>Conversations with Mari

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Talking with Mari is a highlight of my weekday afternoons. I’d like to tell you her last name, but I don’t know it. I do know that she’s been working (cleaning, cooking, childcare) for our friends Barbara and Daniel for 8 years. I know her husband is named Nestor and they have three children (two teenage sons and a daughter who’s about Emily’s age, 13). She’s Argentine and hasn’t traveled more than 100 or so miles away from this town in her whole life. I expect she’s a couple years younger than me, though her decades of physical work have hardened her.

When we arrived in March I immediately began to ask around for domestic help. During Argentina One, Elvi lived with us and I was eager to replicate that experience, to whatever extent possible. (Interesting post recently on this topic of hiring domestic help from a blog that I enjoy reading). Barbara’s suggestion of Mari has been a short-term solution to a short-term situation. Barbara knows she’s recommended someone trustworthy, Mari makes some (always needed) extra money, and we get some help. Though it would mean LONG days for her, we all agreed to try. She starts working for us around 5 pm, after she’s been working at Barbara’s since 8 am. Our house is small (about 1100 sq ft), and some types of things she’d normally do (laundry, for example) are already out-sourced. Plus I’ve usually washed the breakfast dishes by 5 pm, on most days.

From the beginning it was clear that cooking is Mari’s first love. Before she worked for Barbara, one of her jobs was to prepare pastries at a small restaurant in La Plata, but the hours were too long and unreliable. One day when I was downtown I saw a flyer for a cooking school and I brought it home to her. She carefully read every word out loud and wondered whether you would need “secundario” (high school) to enroll. Because she doesn’t have secundario.

She’s often talks about how difficult it has been for her to leave her own kids alone while she spends her hours caring for other people’s children. About seven years ago, all three of her kids came down with hepatitis (A, probably) and required many weeks of bedrest and medical care. Throughout those months she didn’t dare tell Barbara about the hepatitis at all, afraid of losing her job. Instead she sanitized her life with boiling water and bleach. I’d call it a no-win situation.

Our conversations focus on our common ground instead of our vast differences. We’re two woman, within a few years’ ago of each other, both wives and mothers to three children. We commiserate over our teenagers, the curious behavior of our siblings, and our aging parents. We swap recipes for desserts we like making. As I type this, Chris is dictating to her his recipe for corn bread (she’d never had it before last week, when Chris had made it, and she intends to prepare it for her family tonight).

Once in a while she tells stories of working for Barbara, Daniel, and their daughters. It’s more venting frustrations than gossiping, and she feels safe telling me things that she knows I won’t turn and tell Barbara. Unless Barbara becomes one of the handful of people who reads this blog… Admittedly awkward to hear stories about one’s friends’ personal habits (but oh so tantalizing from a soap opera, human-interest perspective). I usually do the equivalent of covering my ears with hands and saying “la-la-la-la-la.” Oh well, all’s fair in life. She doesn’t tell these stories often, and our lives may be just as interesting for Barbara to hear about.

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