Tal Abbady

UNDER THE HOUSEKEEPER’S WATCH

The house was sold. That was the news from Venezuela. In October, amid tightening controls on private property, through fears of economic collapse and threatened home invasions that had stalled the process for years, my sisters and I finally sold our childhood home in Caracas. The sale of Quinta Solete (“Little Sun”), when it was final, brought deep relief. It also left me feeling oddly unmoored – the same furniture and carpets that were the contours of my world as a kid remained at the time of sale. My father, who rightfully claimed these things, ultimately abandoned them there. But it was our family’s designated TV room that my mind leapt to, the room where I’d been surrogate-raised by my family’s housekeeper of 40 years. It would soon be rubble, that languisher’s haven of ours. We’d been raised in a fringe of wealth under our maid’s constant watch. We’d sat on fault lines that would eventually crack open our country, if not our home. According to President Nicolas Maduro, who has condemned soap-operas as the cause of homicidal sprees in Venezuela, we came of age in a lethal little incubator.

Growing up, I told few people about Yolanda and that she shared her corner of our house with the dogs. Most middle and upper-class Venezuelan families had live-in maids. Even the houses were built with maids’ quarters. But school children rarely spoke of their maids. Every Sunday, in her closet-sized bathroom, I’d watch Yolanda pull curlers from her hair and pencil in her best eyebrows for church or a date with friends. My younger sister and I often played in her “quarters.” Her room was a small, squared space just steps from the back patio. During the day, our three golden retrievers stretched and panted in that patio, and ate mangos that fell from the mango tree flared above their heads. At night, they slept inside, pressed like supplicants against Yolanda’s door.

Unlike other kids’ maids, Yolanda never tried to be my confidante. She braided my hair, yelled up the stairs that dinner was ready and was the quiet witness to the self-absorbed lurches of my adolescence. When I was 14 and in the grip of a bad depression, dropping hints to my bewildered parents that I planned to commit suicide, Yolanda was secretly dispatched to hound me around the house. Once, I ignored her tapping on my locked bedroom door. She grabbed a steak knife, rammed it into the keyhole and forced her way in. Do you want some arepas, she wanted to know, knife in hand.

More critically, Yolanda was the enabler of our soap addictions. My sister and I spent hours with her in the TV room with its sliding-door window, traffic hum and the thumb-sized roaches that lived in my parents’ book collection. We watched every episode of Cristal and Topacio, 1980s soap-operas that got housewives and military generals alike to put their feet up at nine o’clock sharp. The stories were always a variation on the same themes: women impregnated by priests-in-training or landowning heirs smitten with Vogue-worthy slum girls. Telenovelas were our national crack.

Yolanda would bring us trays of shredded beef and fried plantains. Then she would wedge herself between my sister and I and the three of us ate and snarled at the unconvincing snubs of Carlos Mata’s character. In the end he would be on his knees for working girl Jeannette Rodriguez – bridging poverty and wealth, setting an re-setting their country’s fractured political bones.

I nursed fantasies of being the sleek-haired barrio girl played by Grecia Colmenares in Topacio and was blithely unaware of Yolanda’s “before” life – that she’d left Barranquilla, Colombia for lack of work opportunities; that a sweet-talker there had left her pregnant and took off, derailing her plan to become a hairdresser. It turned out the teenager who showed up one day on our doorstep was the daughter she’d left behind.

Yolanda’s skin was always cool to the touch and thin as an old shirt, even in the damp congestion of that room. Above us was a Guayasamin painting of the mountains surrounding Quito – where my father spent more and more of his time. I’d been to Quito as a girl when my parents had planned a move there, bringing Yolanda with them. We all stayed in a house in Cotapaxi with a swimming pool that simmered with black worms. If you split them in half, which I did with murderous gusto, you had two worms that pulsed equally with life. I admired the worms’ solution for death, their awful ubiquity. I spent that summer in the real, cold fog of Guayasamin’s mountains, eating fresh berry ice-cream, splitting worms and playing with the children of the Andean groundskeeper my father had hired. His two sons made a game of peeing on my legs, and my mother would have to chase them off.

