When I arrived in New York City, I envisioned earning piles of money to send home. I had been teaching English to high school kids in Jamaica, but the wages were dismal. Many of my friends had gone to the United States looking for work as cleaning ladies, babysitters, and delivery workers; we were hoping to find a better life for our families. But soon after my arrival in the States, I realized that the American dream is not so easy to attain. Weeks stretched into months, and I was still pounding the pavement as a nanny or cleaning lady. Sylvia, my cousin, let me sleep on her couch in her flat in Elmhurst, Queens until I could afford a place of my own; she never hinted that I was becoming a burden. After months of unemployment, I was grateful to find a small job, which paid five hours a week to clean an apartment in Chelsea.
Three weeks later while I was in the basement doing laundry, Omaira, a nanny who babysat for two little girls in the building, approached me. She asked if I knew of anyone who could fill in temporarily for her friend, Carmelita, who was going on maternity leave for three months. Although it was a short-term job, the salary was too good to pass up. I immediately advised Omaira of my availability and gave her my number. Two weeks later I received a call from Mrs. Kimmelman who asked if I could watch her “precious” two-year-old Alexa and five-year-old Jordan.
After I had spent three months working for the Kimmelmans, I began wondering when Carmelita would be returning to work. When several more months had elapsed, I ceased thinking about Carmelita. I had proven to the Kimmelmans that I was up for the task; that’s how I landed one of the most coveted jobs in Manhattan.
With the exception of an occasional splurge, I sent most of my money home to Mummy and my three-month-old daughter Maurita. Tom, Maurita’s father, had run off with Dahlia, my neighbor’s daughter, as soon as he was repulsed by my burgeoning belly. The last I heard, he was looking for work in Chicago. Mummy sent me photographs commemorating each of Mauri’s birthdays. She grew up so quickly; I missed all those milestones in her life—her first word, her first crawl, and her first steps. As each year passed, I grew more determined to bring her over to the States so that she could have a good education and a better life.
When Mauri approached her 14th birthday, I sent home one round trip plane ticket to New York City. Mummy was not up to traveling and had been urging me to spend a few weeks with my daughter. Since the Kimmelmans would be spending the month of August in Southampton, Mrs. Kimmelman offered to let me take my entire two weeks of paid vacation at this time. Although it would be difficult to find help in the Hamptons, she told me not to feel “guilty.” But she reminded me that “Alexa’s 16th birthday is on August 20, and I need you at the house a few days before and after the party. I want you to prepare the hors-d’oeuvres from my cookbook.” Little Bites of the Big Apple: How to Host a Cocktail Party in Manhattan, which had been self-published a year and a half ago, was not faring well. In fact, Amazon was selling it at the reduced price of $8.99.
“Since Maurelle will be here, we must invite her. She will love the Hamptons. We are having 130 guests, and there will be children her age. Alexa and Jonathan have never met any children from Jamaica, and I know they will adore her.” I was so grateful that I almost hugged her.
When Mauri landed at Kennedy airport, I couldn’t stop looking at her. She was more beautiful than her photos. She had long curly black hair that almost reached her tapering waist, milk chocolate brown skin, and luminous eyes surrounded by long lashes. She had acquired her height from her father, and at 5’5” she was towering over me.
While I worked at the Kimmelman’s, Sylvia and kind neighbors entertained Mauri. Work became even more tedious and monotonous, and I couldn’t wait until Friday so I could spend time with my daughter. On weekends, I gained a renewed appreciation of the city. We marveled at the efficient underground subway system, which could transport us from Queens to Manhattan in less than hour. We ventured to places to which I had never been and sampled different cuisines. We rode on the Staten Island ferry, gorged on little pastries in Little Italy’s Ferrara, sampled dim sum in Chinatown, and spent hours mesmerized by exhibits at the Metropolitan Museum.
Before she left for the Hamptons, Mrs. Kimmelman reminded me that I needed to get the house ready for Alexa’s party. In addition to the recipes in her cookbook, I had to prepare some of the family’s favorites: crab cakes, shrimp salad, blueberry pie, and lemon cake. After cleaning their Park Avenue apartment for three days, I spent a few days with Mauri. The following week we took the Hampton Jitney out to Southampton. Mauri could scarcely contain her excitement since I had described the oceanfront nine bedroom mansion equipped with a movie room, bowling lane, game room, basketball court, tennis court, guest house, pool, and private beach.
