“It’s a beautiful day in the neighborhood”. Who doesn’t remember Fred Rogers donning his trademark sweater and sneakers as he invited us to share his neighborhood, a blend of fact and fiction based on some of Mr. Rogers’ own experiences. Introducing us to Mr McFeeley and Daniel Tiger.
We went to the bakery, the post office, the school, saw people doing jobs we’d never seen but just heard of, and learned that any boy and girl is capable of doing great things and having fun. Every day.
My own childhood neighborhood mixed older people, newly married couples, parents of grown up children who still lived at home (back in the day it happened more often than not), and parents of growing children who used the street for everything from riding bikes to playing tag and sledding down the hill in winter. These days I tell people I grew up in the ‘burbs…Chicago to be exact, but as a kid? Blue Island was its own city, not an extension of the Big City to the north and east…the one run by the Daley clan and cohorts. Schools, churches, a wonderful main street which ran north to the Chicago “city limits” and south to who knew where, a lovely mix of almost every European heritage.(There were rumors we even had a branch of Da Mob in our little burg.) My own block housed families with Italian names, German names, a French name or two, and Polish. We had the distinction of being a melting pot twice a day Monday through Friday as commuters parked their cars along our curbs and hurried to the commuter train station at the end of our street, an added bonus for us because my father didn’t have to go far to catch his ride to work at the old First National Bank of Chicago. And, we could take the train on school holidays to see Disney movies, go to the museums, and meet my dad for lunch in the bank’s cafeteria or go to The Forum…one of the largest buffet restaurants (although it too was considered a cafeteria back in the day) in the Windy City. We rooted for the White Sox, the Cubbies, the Bears and the Blackhawks and any other team that happened to come along bearing the first name “Chicago”. But at the end of the day we went home to our own neighborhood, tired and happy to see the green porch steps of our own little house.
People talked to each other back then more than they seem to now. As kids, my sister and I used to fidget whenever Mom stopped to chat with someone. If their own children weren’t around so we could play while the adults talked, it was downright boring. Today, a lot of us are lucky if we know the names of the people who live two doors down the block. Unless we see a moving van, we may not even know a family is moving until we notice a new car or face passing by with a wave of the hand. We wave back, but I can count the names of the people I know these days on one hand. Times change. If your children are grown and gone, there’s not a lot to share with the young couple whose kids are looking for playmates. If you work full time, it takes an extra effort to connect with the people not right next door to you. It’s possible, just not always easy. Life moves at a faster pace.
My point is not as depressing as you might think given the wistful tone of the last paragraph. I’m one of those generations who can truly remember the “good old days” when Fourth of July parades meant following the last entry to the city park for picnics and fireworks and family reunions. Not planned, just impromptu get- togethers of cousins and grandparents and pick up softball or badminton. Neighborhood block parties with music and hamburgers and Jell-o salads. Summer carnivals at the three different Catholic churches in our area complete with Italian Ice and Tilt-A-Whirls. It’s just that our neighborhoods have gotten busier and bigger. And that can be a good thing. Instead of being insulated, we’re exposed to new places and people. We can learn there is a world beyond the end of our street just by watching PBS or going to a movie. Museums are still there, many more than you’d think, just check the listing for museums in Chicago. Champaign has her own share; art, natural history, Champaign County history. You just have to know where to look. And find the time to go. It’s important that we do, y’know?
One final point and then you can have another visit with Mae, who has also ventured into a new neighborhood on her latest adventure. Neighborhoods are all around us…and summer is one of the best times to explore them. Check out your news source (online or otherwise) for what’s going on around you. Some of it is free, some of it is in your own backyard. Festivals, summer theatre, the local water park….it’s all become part of the larger neighborhood. Enjoy!
