked the broad face that seemed to have been made of hard rubber. The delighted smile bunching up her cheeks as her gaze followed my preschooler who'd need most of her attention, sealed our agreement.

For the next eleven years Malaya ran our house with determination and devotion. Every evening I returned to a house smelling of lemon polish and a tasty dinner where each family member was served their favorite dish. Malaya was also familiar with Jewish cooking and on holidays prepared feasts for crowds. Soon, when the children needed to be chauffeured to play dates or after-school activities, we paid for her driving lessons and bought her a used car. She enjoyed traveling with us on winter ski weekends, where she would send us to the mountain with freshly baked rolls and thermoses filled with stew and hot chocolate. On these weekends, too, she did the laundry, cleaned and watched our non-skiing youngest, then joined us in our evening outings to the bowling alley or movie theater. I was the one who, concerned about spoiling our children, gave them chores and established a quota of points each had to meet in helping Malaya.

My "Domestic Goddess" had no family in the USA, but was deeply involved with her church in Brooklyn. On weekends and holidays, she stayed with fellow church-members, an aging brother-sister duo. Midweek evenings in her room, she spent on her own phone line on church business. Having grown up in apartheid, she basked in the absence of our family skin-color divide, yet drew her own comfort-zone as an employee. She served dinner and then retired immediately to let our family eat alone, our chance to chat with the children, hear about their schools and friends, and discuss issues from gerbils and haunted castles to Judaism and presidential election.

Malaya was talkative, and we soon learned about her fiancé who had impregnated another woman. The betrayed young Malaya lost her trust in men and never dated again. She insisted that we replace the queen-size bed in her room with a single cot. We also learned about her childhood in South Africa, growing up in a fishing village among a large family whose photographs decorated her room along with photos of Caucasian children she had raised in the over two decades prior to her living with us.

We also discovered that for her South African family, Malaya was "the rich aunt from America." She sent most of her earnings to them. The little she kept, she refused to deposit in a bank because in South Africa "once, a bank went out of business and everyone lost their money." Whenever we suggested that she open a bank account where we trusted our own money, she countered with "Have you been searching my room?"

When she had first moved in with us, I took it with humor when she would say "the Hortons didn't do it this way," and expected me to follow a phantom manual of her previous employers' little daily choices. I especially made a point of not relinquishing my children's psyche to "the Hortons"—nor to Malaya. Ron and I were in sync as we navigated the complexities of marriage, careers, shared values, and the merging of two sets of children. Malaya's job was to take over the physical management of our house. It was up to us—not "the Hortons"—to set the tone.

With the burden of running the house delegated, I could focus my short early mornings and longer evening hours on quality time with my children and weekends on my expanded family. We played Scrabble, Boggle, Pictionary and Monopoly; we painted, embroidered, crafted, and glued; we sang silly songs, planted tomatoes, assembled giant puzzles, and picnicked; I taught the children dance moves and wove thousands of bedtime stories well into their teenage years. Yet, true to a guarantee extracted by the new magazine management after a corporate buy-out, I took no time off to accompany my daughters' classes to the pumpkin farm or for Mother's Day lunches. Malaya did it. I used my sick days to attend school plays, and went to work when I was truly sick, while Malaya met the children's school bus and took them home for milk and cookies. She supervised their homework time, and Ron checked it for content.

With this backing at home, I was able to leap to the position of a publisher of a prestigious woman's magazine in a smaller company, only one out of four females to hold such a business—not editorial—position in the mid-80s among the top 200 largest USA-based magazines; the two dominant companies publishing women's magazines, Hearst and Conde-Nast, still assigned running their publications to men only. For the first time I was earning more than Malaya's salary, my pocket money, my commuting expenses—and the cost of therapy to deal with the sexual pestering of a new boss who viewed my rebuffing him as my "lack of team attitude."

Finally, pretending that motherhood was irrelevant to who I was ended. My brightest moment at my first meeting with my staff was revealing that I had children.