Just before the start of school, a bloody coup attempt ended our pastoral days in Quito. My father continued building his business there and split his time between Venezuela (where we resettled with Yolanda) and Ecuador. The family narrative held that my parents had an unassailable marriage despite the fact that he was rarely around. Years later I would learn I had two Ecuadorean half-sisters, born in a parallel life, while I was growing up.

Back in Caracas, we kept telling ourselves Yolanda was part of the family. We’d never had it any other way – she had been there since our births, cooking, cleaning, accompanying us on our beach vacations, co-parenting and receding into her corner at night. My mother scolded me if I ever referred to her as ‘maid.’ She bought Yolanda clothes and gifts from the U.S. She and my father also bought her two small apartments in Caracas so Yolanda could own property and earn rental income. Still, the question of her custodial, salaried rank in our home sometimes jabbed us in the ribs. Yolanda often joined us for restaurant dinners and concerts. One night, we’d all been getting ready to go to hear Ilan Chester, a cross-generational pop star. Yolanda wore a floral-patterned dress my mother had bought her. Then an old friend of my father’s showed up unannounced. My father offered him Yolanda’s ticket, no questions asked. A reconfiguration shuddered through the room. I did not offer to stay home instead. I simply watched Yola, as we called her, walk with bloodshot eyes back to her quarters.

On a trip with us to New York years later, awed at the sight of shops lit like cathedrals and humming mobs, Yolanda wanted to rush to the one store she’d read about – Macy’s. “We’ll see about that,” said my mother, cutting her off. When she contacted a friend in New Jersey and asked to extend her stay in the U.S. to visit the woman, my mother denied this. “Who’s going to take care of Quinta Solete!” my mother said. Yolanda didn’t ask again. That night I heard her padding around the room we shared, unable to sleep. The next morning, my mother, newly diagnosed with the cancer that would end her life, served Yolanda breakfast and took her shopping. To the outside world they stood on opposites of an unquestioned social chasm in Latin America – maid and employer. But they steadied each other as they walked down the sidewalk. They’d both known the preternatural loneliness of unhappy bonds with men. My mother was, by then, standing fearfully on the edge of my father’s life as he was mostly gone and preoccupied with a second family he’d formed during their marriage. “I’ve caught el viejo with his hand in the candy jar!” Yolanda once hissed over the phone to me one day when my mother and I were living in New York. My dad had brought a mistress to stay with him in Solete, and Yolanda had been asked to wash her clothes. The open rage in her voice was unfamilar. When I was young, the tall, severe-looking black man in a suit who occasionally appeared in our home to see Yola was the man who’d run off after her baby was born, my mother had gently explained to me years ago.

After my sisters and I had left Venezuela to make lives abroad, and my parents, too, had left, Yolanda moved into my little sister’s bedroom upstairs. From that perch, she tended to the empty house that my parents had no intention of selling. We were gone, but Yolanda dusted the furniture and washed the floors. Well-loved, she received visitors. She waited for our own scarce visits and never took down the torn, circa-1980 horse posters in my room, or the yellowed clippings of pop star Ilan Chester that my sister tacked to her wall in 1986. When our late -childhood parrot, Roberto Carlos, died, she bought another parrot. His name: Roberto Carlos. All around her the plaster was cracking. The family pets had died. But these things had no admission in the moldering fort of our home.

Neither did seismic political change. When left-wing president Hugo Chavez started rolling out his Bolivarian revolution, sending tremors through upscale neighborhoods like ours, Yolanda was hardly jarred. “Ese loco,” she called Chavez. Crime soared. Thousands left the country. The rich feared being dispossessed. Rumors spread that pro-Chavez squatters were occupying homes that sat empty or were “underused.” Twice, thieves tried to break into the house, scattered by alarmed neighbors who were quick to call the police. Yolanda, sole occupant, never considered leaving Quinta Solete. She would continue to inhabit the rooms where my 80s yearbooks sat in neat stacks and my now-dead mother’s clothes hung in plastic from the drycleaners.