If I take the time to describe my new place of work to you it’s only because you need to know the lap of luxury into which my feet walked that morning. Shining white in the mid-morning sun, two stories with a wide porch, windows from floor to ceiling on one side of the bright green door—I found out later that people used to enter and leave through these windows rather than use the formality of the front door—that led to the first parlor. Wrought iron fence restraining the glorious colors of the flower bushes and a live oak planted centuries ago showing its bones after the autumn leaves had dried and dropped to its roots. Ebony shutters—for protection from the hurricanes I was told but so ornate they served as decorations for the house itself. On the opposite side of the house from the small gate I was told to enter was a gated drive with two fancy cars parked on concrete that reached the length of the house.
I opened the small gate and walked slowly down the stone walk leading to the rear of the house, watching my steps and inhaling the fragrance of the trees that somehow still held their blossoms. Taking a deep breath, I pulled the ornate chain that hung to the side of a plain wooden door and waited. I glanced quickly to either side and got a quick glimpse of what looked like a small landscaped pond before the door opened and my work began.
“Good mornin’ to ya,” I said in me best Scots burr. “Me name is Mae McFarland, and I’m your new housekeeper.”
“We’ll see about that. Bring yourself inside. Wipe your feet. And I will be needing those papers from the agency that sent you” The woman’s tone implied there was no way in Hades I’d be in her domain any longer than it took to scan through the folder I produced from my bag and handed into the talon-like fingers of her right hand. “My name is Marie-Therese Bienville. Madame or Miss Marie to you. If you stay.” Oh I was staying. Madame indeed. I bit the inside of me cheek to keep me from telling her though. Sylvain was depending on me to at least find his sister and I couldn’t do that from street. She flipped through the papers so quickly I figured I’d be out the door through no fault of my own and then stopped.
“It says here you spent several years as head housekeeper for…really? The de Villiers of Lafayette? You don’t seem the type to…”
“Madame Marie,” I interrupted, “pardon my boldness, but Mrs. Rebecca would be the first to tell you that my looks and demeanor are far surpassed by my abilities and efficiency. Their home was,” and I paused a bit for effect, “far more ornate than this one, as lovely as it is and I had only one maid to help me most days. I’m sure you must have heard of the many parties and functions necessary to their social status.” I threw her a bone. “And I know your employers were probably guests there more than once during my employ.” I smiled my best smile and waited.
“Of course.” I could sense the indignation coursing through her stick-thin form at any suggestion otherwise. Even the tight chignon at the nape of her long neck quivered. “So. Mae…”
“Mrs. Roberta called me Miss Mae, if that meets with your approval,” I said.
“As you wish. As I was going to say, we have several rooms which have not been tended to since our last housekeeper departed. They were to be your audition. Standard protocol for employment here. However, with your references, I’m sure there is no problem. When are you available?” Her attempt at politeness was accompanied by a smile, although it looked more like a grimace. Her right foot betrayed her impatience as it tapped briskly on the parquet floor.
“If I may look around the rooms I’m to tend, I can decide which supplies I’ll be needing.” I held up a hand to stop her protest. “Mrs. Rebecca favored certain items for fine wood and such and I’m sure you wouldn’t question her taste.”
“Of course,” she said again, her tone flat. “We can tour the house now if you like.” Her jaws clenched, she led me through the mud room, the ultra-modern kitchen, all steel and glass, and into the dining room, walls deep red with brass sconces and wall hangings so heavy I knew one could crush me with no trouble. A heavy oak table reigned in the middle of the long room, chairs pushed against it in precise order. “We hire someone to clean the tapestries,” she informed me. “Here and in the parlor. Not for you to worry about.”
The rest of the house was explained in much the same fashion although there were two rooms near the rear of the first floor that were “not to be entered without permission” as they were the Mister’s offices. Piqued my curiosity with that, she did. I made a note in my brain to ask Sylvain whether I should try and again access. The second floor was “family” and “guest” quarters. Here I was to arrange times with the occupants as to when was most convenient to tidy their rooms. Odd, I thought, but then it might give me a chance to chat with each person and get additional information. Especially about Celine. No restrictions on entry according to Madame, and no small ones or nanny mentioned. I would have expected something if there was a woman being held here against her will. Another concern for Sylvain I decided.