At that time Ron and I moved into a larger home, and Malaya opted out of her ground floor bedroom in favor of designing her own suite in the windowed basement, complete with a living room and a full bath with a tub. I was not alarmed when in the new house she referred to her queendom as "my kitchen" and would not let me near "her" pots or "her" stove. And as arthritis began settling in Malaya's shoulder, I budgeted the extra cost of a weekly service to perform the heavy cleaning duties. She was still the one to call the plumber or the appliance service. She shopped with our credit card. She arranged play dates with mothers who made an exception to trust "the help" in a suburb where no other mother was employed outside her home.

Since my bond with my biological daughters was sound, I viewed their attachment to their caretaker as healthy. However, as the years marched on, our household went through a slow transformation. I was the first to realize that it was a mutation, a gene gone awry in the evolution of our family cadence. While I set the rhythms and guarded our private quality time and our psychological spaces, Malaya's efficiency wove fishing nets of dependency around us. She insisted on polishing my husband's shoes and on pressing his shirts. She hand-washed my sweaters. Our son, who moved back with us for graduate school, enjoyed her delicious food at all hours of the day. Yet, her power turned to tyranny. No longer hiding behind "the Hortons," the dictates were Malaya's own. She loved the girls, but as each entered puberty, gone was the tenderness she had shown them when they were young. In the morning, I rushed to beat her to waking them up as she would shake their legs, yank their blankets, or call out impatiently from the doorways in what we secretly called "her Gestapo voice." She fresh-squeezed my orange juice each day, but would fight with me when I straightened "her" hall coat closet. At dinnertime, instead of retiring to her room and her phone, she'd hover on the stairwell, eavesdropping, and would break into our conversations. She snitched about one family member to another in an annoyed tone on matters that had nothing to do with her.

"An intelligent, capable woman who chose not to have her own home and family has problems we can never fully comprehend," I told Ron. "Our house and family are the center of her being; we must show her compassion."

One day, when my car needed to be repaired, I asked Malaya when it would be convenient for her to lend me hers. In response, she turned to my daughter who was having a snack at the kitchen table. "Because of your mother you'll miss the birthday party."

"You'll never again turn my child against me," I told Malaya, my voice hard as steel. "Never."

"I quit!" Swiveling away from the stove, she flung the pan and the spatula into the sink and strode off.

I stood rooted in place, shaking in fury. The equation was clear. My children's loyalties should not be challenged in our home, the nest of their emotional safety.

An hour later, Malaya acted as if nothing had transpired. I chose to forgive.

Malaya's dream was to travel to South Africa to visit her many brothers and sisters and see their children, but since they needed her money for a house they were building, she could save little. One brother and two sisters had died by the time she managed to take that trip more than twenty years after leaving South Africa. According to her report, the whole village came out to welcome her, waving the American flag. There was music and laughter. Her brothers and their broods of children—some already married and parents themselves—proudly showed her the large house they had built with her money. The love, respect and gratitude she received were worth two decades of sacrifice.

Life went on in our household while the shifts in Malaya's internal weather systems flashed warning signals on our emotional radars and became more frequent. Malaya's cold front was closing in, angry mumbling and curt admonitions were soon followed by the eclipse of the sun—or a cyclone. One day, I returned from work to find a kitchen cabinet door hanging lopsided, deep scratches inside it and two broken drawers indicating rampage. "The drawer was stuck," she said. Although my PMS never brought wreckage, I sympathized with her menopausal mood and made no comment as I hired a carpenter.

Usually the eruption demarcated the end of the stormy weather, and calm would settle upon the house for a few months. Malaya was back to her old cheery self, and her magic wand took care of everything, lulling me into gratitude. Little by little, though, her irritability would rise, her tone would turn belligerent, and she would bad-mouth us to the chimney sweeper or water-meter reader.

Our teenage children would have reported any abuse, I knew, but they weren't mature enough to diagnose what I was seeing: the quiver of arrows she used to exert control.