Jordan retrieved us in his new red Lexus convertible, a high school graduation present. He was the third generation in his family to attend Vanderbilt. Maurice Wexler, Mrs. Kimmelman’s father had donated an entire school to Vanderbilt. Mr. Wexler made a $5 million dollar donation to the school each time a grandchild applied to Vanderbilt. One day in the cafeteria, the kids opined on how much money it would take to “buy” a seat at the university. Jordan unabashedly volunteered “$5 million” since his grandfather had just made the donation. Unlike his classmates who applied to a minimum of twelve colleges, Jordan knew that he only had to apply to Vanderbilt. Jordan’s cousin Max, who had been given a three-day suspension after he was caught selling an illegal substance in the cafeteria, was the only grandchild who was not offered a spot at Vanderbilt. This did not come as a surprise because after accepting the $5 million donation, Vanderbilt gave Max an “early read” as a courtesy and told him that he needed to apply elsewhere.
The maid’s room comfortably housed a double bed that I had inherited from Alexa when she graduated to a queen’s size bed, a chest of drawers that Alexa used as a toddler, and a rocking chair that Mrs. Kimmelman had purchased when she was nursing the children. Although the accommodations were slightly cramped, Maurita and I barely noticed since we rarely spent time there.
Jordan and Alexa were fascinated by Mauri and enjoyed taking her into town and to their private beach and introducing her to bowling and foosball. They were entertained by her reaction as she sampled new delicacies like sushi and raw oysters. Although I was tired from the party preparations, I was bolstered by her shining eyes and smile. Much to Mauri’s delight, she acquired a new wardrobe; Alexa had decided to clean out her overflowing closets and, instead of donating the clothes to Goodwill, gave Mauri some of the outfits she had outgrown.
Many of Alexa’s and Jordan’s friends were spending the weekend of the party with the Kimmelmans. Maurita had been anticipating the occasion for the past few days. The night before she struggled to decide which of Alexa’s dresses she should wear—a yellow sleeveless chiffon dress that flowed just below her knee or a pale powder blue sundress cinched with a waistband of tiny cornflowers. After a couple of hours, she settled on the yellow chiffon dress, which made a lovely contrast against her dark brown skin and billowed out as she twirled.
On the day of the party, I woke up at 4:00 am to get everything ready. In the afternoon, I found myself peeling chilled boiled shrimp for the shrimp salad. Maurita trotted into the enormous Spanish tiled kitchen replete with two Sub-Zero refrigerators, two Miele dishwashers, and two Viking stoves. I looked at her breathtaking image and felt a sharp pang, remembering that she would be leaving me in less than a week. Where had the time gone? The Audubon clock next to the door began to chirp like a Wood Thrush signaling that it was now 4:00 p.m. I still had to cut fruit for the fruit salad and make the deviled eggs. Guests would be arriving at 5:30. If I was really quick, I might be able to take a two-minute shower and change into a fresh uniform. Staff from An Elegant Affair, the company that would be serving and preparing the steaks and lobsters, had arrived at 11:00 a.m. and was constantly peppering me with questions.
At quarter past 5, the Cohen cousins arrived. I peered from the kitchen window and saw them gather near the pool where a large bar was set up. Jordan and Alexa greeted them warmly with big hugs. Alexa gave a precarious twirl in her Vera Wang dress—a dress that had been personally designed for her—and Christian Louboutin leather slingbacks. Although Vera Wang was a friend of Mrs. Kimmelman’s, she could not attend the party because she was in Paris. The fuchsia silk crepe dress had simple lines, a large bow in the back, and dip sleeves that artfully managed to camouflage her unattractive body and heavy arms. I noticed Maurita looking shyly and longingly at the kids. Although Alexa and Jordan had been so welcoming a few days ago, I hesitated to allow her to hang around them now that the party was starting. I went out to retrieve her: “Come with me to the kitchen.” She tore her eyes away from Jordan and Alexa and obediently trailed me to the kitchen. “I can set a plate of some of your favorites. Eat with me while I work.” Mauri shook her head; her eyes were shining with excitement.
“I am not hungry, Mama. I just want to watch everyone.” Almost half of the guests had arrived. “So many people. All for Alexa,” Mauri squealed.
An hour later, Mrs. Kimmelman and Alexa were arguing as they entered the kitchen. “You need to thank all the guests. Make sure you circulate. Reread the notes for your speech. Remember I’ll be speaking at 8:00. Pay attention to the time and meet me at the podium. Don’t forget to speak into the microphone.”
“You really know how to ruin everything. It’s my birthday. I want to have fun with my friends. I hate it when you tell me what to do all the time,” Alexa yelled and burst into tears. Alexa spotted Mauri and handed her two small Tiffany bags. She sniffed: “Here, take these and put them in my room. Come down immediately because I want you to be with me when I greet people.” Mauri disappeared and appeared by Alexa’s side less than five minutes later. Alexa grabbed her arm and ordered, “Come on.” Mrs. Kimmelman issued directives to the catering staff and me and sailed out of the kitchen.