“…And your room of course will be on the third floor,” was the sentence that brought me out of my musings. Stay here? No. And no. I must have frowned at that, so quick was her reaction. “You knew of course that the housekeeper resides here?”
“That was not mentioned to me, Madame. Had it been, I would not have come. At the de Villiers I was there from late morning until after the children had gone to bed, but I had my own small apartment. Not the ordinary situation, I know, but….”
“And not acceptable.”
“I have an invalid brother, Madame Marie.” Drum was not well, that was true. “We can afford daycare for his needs, one of the reasons I work of course, but I’m the only one who can tend to him at night. “ And I have to be able to report to Sylvain as well. Not easy if I was trapped on the third floor of a busy house. “If this is not acceptable, as you say, I give you my sincere regrets. Mrs. Rebecca…”
“Be here at 9AM tomorrow morning, Miss Mae.”
“If you’re sure.”
“I will clear this with the Missus and will have a decision for you then.”
I left the mansion the way I’d come in, making sure not to look back to see if Marie-Therese was watching. I knew she was. That last about not being a live-in housekeeper was a departure from the plan, but I wasn’t about to leave Drummond on his own for who knows how long, even if Sylvain promised to watch him like a hawk. New digs or not, Drummond had his ways of disappearing on me, and I knew him. Sylvain had no idea.
“You what?” I’d expected my partner in crime to explode when I mentioned the change in arrangements to him. He and Drum had met me at the church and walked me down to our crib; an abandoned two story building not that far from the shed I’d been in not long before. My trunk and Drum’s duffel were near a long scarred wooden table, an electrical outlet nearby so we could plug in the hot plate I carried with us. Old cabinets lined one wall, high enough off the planked floor to keep the creepy crawlers away. The far wall was split by tall windows overlooking the railroad tracks which skirted the narrow strip of land at the banks of the Mississippi. There was sun, but indirect, and each window wore a faded cloth shade with a long pull string. We could shut out the night or the day whenever we wanted. I thanked Sylvain for the rooms and then dropped my bombshell. His smile vanished, his face clouded in dismay. “That was not what we agreed, Mae.”
“I don’t recall me being apart from me brother any part of this arrangement, Mr. Lionel,” I said. “Especially when it takes 20 minutes on the streetcar and a good walk to get to him if need be. It’s my way on this, Sylvain. Family trumps all.”
I’ll give the man credit. The last sentence caught him in the gut. I could tell, but he didn’t do more than simply nod his head. I gave him a minute to digest my speech and then set about unpacking. “I see your point, Mae,” he finally muttered. “I don’t like it, but I see it. And you’re right. But it cuts your chances of locating Celine.” He perched on the edge of the table and watched me work. “If you’re only there during the day, I mean.”
“I see it a bit different. Even with entertaining, and from some of the dust I see in the parlor there’s not much socializing right now, I’m not off duty until after dinner. Marie-Therese wants her twelve hour day, so I start at 9 and end at 9. From what I noticed today, the house is bigger than they need. No children’s toys or any need for the number of bedrooms on that second floor except for guests. Once I’m there, I believe Marie-Therese will disappear, either into an office or out the door. She seemed edgy enough to have been cooped up doing the housekeeper’s job for long enough. My bet is once she sees I know my job she’ll make herself scarce. Since my job is to clean, my best chance to find out whether Celine is even in the house is when I do the bedrooms. Any jewelry or other something that she wouldn’t ever leave behind? And a likeness would be nice.”