"The dynamics in our house are sick," I told my husband. Malaya dominated the air. She was the most vocal person in our large household. She was the only one who no longer respected the space we gave one another. When she did not have her way on matters small or large, she would announce, "I quit."

How could we let go of the most indispensible person among us? Even if I didn't have a career, I would not have been the all-consuming homemaker Malaya was. I'd be out and about like my neighborhood mothers, shopping one day and returning merchandize the next, ordering takeout meals, and rising to the weekly challenge of separating white from the color wash. And having lived through many bitter experiences with incompetent, indolent and dishonest help, I knew that I would only throw my life into complete chaos. I reminded myself that "The devil you know is better than the one you don't," and enlisted Ron in my tiptoeing around her demands and moods.

I had told Malaya many times that if she controlled her temper, she could live with us until old age. Her age, though, was an issue. When she was a child, one day a government official arrived in her remote fishing village. He listed all the children, giving them an estimated year of birth, dating all their birthdays as July 1st. "I was two years older than my brother. Now I am two years younger," she told me. She must inform the gynecologist about this four years mistake, I told her when she went to consult with him about her menopause. It was even more important, I explained, that she would have to work four more years before collecting Social Security benefits. It might be fixed if, on her visit to South Africa, she presented witnesses and her brother's documents, which he had since corrected. She never did.

In the years Malaya was sending money to South Africa, we advised her that the house she was paying for should be put in her name even if she would never live there. As all our financial guidance was met with resistance, so was this advice ignored. But Ron insisted we pay her on the books, get her medical insurance, and take out taxes and Social Security so she would receive benefits at retirement age.

And then came the morning in the early 90s, when I nursed a cup of coffee in the kitchen after Ron had left for his office while I was planning a rare day of working from home; the winds of change had long sent me to open my own consulting firm with five offices across the country.

"Do you have enough cash for the cleaners?" I asked Malaya.

Instead of a reply, she withdrew from the drawer the wallet in which we kept money for small expenses and threw it at me.

The fight that ensued was not different from those that had taken place over the last few years when Malaya's rage peaked. It was my husband's reaction, though, when I called to report this fight that broke the pattern.

"Yes, I knew there'd be trouble when I left you alone in the kitchen with her," he told me, and a chill climbed up my spine. Not only Ron's internal barometer of Malaya's moods had predicted that the volcano was about to erupt, he had known that I was in the direct path of it. I also discovered that she had beaten me in reaching him to complain about me. She believed we were on equal footing when it came to claiming my husband's good will. She believed that he would side with her against me. Over what?

Had Ron and I been complicit in allowing Malaya to overstep the boundaries, or was the situation inevitable given her willfulness?

The sick dance that had taken hold of our household must be exorcised, I told Ron later. The house was hers, the kitchen was hers, my children were hers, and she did for him everything she would do for her own man since she craved no intimacy. The only problem was that I was still walking this earth. "We got so used to her dominating our psyche, we don't see how pathological our dynamics have become," I said. In our combined family, we had successfully created a new universe where two sets of children fully considered themselves siblings. All six of us got along, some even spectacularly.

Nodding miserably, mumbling how he loved his starched shirts, Ron agreed that in our "Brady Bunch" family the housekeeper was no Alice. It was time to end dictatorship.

It was October. That evening, before our hearts eased back into the routine acceptance of the dripping poison that had seeped into our collective consciousness, I wrote Malaya a long letter. Thanking her for her eleven years of service and devotion, I requested that she seek a position elsewhere. She could leave now or stay until the first of the year—her choice. Either way, she would get the large Christmas bonus, which had been our way of saving money for her. I held back from writing how her disrespect of me as a human being echoed the maltreatment I had suffered under my chauvinistic employers; that she had never been treated in our house with less than empathy and kindness.

