Living With And Without Revered Maid

Wonders of America

By Jenna Weissman Joselit

Published November 11, 2011, issue of November 18, 2011.
  • Print
  • Share Share
  • Single Page

The other night I dreamed that my parents, siblings and I were sitting in the sukkah, making polite conversation with our guests, when the sukkah’s rickety wooden walls were breached by the high-pitched and insistent cry of my mother’s name: “Al-ice, Al-ice.”

My mother, reddening slightly, got up from the table with all the dignity that she could muster, and made her way to the back steps of the house, where a platter of food and the formidable Gladys, who had prepared it, awaited. Determined to maintain the protocols of bourgeois life, even (especially?) within the humble precincts of the sukkah, Alice returned to the table, a bit deflated. After all, the maid had just summoned her peremptorily — and by her first name, no less.

Even though this incident appeared in my dreams, it really did happen years ago, when I was growing up. At the time, my parents and their guests laughed it off and put the episode behind them as quickly as they could, but I remember it vividly, as do my siblings. It stays with us still — a funny, if unsettling, moment in the history of our family.

My father, given to grandiloquence and euphemism in equal measure, called Gladys our “family retainer.” The rest of us called her, simply, “Gladys.” By whatever name, she cooked, cleaned and kept after us for years. Had my parents not moved to Israel, Gladys would probably have remained in their employ until she retired.

A light-complected and freckled African-American woman given to wearing prim cardigans over her starched uniform and to smoking cigarettes and drinking copious amounts of iced tea while watching soap operas on television, Gladys possessed the grand last name of Beauregard. The proud owner of a home in a neighborhood that had once seen better days, she lived with her sister. Oh, and from time to time she would ask for, and receive, some legal advice from my father. From these meager facts, a life.

Stern and unsmiling, Gladys cooked up a storm. On those days of the week when dairy was the requisite bill of fare, she made bread pudding from the shards of challah that had outlived the Sabbath, as well as fried fish and a rich and frothy rice pudding. And on occasion she “helped out” when my parents gave dinner parties, then de rigueur in our suburban neck of the woods.

My mother, who preferred reading to housework, pretty much left Gladys to her own devices. Then again, maybe she was cowed. I know we were. We could never please Gladys, who, with a dismissive scowl, would reprimand us for the noise we made, the mess we created, and our collective failure to pick up and put away in our respective bedrooms the neatly folded piles of laundry that, on laundry day, sat proudly in a bin at the foot of the stairs. We were a disappointment to Gladys, and she let us know it.

Little wonder, then, that we stayed clear of her. Not for us the easy, familiar banter or the trading of confidences that characterized the relationship that so many of our friends in our leafy, affluent neighborhood had with the African-American women who cared for them. Perhaps Gladys and Alice chatted about this, that and the other thing. I’d like to think so. But we kids and Gladys never did. She wouldn’t have it.


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • What the foolish rabbi of Chelm teaches us about Israel and the Palestinian unity deal:
  • Mazel tov to Idina Menzel on making Variety "Power of Women" cover! http://jd.fo/f3Mms
  • "How much should I expect him and/or ask him to participate? Is it enough to have one parent reciting the prayers and observing the holidays?" What do you think?
  • New York and Montreal have been at odds for far too long. Stop the bagel wars, sign our bagel peace treaty!
  • Really, can you blame them?
  • “How I Stopped Hating Women of the Wall and Started Talking to My Mother.” Will you see it?
  • Taglit-Birthright Israel is redefining who they consider "Jewish" after a 17% drop in registration from 2011-2013. Is the "propaganda tag" keeping young people away?
  • Happy birthday William Shakespeare! Turns out, the Bard knew quite a bit about Jews.
  • Would you get to know racists on a first-name basis if you thought it might help you prevent them from going on rampages, like the recent shooting in Kansas City?
  • "You wouldn’t send someone for a math test without teaching them math." Why is sex ed still so taboo among religious Jews?
  • Russia's playing the "Jew card"...again.
  • "Israel should deal with this discrimination against Americans on its own merits... not simply as a bargaining chip for easy entry to the U.S." Do you agree?
  • For Moroccan Jews, the end of Passover means Mimouna. Terbhou ou Tse'dou! (good luck) How do you celebrate?
  • Calling all Marx Brothers fans!
  • What's it like to run the Palestine International Marathon as a Jew?
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.