By the time I moved in, my grandmother had retired from the hospital and was working at the Hotel Washington, a block from the White House. Like my mother, my grandmother was pure energy and efficiency, common sense and spunk. On little more than minimum wage, she'd raised two children in a bungalow that cost ten thousand dollars and was upgraded by elbow grease to House Beautiful status.
At work, she made lifting a heavy mattress to make a hospital corner look like a high calling. She kept an iron on her cleaning cart to touch up any pillowcase that might get creased. She held the indoor speed record for completing her floor. I never smell a freshly laundered sheet without thinking of her, or tucking it in extra tight.
My grandmother started out as a night maid and rose to head of housekeeping, but after a few months, she gave up her management job. She liked the women she worked with and she saw she'd only been chosen to supervise them because she was white. She was no firebrand or organizer or even Democrat, other than having an Irish Catholic's tribal affection for John Kennedy. She saw that her selection was unfair, and she didn't like it.
But she was no bleeding heart liberal, and she didn't want to take a pay cut. She had struck up a chatty relationship with Clare Boothe Luce, a regular guest, who sent postcards to my grandmother that she tucked in the mirror above her dressing table (although she never looked in that mirror, doing no more each morning than brush her thick white hair). After hearing her story, Luce suggested that she offer to split her time: half making up rooms, half managing the linen and supply closet. It worked.
What didn't work was Luce's other suggestion: that maids lobby for a line on hotel bills, similar to the one on restaurant tabs which makes it easy for business travelers to tack on a tip and expense it later. Hotel workers still haven't nailed that one.
Most people would find living with their grandmother a complete non-starter, but I'd always loved her to pieces. When she came to visit us, I'd hide her purse hoping she'd miss the Greyhound home. Aside from running a tight ship, she was quite a bit of fun, nonjudgmental, and best of all, treated me like an adult. She could talk to Luce, she could talk to the teenagers who tossed beer cans in her garden, she could talk to me. It never bothered her when I had my nose in a book, my door closed, or company. She wasn't a cooking monster like my mother, but we always ate well. I still make her version of home fries with cabbage, onions, and leftover ham. Small things were to her small miracles. When twice as many tulips as usual poked through the frozen ground, when wool was two skeins for the price of one, when she completed her settings of blue willow china on layaway one piece at a time, she was thrilled. Those plates she left me are so chipped and warped now I never pass an estate sale without looking for replacements.