I remained in the kitchen to assist the caterers who were replenishing platters every few minutes. Moments later Maurita appeared with her arms laden down with gifts. “Mom,” she said breathlessly, “I have to go back outside and help Alexa. I can’t believe the number of gifts she has received. It will take hours for her to open all of them. I’ve gotta bring them upstairs.” She disappeared for a few minutes and then returned to the kitchen.
“Mauri, why don’t you hang out with me? I’ve got to make more onion dip and then whip up some cream.”
“I can’t. I promised Alexa I would be right back.”
Mrs. Kimmelman rushed into the kitchen. “Rose, my cheese puffs are a hit. Throw some more into the oven. Oh good! The meatballs are ready. Put them on the serving platter. The staff has their hands full. Maurelle, go serve the meatballs.” Mrs. Kimmelman grabbed an apron out of the cupboard and handed it to Mauri. I said nothing but noticed my daughter’s crestfallen face. She silently accepted the crisp white apron and slowly tied it on. “Well, your daughter is thinner than you. It’s a bit big but will have to do. Now, take the meatballs and circulate. Make sure everyone gets one and come back for more.” I said nothing as Mauri bit her lip. I held the screen door open for Mrs. Kimmelman, who rushed out, and Mauri, who began her slow descent down the flight of steps while balancing a large platter of meatballs and Satay dipping sauce.
Jordan and his friends were holding Heinekens and laughing. Mauri attempted to walk by them. “Hey guys, have some of Rose’s famous meatballs. You’ve got to try them. Bring them over here Mauri,” Jordan shouted. I heard him gallantly introducing his friends to “Rose’s daughter.” I closed the door to shut out the outside commotion. It was more peaceful in the kitchen.
The meatballs vanished in a few minutes, and Mauri was back to refill the platter. Her face was expressionless. When she returned with the second empty platter, she complained that she had a headache. I told her to go upstairs and rest; she left without protest. At 2:30 a.m. Mrs. Kimmelman told me that I could retire, since she had instructed a couple of the servers to clean up. She told me to check in the morning to determine if everything had been restored according to “Rose’s standards.” I climbed up the stairs thoroughly exhausted. Mauri was fast asleep in the yellow dress she had worn for the party. I crawled into the bed besides her and promptly fell asleep.
At 7 am, an hour later than my usual time, I woke up, showered, and walked down to the kitchen. The kitchen looked spotless. The serving platters were clean, dry, and neatly snacked on the counter. I put the dishes away and brewed some coffee for myself. This was my favorite time of the day, when none of the Kimmelmans were awake, and I could read The New York Times in peace. At 11:30 am, Mrs. Kimmelman with wet brown ringlets and a pink terrycloth bathrobe trekked barefoot into the kitchen. She ordered me to make two batches of pancakes and fry some bacon and sausages for their overnight guests. After fixing the pancake batter and leaving the sausages and bacon frying, I crept upstairs to my room. Mauri was lying in bed staring at the ceiling. “I am making pancakes, Mauri.” She looked at me, and it was clear that she had been crying. “Mama, I still have a headache. I don’t want to go downstairs.”
“I can bring the food to you.” I offered as I stroked her hair.
She shook her head, “I want to go home.”
When I returned to the kitchen, Mrs. Kimmelman told me that she had made a reservation on the 4:30 p.m. Jitney for our return to the city. Liseth, a cleaning lady who had helped the Kimmelmans in the Hamptons for the past two summers, would be arriving at 2:00 p.m. Mrs. Kimmelman told me that she knew that my daughter would be returning to Jamaica soon so I could take the next few days off. I went upstairs to tell Mauri to pack and noticed the yellow chiffon dress and the other clothes that Alexa had given her were neatly folded on the bed. “Mauri, don’t you want those clothes? You sure looked pretty in those dresses. It would be nice to have some new outfits to show Mummy.”
“No Mama. No one at home dresses like that. Alexa’s clothes don’t look right on me. It was nice of her to loan them to me but I have no use for them. I am happier in my old clothes.” There was no use arguing with her.
“I understand,” I said as I shut the door to the maid’s room. We walked into the kitchen to say goodbye to Mrs. Kimmelman. Jordan and Alexa were sitting around the kitchen table with their cousins and friends and did not notice us. Mrs. Kimmelman handed me an envelope. “Rose, we couldn’t have done it without you. I’ve included a bonus. And Maurelle, you did a great job helping with Alexa’s party. Go buy yourself a dress in Manhattan, so you can impress your friends in Jamaica.” She presented another envelope to Mauri.
Mauri is now an elementary schoolteacher in Jamaica. We talk on the phone once a week, but she never asks about the Kimmelmans. She is married to a nice young man named Jeremy, who also is a teacher; they have two children. She is content with her life in Jamaica, and I no longer press her to come to the United States.
Jennifer Yeoh-Wang, Age 17, Grade 12, The Chapin School, Silver Key