Everyone Has a Maid by Elinor Davis

     Dottie walks to the Fruko stand a few blocks from her apartment and waits by the curb. As Galip Bey the grocer had instructed, she waves when she sees a big black ‘50s Ford approaching from the east. The dolmush, a shared taxi on a fixed route, pulls over and Dottie climbs into the back seat, next to a glum young man cradling a lumpy duffel bag. She pulls a five lira bill from her purse and hands it up to the driver as he edges back into the flow of traffic along the Bosporus. 

     Now full, the dolmush charges past buses and donkey carts piled with produce or construction rubble. The quicker it gets through the outlying districts to Taksim Square and collects another load of passengers, the more money the driver can make today. At Taksim, Dottie consults the map on which Galip Bey had marked the route and she sets off to find the Pera Palas Hotel, her first foray into downtown Istanbul by herself. A boy no more than ten bustles past her carrying a round copper tray suspended from three chains, tinkling with at least eight steaming glasses of tea. She marvels that he can navigate the crowded sidewalk so quickly without upsetting his delicate cargo and scalding passersby. 

     At an alley entrance, a woman in a loose ankle-length dress, sitting on a wooden crate and holding a tightly bundled infant, spots the foreigner. She thrusts out her hand, catching Dottie’s sleeve and says something plaintive in Turkish. She points to the baby, then turns up her palm in a supplicating gesture. Dottie understands she is asking for money but is unsure what to do. A U.S. Consulate pamphlet advised not giving anything to beggars, but the woman looks so sad and hungry and there’s the baby to consider. (The consulate also recommended soaking all vegetables in bleach to kill germs, advice she decided to ignore.) Looking into the mother’s hazel eyes, Dottie fishes in her purse for several coins, which she presses into the woman’s hand. “Teshikur, Efendi,” the woman says. Her wan smile reveals a missing front tooth.

     Entering the Pera Palas lobby, Dottie sees several Western-appearing women sitting together and guesses they are the Can-Am Ladies Club members she is there to meet. She approaches them hesitantly, waiting for some signal when one of them waves and calls out, “Are you Dorothy Cobb?" Dottie nods and smiles as the six women stand to introduce themselves (Ruth, Twila, Natalie, Barbara, Sylvia, Betty) and invite her to sit in a once-elegant Victorian armchair, its floral upholstery nearly threadbare from 50 years of wear.

     “We’re just waiting for Ann and then we’ll go to the Patisserie for something yummy and fattening,” chirps Natalie (or is it Betty?) as they all re-seat themselves, careful to arrange their skirts to cover their knees. The Can-Am Ladies are wives of Canadian and American businessmen and other miscellaneous North American ex-pats living in Istanbul, permanently or temporarily. They get together at least weekly to socialize and sight-see while their husbands conduct important business and their children, if any, are in school. Ruth’s husband teaches engineering at Istanbul University where Dottie’s husband Bill will spend this sabbatical year as a research fellow and Ruth, via the husbands, has invited Dottie to join the Club.

     “Goodness, I feel like I’ve wandered into Queen Victoria’s parlor,” Dottie murmurs, gaping at the faded splendor of the once grand hotel – a dense sea of Turkish carpets, iron filigree railings along a broad staircase, brass ash trays and urns, art nouveau ceramic vases, 19th century settees and claw-footed mahogany tables emanating a faint whiff of lemon-oil polish. Massive marble columns lead her eye up to ornate chandeliers dripping with crystal pendants. Forty years ago, she might have glimpsed Mata Hari meeting a contact in this lobby, the site of much international intrigue between the World Wars. Forty years in the future, this decaying treasure at the terminus of the Orient Express train from Paris will be extensively renovated to its former glory. But on this summer day in 1968, the Pera Palas is still quietly dilapidating. 

     “Isn’t it fabulous? Agatha Christie actually wrote Murder on the Orient Express right here in this hotel,” says Sylvia (or is it Barbara?).

     A blonde floats through the enormous front door, a bulging shopping bag over her arm. “Sorry I’m late, but I just found the most wonderful little shop on Istiklal Boulevard where they sell American appliances with adapters. I got a GE toaster! Howard doesn’t think it’s real breakfast without toast.” 