“I don’t keep pictures on me, Mae. Just in case.” In case what he didn’t say, but it added to the mystery I’d felt in this man from the get-go. A friend of Morales’ maybe, but not too anxious to share more. “But Celine always took pride in her hair. Kept it in one of those twisty arrangements that take a week to do. Dark dark hair. Not black but so close. The one thing I know she would have with her is an old locket with a small picture of our grandmother. Celine was named after her. If she’s not wearing it, it would be on her bed stand. You’ll know it because it’s a rectangle rather than round or heart shaped. And she’s tiny. Petite. But she wears these ridiculous heels.” Sylvain smiled at that. “I used to tease her about being able to cross the River without getting her hem wet.” Then he sighed. “We have to find her, Mae. Before something goes more wrong than it already is.”
“I’ll do what I can, but you need to promise not to press me. And to keep an eye on Drummond. Maybe he can spend time with Artie and his friends and get some work done around the church. Kind of pay back for our food and shelter there.”
“All right. Then get yourself out of here so Drum and I can get settled in. I’ll need some supplies for cleaning…I mentioned that my previous employer had certain pricey preferences…and maybe another set of clothes or two. Who knows how much dirt I’ll find?”
And so the next morning, precisely at 9AM, I was back at the mansion. Evidently my prior employment had been enough to induce the Missus to allow me to do my job and leave when the job was done. Bless the de Villiers for their social status. Now to set my own schedule. I waited until Marie-Therese had given me the news and then gave her some news of my own.
“Please thank the Missus for me for being kind enough to allow me to commute. Now as to my schedule for cleaning…”
“What schedule? “
“Surely each room does not need cleaning every day, Madame Marie. Of course I will make exceptions when there is entertaining on the calendar, but I believe the rooms not in use on a daily basis can be tended to every few days. The bedrooms however…”
“What about the bedrooms?” I could hear a tinge of suspicion in her tone.
“Every morning and early afternoon, depending on the sleep habits of the occupant, it has been my habit to not only make the beds but check to make sure there are no stains or soil on the bedding or the floors. Mrs. Rebecca was quite particular about that. Each member of the family got fresh linen twice a week, both in the bedroom and in the bath. I simply assumed that was the case here as well.”
“Well, it hasn’t been necessary for….”
“I’m not referring to rooms not being used at the moment, Madame. But when guests come those rooms will be freshened as well. Don’t you agree?” I reminded myself not to have too much fun with this, but I admit to relishing the discomfort on her narrow face.
“Oh yes, of course. But the Missus…”
“…deserves a well-run and spotlessly clean house,” I finished for her. “Now I have my supplies with me, so if it meets with your say so, I’d like to begin with the master bedroom. Would you show me the rooms again?”
“You remember that the offices on the first floor are not to be cleaned without permission, do you not?”
“So you said yesterday. But they are cleaned occasionally?” In case I need an excuse to get in there. If Celine wasn’t here, it might be my next move.
“Yes. The Mister lets me know, and I pass on the information and the key to you on the day he designates. The third floor is now off limits. Since you are not staying here, there is no need to concern yourself with that level.” Which meant that I would of course concern myself.
The second tour complete, I assured Madame I would let her know when I was done so she could inspect my work and then ignored her. After watching me strip the monster of a bed in the master bedroom, she excused herself and went down the stairs, heels clicking on the polished wooden steps. I took a deep breath and walked across the carpet to the doorway. I needed a cuppa but that was out of the question. I took note of the scattered area rugs that dotted the hallway. Useful if I wanted to cross from one side to the other without making noise, which I did several times as I opened the door of each room to see if it had been occupied. If it had, I cleaned it, changing the sheets as I went. Madame had pointed out the linen closet to me of course, with sheets coordinated to the room colors. Wasteful, I decided. Drum and me, well… I squashed the thought and kept on going until I reached the last room; the one located near the back stairs. I turned the knob with no luck. Locked. The clatter of steps on the stairway alerted me, but it wasn’t Marie-Therese who appeared, but a man in a well tailored suit and patent loafers. His shaved head and the frown on his face reassured me not one bit. As I stepped back from the door, he reached me and grabbed my shoulder.
“That room is off limits. And who the hell are you?” Before I could open my mouth, he pushed me toward the staircase.