Friday, May 23, 2008

Domestic ghosts

I've been doing another clean-out this week. This time I am in an old estate mansion kind of thing in Bar Harbor. The property is fairly small, with only a small lawn and a couple small gardens, but the view is breath-taking.

I spent a couple days cleaning out the cellar, disposing of scrap lumber and long-dead mice and even some very old, muddy lump coal. But Thursday I worked on the attic. The property owners are getting ready to sell the place and need to get some junk out. I borrowed Josh for the day and we headed up to the third floor of this place.

The third floor is where the staff - maids, actually, used to live. There are three rooms tucked in under the eaves, and each probably held anywhere from two to four girls. The ceilings are slanted at crazy angles because of the roof lines and each room only had a limited area where a person can stand upright. The views from the windows in these rooms were still pretty spectacular, although certainly not what the wealthier residents on the other two floors enjoyed.

As I swept out the rooms, I was struck by the feeling of what it must have been like to be a domestic servant in these rooms back in the day. It was common for girls to leave home at 13 or 14, or even 12 to work for the summer as domestic help. Many came from local farms, and some came from Canada. Some were immigrants, some were migrant workers who came for a season. We found what looked to be some kind of prayer card in one of the rooms. It said something in French about the heart of Jesus.

How difficult it must have been to be a young woman, a girl, still, in those days. A bell was mounted to the wall in the hallway. several wires ran from it, indicating that there were lots of places that a girl could be summoned from. What it must have been like to live in those tiny, cramped rooms, far from home, perhaps not speaking English very well, and at the mercy of the upper class who largely regarded the help as sub-human.

What those girls must have endured - 14 to 20 hour days of washing and scrubbing and waiting and fussing and ironing and serving, in starched, spotless uniforms, for very little pay and one afternoon off each week. They were often at the mercy of the whims of the male members of the household as well, expected to service their sexual needs by unspoken rule, only to be banished in shame from both employ and home family if they came up pregnant. The men, of course, suffered no recourse.

As I swept these rooms, I could almost hear whispers of their voices, laughing and giggling together, quietly muffling sobs alone.

So many Irish girls came over to work as domestic servants. So many women of my stock but of a different world came to work in those grand homes but to live in the stifling garrets.

How lucky I am that I can come into a house like that and charge my own rate, set my own terms, and leave when I choose. How blessed I am to have been born when I was and not 100 years earlier. It has been a thoughtful kind of week. I am glad to be who I am, where I am, now. I am most fortunate.

1 comment:

MRMacrum said...

Excellent post! What else is there to say? Give me a moment. Um, no. Just a very good post.

As a member of one of the type of families you describe as upper class (both sides have now slid back into normal with the rest of us), I followed my father's footsteps and refused to enter the game as it had been played in our family for decades, maybe centuries.

I acually met JFK in Bar Harbor one weekend in 1963 when my mom dragged me up there to rub shoulders with richer and more affluent friends. I was impressed with Jack as I was only 11, but less than impressed with how my age group peers treated the help that was every where. I think it was that visit that set the tone for my future withdrawal from the white collar elite lifestyle.

Your post brought it all pouring back. Thanks.