   The group rises as one and someone says, “Ann, this is Dottie Cobb. Let’s get acquainted over tea.”

   They head into the Patisserie, a cozy eatery off the hotel lobby, and start pointing at pastries behind a glass counter. When all have made their selections, they order three pots of Turkish tea and push several small tables together.

   The women politely interrogate Dottie. They determine that she grew up in rural Kansas and came here from Omaha, where Bill teaches economics at the University of Nebraska. She senses they are collecting the socioeconomic data needed to place her at the appropriate level on their pecking order. Executives for big American companies appear to be on top, then come middle managers and government functionaries. Dottie gathers that professors and their spouses, like herself and Ruth, rank near the bottom of the Can-Am Ladies hierarchy. She will also soon learn that she and Bill are viewed with suspicion by some Turks, who assume that Americans with vague occupations doing “research” are really working for the CIA. The writings of Karl Marx have only recently been translated into Turkish and students in the cities study them with great interest and a deepening wariness of the West.

   “So, Dottie, have you found a maid yet?” Twila (?) asks just as Dottie bites into a flaky chunk of baklava.

   “A maid?  No, I don’t think I’ll need one.”

   “Oh, you must!  That’s the great thing about living here – everyone has a maid!”

   “Everyone? Really? Do the maids have maids?” Dottie blurts.

   Eyes widen, a few roll discreetly. Dottie blushes and wonders whether she can overcome this faux pas or if she has cast herself into outer darkness as far as the Can-Am Ladies are concerned.

   Ruth takes pity. “It’s just that maids are so cheap here that all the foreigners use them, even if they couldn’t afford to have one in the States. It’s a nice little luxury that makes up for some of the hardships of living here without all the conveniences we’re used to at home.”

