A Child of the Universe: by Helen M. Saucier
“You are a child of the universe, no less than the trees and the stars. You have a right to be here. And whether or not it is clear to you, the universe is unfolding as it should. Therefore, be at peace with God. Keep peace in your soul. With all its sham, drudgery, and broken dreams, it is still a beautiful world!”
Found in Old St. Paul’s Church, Baltimore. Dated 1692
At age 54, I didn’t think it was still a beautiful world – anything but. My world – as I’d known it for thirty-four years – was gone. At my feet it lay in heartbreaking rubble around me, the smoldering ashes of lies shifting under the burden of their own weight, shards of shattered marriage vows smashed into too many pieces to be retrievable, broken dreams drowning in their own flood of tears. And I matched my world – crushed in spirit, bruised of heart, wilted by rejection. I’d just been granted a divorce.
I needed a new world. Where to start? With a job, of course. A simple solution, but not an easy one. In deference to my former husband’s wishes, I’d never worked outside my home. That fact decidedly narrowed my fields of possible employment to a very few. The want ads listing “office help, beginners” required more than a rudimentary knowledge of bookkeeping, typing, filing (being a whiz at shorthand wasn’t exactly detrimental, either); “nurse’s aide on-the-job training” translated into: “Do you have the touch of an angel and the stamina of a Percheron?” “Salespeople wanted – no experience necessary” really meant; “Do you have the gift of gab? A silver tongue? Could you sell potty chairs to Aborigines?” I went down for the count in all three categories.
I decided to cash in on the skills I knew I did have, those of a homemaker. The “live-in companion, light housekeeping, ample time off” type of want ad became required reading. One especially appealed to me and I made an appointment for an interview.
Mrs. D, a childless widow, was propped up on her hospital bed when I arrived. She had been partially paralyzed by her second stroke and one arm rested motionless in her lap. A green velvet, mandarin-style dressing gown encased her thin body but her sparkling blue eyes indicated warmth and humor. Her mouth was wearing the red badge of courage – flame colored lipstick. I liked her at first sight. We were the same age, more or less. After seemingly idle chitchat, I was asked two questions. Did I like to cook? Did I like dogs? My reply was in the affirmative, salary was discussed, time off settled. I had a job.
The next afternoon I arrived at Mrs. D’s spacious home exactly centered on an acre of clipped lawn dotted with stately old trees and manicured shrubs. Brown leaves chased themselves around a fountain, which contained an inanely smiling, stone water nymph holding a large empty pitcher aloft. It was January.
The triple-locked door was opened and I waded into another world.
The front part of the house was formal. The drawing room and dining room stretched the entire length of the house and were crammed with priceless antiques. The carefully arranged damask sofas, with fringed Spanish shawls precisely draped over their ornately carved backs, didn’t bespeak coziness. China cabinets, their contents displayed under correct lighting, were reminiscent of a museum. A huge collection of rare paperweights reposed rigidly on a rarer table. Precious bridal vases, devoid of the color and scent of cut flowers, stood at attention on the massive sideboard. A coldness pervaded these rooms which even the winter sun, streaming through the double-strength, ceiling-to-floor windows, couldn’t dispel.
I moved to the rear part of the house. The kitchen had every known convenience. The large family room, where we five (the dogs were to be considered our equals) were to spend the majority of our time, was a mishmash of ruptured sofas and chairs, their bulging innards thinly disguised by drab throw covers. Tables of varying sizes, with gnawed legs, were scattered at random. This was the dogs’ domain – and ours.
Mrs. D’s bedroom gave the decor of the family room a sense of continuity. Twin beds with faded spreads, shades drooping on listless lamps and nondescript tables serving no apparent purpose, all would have thrown an interior decorator into immediate shock.
Down the center of the bedroom floor, on a disreputable, partially chewed Persian rug, stretched a long runner of heavy clear plastic covered with several thicknesses of newspapers. I knew the dogs – however cherished and exalted their positions – couldn’t read. But I could – and between the lines, especially. I knew with a sudden certainty that latrine duty was mine.
Then I was introduced to the dogs – a large black poodle that scratched her way over to greet me and was still scratching when she bade me farewell some months later; a small black one whose wagging tail propelled her across the room to me; and an enigmatic Afghan wolfhound whose yellow eyes regarded me disdainfully from a distance.
Slowly my new world became familiar.
Mrs. D was easily pleased but the duties were arduous, the hours long, and “ample time off;” crystallized into a half-day free each Saturday. The instructions were explicit. Because of the nagging fear of robbery, door and window locks were to be checked twice daily, no one was to be admitted unless a telephone call preceded the visit. Housekeeping was to be kept at a minimum. Plain, old-fashioned cooking was preferred. Mrs. D required, necessarily, a great deal of personal care. And she insisted that her dogs be given the same treatment. So did they.