Every time I called from New York or Florida, or wherever I was pretending not to lead a miserably lonely life, it was the same question: “Cuando vienes?” When are you coming? She had conceived her own law of return for us, and she had faith that we would come out of our awful dispersion outside Quinta Solete.

“Do you remember the other day when we were caught in that rainstorm in Chacao?” she once asked during a call. “That was fifteen years ago,” I said, wanting to hang up and avoid her sadness, just like I could barely stand to read letters she wrote with grief-stricken affection. Her words kicked up my own mourning for our old landscape. For home. I resented her intrusions, even if I knew full well that my own life had thinned since leaving Solete, since the drenching, iron rains of Caracas, since running like hunchbacks from our street to the front door during a storm.

The last time I saw Yolanda, she was shrunken and wasted few words. I was holding my 8-month-old son.

“Don’t give him the pacifier,” she ordered with a strange new power to give commands.

I pulled the rubber plug from my baby’s mouth and uncorked his squealing. I held him up like a prize turkey and she smiled. At 38 – when women contemplated being grandmothers in the Barranquilla of Yola’s youth – I’d finally become a mother. For years I’d been a reporter in South Florida, but that credential meant little to her. A baby – that was the natural order of things, the answer to her perpetual question, asked with undisguised concern as I aged into my childless mid-thirties: Still no boyfriend?

But the smile was just a flicker. Yolanda lay on a small bed I’d never seen before, in the television room, losing her short battle with stomach cancer. The TV had been quiet for weeks, its black screen glinting sunlight from the window. Yola’s niece and grandnieces had moved into the house to care for her, and then lived in it until the sale to deter squatters. My sister and I had flown in from Florida. We joined them in what was a quiet vigil, one where the living grope around the dying with the dumbfounded recognition of what their own bodies can look forward to.

Yolanda said little – even a few words seemed to gut her energy – except to make the sort of requests she’d never made before. “Take him away,” she told me once when my son sat and babbled on the edge of her bed. Otherwise, she lay in bed with a proprietary air, bemused at all the fuss around her. And she studied us. She studied our faces with that same wrenching focus that my mother had in her last days. I felt her grafting my image onto some canvas of the mind, making it hers for the taking. And I understood that this is who I was, someone with no real national claims. American. Venezuelan. It hardly mattered. I was someone lucky enough to have been one of Yola’s charges in a country called Solete.

A few days into my stay, my brother-in-law lifted Yolanda into the wheelchair he’d rented for her. He pushed her outside to the garden where she used to plant roses and serve us mugs of chocolate milk. I thought I’d go sit with her, spot possums in the trees like old times and ignore my dread of how little she weighed and how watchful she’d become from that last vantage point in our TV room.

But I couldn’t stay. I left the vigil. Two days before Yolanda died, I was in Tel-Aviv in a long-distance call center full of Eritrean immigrants. I dialed the number and Yolanda’s niece – our home’s new keeper – put the phone to her ear. Yolanda couldn’t talk. She was all breath. But I felt her listening. She can hear you, a nurse once said of my dying, silenced mother. Hearing is the last thing to go. I spoke Yolanda’s name into the receiver and heard her silence. I hated how far I’d drifted from her, from the things I’d known as a child, from the room that had held us as the TV droned with stories of sudden wealth and classless love. The sky darkened on my end, or it was already dark and I hadn’t noticed. I said her name again. Two young men just outside my cabin door drank sodas and chatted in Arabic. She was still listening.

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Tal Abbady‘s writing has appeared in The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, BBC Travel, The Satirist and other publications. She was born and raised in Venezuela and lives in Madrid.