   “Pamper yourself while you have the chance, Dottie,” an older brunette coos (Betty?). “We can give you names of several you can try out. My Meral is wonderful. I’d share her with you, but she’s all booked up and I don’t want to lose her!” 

~~~

That evening, Dottie vents her consternation over dinner with Bill and their twin daughters. “I don’t want a maid, but apparently it’s mandatory. It just seems so… colonial.” She is proud of her domestic skills and considers home-making to be her profession, an honorable calling for which she gladly gave up an insurance company secretarial job to pursue full-time.

   The apartment is half the size of their house in Omaha and she can certainly keep it tidy without paid help. They have come here to experience life in another country and learn about its culture, not exploit its citizens. A populist at heart, Dottie can’t help but feel that having servants is elitist, sort of un-American. Besides, she has enough difficulty telling her own children what to do, let alone a stranger.

   Teenagers Carrie and Julie vote for the maid, if that will relieve them of their usual chores, which Dottie assures them it will not. Bill is neutral but says he can spring for an hour a week, “so you can hold your head up with the Can-Am Ladies.” Eventually, Dottie succumbs and Bill asks Ruth’s husband to ask Ruth for a reference. These communications are handled in person since they don’t have a telephone.

   The wait for phone installation in Istanbul is at least a year, so they will be gone before reaching the top of the list. Postal service, on the other hand, is superb – with delivery twice a day, a letter written in the morning can be delivered across town the same afternoon. Human labor is still cheaper and more plentiful than technology at this mid-twentieth century stage of Turkey’s development.

   Sensing Dottie’s reluctance, Ruth sends someone who will not threaten Dottie’s self-image as a homemaker.  Anoush Krikorian knocks on the door of the Cobb’s apartment then leans against it gasping from the climb up three flights of stairs. When Dottie opens the door, Anoush falls across the threshold nearly knocking Dottie over.

   “Ah, Missus, so sorry, please forgive! I am Anoush.” 

   Dottie steadies the old woman and takes her arm, leading her to a chair. “Sit and catch your breath. I’ll make us some tea,” Dottie says, more comfortable in the role of hostess than employer. Anoush puffs and sighs while Dottie puts a kettle of water on a small gas burner and pours loose tea leaves into the strainer that fits atop a tin-lined copper teapot. She loads the steeping teapot, two glasses, cloth napkins, a bowl of sugar cubes, a plate of bread she bought fresh from the tandur this morning, and a jar of rose petal jam on a brass tray, which she sets on the coffee table.

   “Ruth tells me you once worked at the British consulate, and you speak English,” Dottie prompts after the woman has recovered her composure. 

   “Yes, Missus, I speak English, Turkish, and Armenian. I have worked for Americans and British for many years. As you can see, I am old, 72 years, but I am dependable and careful with your valuable things.”

   “We are only here for a year, so we didn’t bring much with us. This apartment is furnished with everything we need, even dishes and linens. The job is one hour per week of light cleaning, dusting, that sort of thing. Nothing very strenuous. Will you be able to manage the stairs?”

   “Oh, yes, I am used to them. I work for another lady in this building, fourth floor. Maybe I can come to you right after her, one o’clock on Wednesdays?”

   They seal the arrangement with tea, extra sugar for Anoush Hanim, who devours the bread as if she has not eaten for days. “Would you like to start now, since you’ve come all this way?” Dottie asks, concerned that her new employee may be in dire need of money and food. “I can show you where things are and pay you for an hour today.”

   Anoush leans forward and grasps the chair’s arms, groaning softly as she pushes herself up. More or less upright, she barely reaches Dottie’s chin. She can’t be more than four feet-eight inches tall and her stout torso resembles a wine barrel. She shuffles slowly and nods as Dottie points out the broom, dust rags, and furniture polish. Wisps of gray hair escape her kerchief as she drags a rag back and forth over the sideboard and then pours out a dab of oily polish and rubs it into the dark wood surface.

   Dottie sits at the dining table pretending to read a book, but keeps an eye on Anoush, lest she totter and fall again. It is hard to watch a frail, elderly woman strain at tasks she herself or her able-bodied children should be doing. But the woman must need the job, so Dottie will restrain herself and let Anoush toil. Dottie decides she will give the apartment a thorough cleaning on Wednesday mornings so no real exertion will be required when Anoush arrives, and she thinks up tasks that Anoush can perform sitting down, like polishing the silver and brassware.

   Over the following weeks and months, they develop a routine. After about 15 minutes of dusting or mopping, Anoush sighs and Dottie jumps up from her chair saying she’s thirsty and suggests they take a break. They sit in the parlor sipping tea and eating bread and fruit, and they make conversation.

   “Do you have any family in Istanbul, Anoush Hanim?”

   “No, Missus, no family, I never married.”

   “You are Armenian, yes? I believe Armenians had a hard time here when you were young?”

 Anoush shrugs. “It was war. Bad things happen in wars.”

   “But we have heard that Armenians were singled out, persecuted…it has been called ‘genocide.’”

   The old woman’s eyes flash alarm. “You must not say that here, Missus! It is not allowed.”

   “We are alone, no one will hear us. You can say whatever is true.”

   “I only know what happened to me. I can’t speak for others…”

   Slowly, in weekly installments that grow longer while the dusting time gets shorter, Anoush finds her tongue and once she begins, she can’t seem to stop. The floodgates open and submerged memories pour out in torrents. Dottie wishes she had a tape recorder running and she writes down what she remembers each week after Anoush leaves.

   We had a good life in our village when I was young. Everyone got along, Turks, Greeks, Kurds, Armenians, Serbs, Jews. Until I was 15 and the troubles started. We knew there was a big war in Europe and Africa, but we thought it had nothing to do with us. Then Kurdish bandits and Turkish soldiers came and started harassing us, took our goats, trampled our gardens. The Armenians were smart businessmen and the Kurds wanted what we had. The Turks wanted a country all to themselves, the Greeks wanted their Byzantine empire back the way it was before the Ottomans took it over, and the Jews just wanted to be left alone. One day, some soldiers galloped into our district (but who knows if they were real soldiers, their clothes were so tattered) and they rounded up all the men, my father and brothers, too. They marched them to the woods, made them dig trenches and climb in…

   Here, Anoush trembles, her usual deadpan expression contorts, her voice thins to a reedy moan.

   They shot them all. Then everything was burning in the Armenian quarter. Soldiers on horses forced us to the road as we ran from the burning houses. They made us walk away, herded us like sheep, with nothing but the clothes we were wearing. We didn’t know where we were going or why. They didn’t give us food and the old ones and babies started dying. We had to leave them in ditches, they wouldn’t even let us stop to bury them. Then my mother fell sick with a fever and couldn’t walk. She told me to go on and leave her there, that she wanted me to live. I sat up with her all night but there was nothing I could do for her. Finally I fell asleep and when I woke, she was dead. I wanted to stay and die with her, but an ugly soldier with a gash on his cheek and a beard grown wild and filthy from pillaging the countryside said I was still strong and they needed me to work for them. He took me to his tent and used me for his pleasure at night and made me cook for the soldiers, or whoever they were. They let me have scraps left after they ate, so I lived. My friends shunned me, because I helped the Turks, but, Missus, they would have killed me and my mother wanted me to live…

   We kept walking till only a few of us were left alive. When we reached Izmir, the soldier sold me to a rich family. Sometimes I wonder how much he got for me, how much I was worth… They made me work in their house and kept me locked up at night so I couldn’t run away. They never paid me. After a few years, they moved to Istanbul for business and here I managed to escape. I found my way to the British consulate and they took me in, gave me a job. I learned English and met other English-speaking people who hired me for domestic work. That is my life ever since. I don’t know why I lived and so many others died. It was my fate and my curse, to suffer and to remember. 

   Anoush’s stories unfold like a soap opera and hold Dottie spellbound. Dottie asks questions, filling in gaps, compiling an oral history of a life she cannot imagine herself surviving. Every Wednesday afternoon, she feels drained as she writes down what Anoush has told her. She has trouble reconciling the cruel Turks in the stories with the gracious people she meets in Istanbul. How has Anoush lived all these years among those she calls murderers, rapists, slavers?

   Each Thursday, by contrast, Dottie meets up with the Can-Am Ladies for excursions to the Blue Mosque, Hagia Sophia, the Grand Bazaar, a resort on the Black Sea, Topkapi Palace, and ferry boat trips for lunch on an island in the Sea of Marmara. They prattle on about where to buy western goods (“The nearest place to get aluminum foil is Beirut. We go there for Easter to stock up.”), their trips to Greece, the bargain-priced gold jewelry and copper pots. (“I hear they may stop letting foreigners take copper out of the country. You better ship your antiques home now.”).