Malaya chose to stay through Christmas, and our home settled into a couple of pleasant months. The soft part of our relationship restored, Malaya and I resumed our old bantering, playing with words as we imitated each other's accent. While I worked sixty hours a week, our youngest, now in high school, drove herself around, reducing Malaya's chores. At times, one of the children would ask us to reconsider the decision to let Malaya go—after all, who would cook? When I said that I would, they suggested that I might try starting small, perhaps a breakfast… But even they didn't grasp that Malaya was my helpmate, "my wife." I was overwhelmed by what awaited me. Every bit of responsibility formerly shouldered by her would be mine to deal with. The sacrifice was all mine. Yet, in moments when fondness and regret battled in equal measures, my indignation helped me restore my old vision of a tranquil family life and a secure home.

"We've each been through a tough divorce before," I consoled my husband as much as myself. "We came through happier. We'll get through this one, too."

In January 1993, Malaya started working for a recent widower. She moved into his posh home in Westchester county, where she was assigned a beautiful upstairs room and the late wife's BMW. Pleased with her new position, she joined the local church and soon immersed herself in that community. For the next decade, she became the gatekeeper of the widower's love life, fielding women's phone calls and giving him a piece of her mind about the ones she served her delicious dinners. His married children discovered her culinary talents, and she delighted them with her holiday meals. She traveled with them on their vacations, caring for the host of grandchildren. And when the widower died, she moved in with one of his daughters' family. Soon enough though, in an echo of the problems in our household, the daughter asked Malaya to live elsewhere, but hired her as a full-time day nanny. Now in her late-sixties, Malaya could no longer do household work.

Since her South African house had been completed, she sent less money and saved for a second trip. She didn't want to wait twenty more years and managed to get there just several years after her first visit. By then, her closest brother had also died. All the second generation families living in her house were busy. No one came to welcome her.

The details of the rest of this visit were never fully recounted, but there was no more talk of another trip. Nor were there any savings after a lifetime of hard work and frugal living.

In the eighteen years since Malaya had left our employment, I embraced the silence of a house emptied even of the last of my children and turned to writing fiction full-time. Malaya and I kept in loose touch. Some years we exchanged a Christmas or a birthday card. I invited her to our children's weddings.

Nevertheless, I had not expected the turn of events when my youngest daughter, now a high-power career mother herself, called me in tears. In her mid-seventies, Malaya was sick and poor. Her eyesight partially gone, her arthritic fingers locked, Malaya was unable to find work. I called and learned that the Social Security my husband had insisted upon covered Malaya's rent of a small room in someone's suburban home, rescuing her from homelessness. Her medical bills were large and mounting. Her formerly size 14 body had shrunk to size 8 because she had no money for food. She had no clothes to fit her new frame. And there was no one to drive her around. The new church to which she had devoted the most recent decade and a half —a mixed congregation of the local wealthy Caucasians and their African-American help—did not reciprocate. Her previous Brooklyn church friends had either died, were too far away and too old, or had forgotten her in the intervening years. "I never understood how someone can end up poor and alone," my daughter said when I reported back. "Now I do."

And as I put yet another large check in the mail to Malaya and pack for her my favorite cream-colored suit that reminds me of the first time we met, I recall my years of cracking the glass ceiling while the woman who helped me became an enemy within. And I struggle with the question of why I support her so many years later, and for how long.


Author Talia Carner's heart-wrenching suspense novels, PUPPET CHILD and CHINA DOLL, were hailed for exposing society's ills. Her next novel, JERUSALEM MAIDEN, depicting a woman's struggle for self-expression against her society's religious dictates will be published by HarperCollins in June 2011. Carner's award-winning personal essays appeared in The New York Times, Chocolate For Women anthologies [Simon & Schuster], Cup of Comfort [Adams Media] and The Best Jewish Writing 2003 (John Wiley & Son). Her short stories were published in literary magazines such as Midstream, Lynx Eye, River Sedge, Moxie, Lilith, Rosebud, Confrontation and North Atlantic Review. An excerpt from JERUSALEM MAIDEN is now short-listed as a finalist for Eric Hoffer Short Prose Award and will appear in The Best New Writing 2011.