What is work? For a long period in my life I had an inverted snobbery about work, feeling that only unpaid work, those labours of love that you would continue to do regardless of financial reward, had any value.
My first foray into the world of work came when I was 14 years old and responded to an advert for a ‘girl’ to help with 3 children. I’m not sure how altruistic my intentions were at this time, but I quite enjoyed playing Playdoh and pushing the smallest child in her buggy. I gained a window into a whole other world: – life as an Orthodox Jew. The children (all girls) had unpronounceable Hebrew names, and spoke in an abrubt manner which was new to me, although I admired their directness. When the eldest child, at five years old, said
‘I’m going to marry B when I grow up,’ her Mum didn’t laugh as mine would have done, but assumed a thoughtful expression.
‘Hmm’, she said ‘nice family. Yes, we’ll see.’
This was a world of arranged marriages and large, chaotic families. The mother, M, was 27, to me she seemed very old but she spoke to me about her life and her marriage. She felt sorry for me because of the dangerous world I was living in, which she had read about in books. She spoke to me of her marriage, where, she said, friendship was key and ‘love comes with time’.
Her marriage did seem very harmonious. Her husband treated her with courtesy and respect, and on the one occasion they had an argument she showed me a card he had written admitting to being wrong and telling her he loved her, with girlish excitement.
I babysat for them one night. M wore a wig, starched into an unmoving style. Her hair underneath, which she showed me once (although only her husband was supposed to see it) was soft brown and curly. I would creep into her bedroom when the kids were asleep and try on her wig, imagining myself in that life, surrounded by people and children and laughter all the time. I imagined that none of them could ever get lonely.
She came home, giggling and flustered, her husband drunk.
‘You…embarrassment!’ she said to her husband, although she was laughing. He had told all the guests ‘You see my wife wearing make-up. I don’t understand why she does this. She is so beautiful, look at her. She doesn’t need it.’
M was not conventionally beautiful, she was skinny with freckles and a hooked nose, but her eyes twinkled blue and her smile was conspiratorial, it drew you in.
I felt that an arranged marriage was not such a bad thing, watching these two together.
This was a long and happy employment, lasting over 2 years. It kept me in nail polish and earrings, and later on, cigarettes and alcohol (by this time I had clearly outgrown the job and was ready to move into the adult world with my grown-up job in Pizza Pazza), with Tony the stoned chef, and the angry boss).
I never forgot M, though, or her children, whose names I learned to pronounce eventually. They have always sounded sweet to my ears, bringing back memories of small hands, blue eyes and all the love and affection they gave to me.