~~~

The Cobb apartment furnishings include a seven-foot-tall potted rubber plant, which in December they repurpose as a Christmas tree after carefully dusting each large oval leaf with a damp cloth. Dottie and the girls make ornaments out of cardboard and yarn, and they hang their dangly earrings, bracelets, and necklaces from the Grand Bazaar on the sprawling branches, between the shiny leaves. They wrap a few presents in lengths of fabric Dottie has bought for future sewing projects. The girls attempt to fast during Ramadan, in solidarity with their Muslim friends, but find they can’t focus on their afternoon classes without sneaking a sandwich. Anoush seems amused by the fanciful tree and pleased with the basket of figs, jam, and candy they give her, one of the few times Dottie sees her smile.

   Dottie and Bill take the girls on weekend bus trips to Izmir, to archeological sites in Ephesus and Troy. They ride the overnight train to Ankara and visit the strange geological formations in the Anatolian desert where early Christians carved homes and churches in the soft stone spires at Urgup and Goreme. During the spring break from school, they take a cruise on a small passenger ship along the Mediterranean coast, stopping in a dozen towns nestled above empty white sand beaches and picturesque ruins. Dottie notes the names of places where Armenians were exterminated and shudders when they come upon the now tranquil village where Anoush was born. Everywhere they go the land bears remnants of fallen empires and vanished tribes, Ottomans, Romans, Lydians, Hittites. They see Lycian tombs dug into hillsides, ancient viaducts, marble columns, rock walls, and fortress towers facing the sea, all preserved for their historical value. But Dottie sees no hint of the horrors within living memory that Anoush speaks of in a forlorn monotone on Wednesday afternoons.   

   The year passes too quickly and Dottie does not want to leave the magnificent city on hills by the waters of the Golden Horn, or their sunny apartment and the pretty neighborhood mosque across the street with its muezzin, whose calls to prayer have marked the time like clockwork every day. Wistfully, she asks Bill if they might possibly take Anoush home with them to live out her days in their spare bedroom.

   “She could keep me company when the girls go off to college.”  

