We called her “our Lizzie”. Not possessively out of dominance, but fondly as one of us. She was never the ‘maid’ nor the ‘girl’. She was Lizzie. This is a tribute to a remarkable lady, but also to the countless number of similar women who, as Lizzie did, left their families to look after the families of others. Brave souls with little choice, strong hearts and absolute resolve.
Lizzie: mother, nanny and cleaner. Sylvia: ex-pat, pregnant and needing some help. Lizzie became an integral part of the nuclear unit and yet, essentially, remained on the periphery due to regulated circumstance.
I owe her my life.
I was two years old when I fell into the newly built swimming pool. My mother couldn’t swim but Lizzie could. She dived in without hesitation and brought me to the surface.
She gave us her life.
Lizzie’s daughter Sunny, aged 17, died in a motor vehicle accident when I was about five or six years old. I can remember sitting on the floor with her as she continued to grieve some time later. Lizzie explained to me years on that she considered ending her life from the rafters in the garage. She thought of me, my twin and my single mother. That was her reason to stay.
She was our protector.
In the days of pass books and restricted movement, it was Lizzie who refused any threat of policemen in yellow vans attempting to round up ladies on the pavement, chatting while the children played. At first sight she called us in. I remember her saying, “they’ll never take me, I can’t leave you alone”.
She became our mother.
My mother divorced when I was three and assumed sole breadwinner status. She deferred much of the mothering to Lizzie who saw to three meals a day, school walks, washing, cleaning, ironing and babysitting after hours. Lizzie granted us permission to do things or visit friends. We shared tea and ironing. We looked after each other when either was ill. I could tell Lizzie things I never told others.
Our mother retired.
As was inevitable, “home” beckoned Lizzie’s return. She was tired and ready to go back. It was a natural decision in so many ways, and yet, in others, it was odd. She had given 30 years of service, but had transcended being an employee and had become like a family member. Strangely, her return home signalled the end of a working contract and brought forth the rude awakening of the contractual formality underlying a lifetime of her personal presence.
Her physical life ended.
In 2012, about 10 years later, Lizzie fell ill and her family let us know. I visited Lizzie in hospital – she was in a diabetes-induced coma. I kissed her forehead and held her hand. I’m sure I felt her squeeze it gently – her last reserves still able to let me know she was present, even if just for a moment. I chatted to her, as had been familiar all of my 40 years. It was the last of our meaningful moments in her lifetime.
Lizzie’s memory remains.
At her home and final resting place, I attended her funeral, burial and later her tombstone unveiling. What struck me hardest was how she entered our lives as an employee, was embraced as a family member but finally exited as a retiree of all those duties. It didn’t really make sense. And it still doesn’t.
The disparity is confusing.
In all her years of service, Lizzie wasn’t able to build more than a small two-roomed home, without ablutions, to see her through her final years. It was touching to see photos of me and my children in her room, as well as furniture from my childhood years. It was disturbing to see the stark difference between the privileged context within which we had lived together for 30 years and the bare minimum she had managed to secure for her own life in her final years.
A personal tribute.
I can’t speak for the women who offer such loyalty and unconditional love. But what needs our considered attention and deepest empathy is what we ask of people to whom we assign duties beyond standard job descriptions. Lizzie was one woman but she represents the lives of many who leave their own families to enter the homes of others. We need to think what it means while in service and decades on – both for those who sacrificed and for those who benefitted.
Ke al leboga my Lizzie. And ke a leboga to all in similar service.
Featured image: Lizzie. Artist: Sylvia. Medium: Oil. Date: 14 Nov 1975