The chores of the days were woven into a traceable pattern. At the center were the dogs. At precisely four o’clock every afternoon I began their dinner, tidbits and treats having sustained them until that time. They preferred to dine before we did. They were given the choice of three entrees – chicken fried to a golden crispness, braised calves’ liver, or ground round sautéed with just a soupçon of garlic salt. Each dog was served in a separate bowl, each dog was given a different commercial pet food. The little one was hand-fed if her appetite was finicky, which it was. At nine in the evening they were given their final snack of the day – hand-dipped chocolates or French ice cream. Nighty-night time found them in Mrs. D’s bedroom, the little dog tucked in snugly on the pillow beside her, the middle one curled and covered on the foot of her bed. The wolfhound languished on the other twin bed, her long, silky blue coat elegantly draped around her. “My dogs live better than most people,” was the motto of the day, every day.
Where did I sleep? Although I’d been shown a spacious room on the far side of the house and had been told that it was mine, I was never able to occupy it. Since Mrs. D had suffered her second stroke while she was alone in the house, she asked that I sleep within earshot in the family room. The large, lumpy, bumpy couch on which the dogs took their numerous siestas by day became my bed at night. Never again do I wish to experience those rude awakenings which became nightly rituals. Sleeping fitfully at best, I’d be wrenched into instant awareness, feeling one poodle licking my toes, the other one washing my hand, seeing in the pale night-light the equally pale eyes of the wolfhound staring unblinkingly into my startled ones, nose-to-nose, so to speak.
The pets weren’t allowed outdoors if the ground was faintly damp. Snow covered the ground most of that winter and I laid fresh newspapers on the bedroom floor twice a day. How I longed for spring!
In early March, it was decided that the ground was dry enough to permit a few moments’ frolic on the greening lawn. We burst out the door, poodles unrestrained, wolfhound firmly leashed – as per instructions. I was observing the poodles making each tree’s re-acquaintance with the faint hope that perhaps that night there wouldn’t be a need for such indiscriminate use of newspapers, when suddenly the wolfhound gave the leash a terrific tug. Automatically, my grip tightened. ‘Round and ’round the fountain we flew, my feet taking intricate steps as we went. I executed a good part of “The Dance of the Fairies” with creditable poise, and finished with a decent interpretation of the final scene from “Swan Lake.” How Pavlova would have envied me! At my age yet! When the dog had finally run her course, I looked over my shoulder to call the poodles and I’m sure I saw that silly stone water nymph gaping, wide-eyed, at me. Once inside, I lay on the battered couch panting, and longed for a slug of the tonic designed to help tired blood.
At last spring came. The flowers burst into bloom and so did I. Angry, red, itching splotches branched out, covering my entire body. A hurried visit to the doctor revealed that the ‘blossoms’ were the result of a fungus infection which had been transmitted by the scratching poodle. It figured; her vet had been prescribing medication for that type of ailment for some time. When I dosed her, I should have taken the same.
I had to leave. I needed to shed my skin and grow a new one. I needed rest while this was being accomplished, uninterrupted rest in a heavenly-soft bed. I needed to be awakened gently by the soft hands of my small grandchildren lightly touching my face. I needed to smile into their bright, loving eyes – nose-to-nose, so to speak. That is the way it came to be.
My first job jolted me. I needed that. I was brought out of my self-centered misery and made to see and share, with deep compassion, the plight of another.
I know now that assets can be ensnaring, smothering liabilities, their enormous value worthless, their comfort cheerless, their possession joyless. I’ve seen how devastating unutterable loneliness, coupled with illness and helplessness, can be. Now I understand how the innate craving for acceptance and affection can be bestowed, inordinately, on pampered pets. I’ve heard the silent cries of a tired heart anguishing in its solitary struggle for survival for life, and living and loving.
Mrs. D is gone now. She gave me an unforgettable lesson in the courage of living. But I gave her something, too: large slices of my time, twenty-four hours a slice, six and a half days a week. My nightly broken sleep, my constantly tired body, and my enforced confinement I threw in for free. It was worth it. Once again I am a child of the universe and I know I have a right to be here.
No more will I read the want ads. When, and if, I’m ready for my next job, I will place the ad. It will read: “Experienced housekeeper and companion available immediately. Good salary, ample time off demanded. Luxuriant private sleeping quarters a must. Absolutely no pets – my soul belongs to me.”
It is still a beautiful world!