   “Honey, she’s not a pet,” Bill scolds. In professorly fashion, he points out the various impracticalities, such as the difficulty of getting her anything more than a temporary tourist visa and the rigors of travel for the old woman.

   “I know, you’re right… but I just can’t bear to think what will happen to her when she gets too decrepit to push a mop.”

   While Dottie is packing the family belongings to ship them back to Omaha, she fills a crate with household goods they have not used up – canned food, cleaning supplies, a packet of pre-stamped airmail stationery, plus some groceries she has just bought.  She takes them by taxi to the building where Anoush lives in a sparsely furnished room lit by one bulb dangling on a frayed cord from a dingy ceiling webbed with cracks.  A bathroom and kitchen shared with other tenants lie at the far end of a dim hallway. 

   “Please take these things, so they don’t go to waste,” Dottie insists, as if Anoush is doing her a favor. Dottie helps unpack the box, then asks her to sit down. “Now it will be my honor to clean for you, Anoush Hanim. Today, I will be your maid.”

   For once, Anoush is speechless. She watches wide-eyed while Dottie sweeps and mops the floor, shakes the worn kilim rug out the window, and rubs lemon polish into the one wooden chair, a small tottery table, the bed frame. As Dottie perches on the sill and reaches outside to scrub the sooty window, Anoush announces, “I am thirsty. Let’s take a break.” Anoush pads down the hall to the communal kitchen and prepares a tray with some of the groceries Dottie brought, including their favorite treat, a box of lokum, Turkish Delight candy.

   They pull the table over and sit on the bed savoring their private ritual for the last time – hot tea and bread with rose petal jam. Anoush drops two sugar cubes into her tea glass. “Is it customary for an American lady to clean for her maid?”

   “It is not customary for an American lady to have a maid. So, please forgive me if I don’t know how to behave properly! But you are more than a maid, Anoush. You are my friend.”

   Now tears dribble down Anoush’s sagging cheeks. “You are the only person who knows my secrets, the only one who ever asked about my life. Why? I am no one, a walking ghost. I died years ago when I left my mother at the side of the road.”

   Dottie chokes back her own tears. “The stories you told me are beyond price, more precious to me than all the jewels at Topkapi Palace. I will remember them all my life. Thank you for trusting me with them,” she manages to say. She pats Anoush’s gnarled hand awkwardly, not sure if this is appropriate or just patronizing. They chew the sticky lokum in silence and the powdered sugar coating drifts from their fingers, becoming pale dust on the freshly mopped floor. 

~~~

Back in Omaha, Dottie writes letters and Anoush answers a few times on the tissue-thin air-mailers Dottie left her, short notes about the weather and the ladies she cleans house for. Within a year, Dottie’s girls go away to college, and Anoush’s letters have stopped. When the twins come home for winter break, they hang all their Turkish jewelry on the Christmas tree, a tradition they will continue the rest of their lives, and Dottie puts iced sugar cookies with red and green sprinkles in a tooled copper bowl she bought in Ankara.

   The next afternoon, the girls go off to a party and Bill heads to his study to work on an article about Turkish economic development. From a carton on a basement shelf, Dottie extracts the loose-leaf notebook filled with stories Anoush told her. Wrapped in a crocheted afghan, she settles on the sofa and reads through them all, sipping strong tea with lemon, no sugar. Outside, the streetlights wink on and snow sifts past the windows, powdering the yard until it looks like a tray of Turkish Delight.       

~~~

In 40 years, their parents both gone, the twins will come home to sort through the considerable household accumulation. They find the yellowed pages and recognize their mother’s handwriting, note the smudges and spatters. Tea? Tears? Was Mom writing a novel? Wouldn’t she have mentioned that?

   Carrie and Julie have no memory of the old cleaning woman who visited the Istanbul apartment while they were at school. After a few moments of puzzlement, Carrie sighs and puts the notebook back in the box. They move on to Dottie’s formidable recipe collection, also smudged and spattered.           

 

             

About the Author, Elinor Davis: I am a health care writer/editor based in Oakland, CA, and my fiction has appeared in Big Muddy, Milo Review, The Missing Slate, Anak Sastra, Bellowing Ark, and Thema.