The Ways We Choose to Live, with Magda Szabó (A Book Review)

Assuming that someone could vouch for us, and assure her that neither of us were likely to brawl or get drunk, we might perhaps discuss the matter again. I stood there dumbfounded. This was the first time anyone had required references from us. “I don’t wash just anyone’s dirty linen,” she said.

I grew up with Ate Marie, our nanny and household help. My mom had a full-time job with three little girls to take care of. Her mother-in-law, my paternal grandma passed away when I was about 6 or 7 years old, and my maternal grandma, her mother, was abroad, working in the U.S. She needed all the help she could get. When I was about ten, my father found out he was adopted and that his real mother was in London working as a nanny.

A few years ago, I was involved in a campaign for domestic worker’s bill of rights. The campaign involved educational discussions, continuous social media outreach and visits to the state’s capital, Sacramento, in efforts to level up the rights of domestic workers and caregivers.

How I’ve known domestic work my whole life has been this way, from Ate Marie, our household help, my grandmother who was a nanny in London, the Filipinos who become caregivers in the U.S. and around the world, and the countless women who labor each day with their heart and hands.

And then I met Emerence.

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Fall, 1981 by Tamas Galambos

Magda Szabó The Door (Amazon | Indiebound) is the story of Emerence, a Hungarian woman who becomes employed by the narrator and her husband as their household help. The narrator is a writer, married with no child. From the moment she sought Emerence, much of her existence revolved around understanding the older lady’s existence. This was already evident upon their first meeting: she asked for references & remarked that she doesn’t just washes anyone’s dirty linen. She sought out details, asked around, even traveled back to Emerence’s hometown to get a glimpse of who she really was.

Emerence’s hours were erratic, as she tended to different households in their village. She moved from one house to another. In the wee hours of the morning, one could find her sweeping, mopping, scrubbing. She lived alone. She would only receive visitors in her patio, but never inside her home.

With a remarkable work ethic, Emerence deemed those who didn’t use their hands for work, well, useless.

In Emerence’s world, there were two kinds of people, those who swept and those who didn’t, and everything flowed from that. It made no difference under which slogans or flags they staged national holidays.

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Good Morning by Katalin Raffaine Hajik

In spite of her terse personality, her coarse way of dealing with life, her kindness was evident. She took care of stray animals, brought food to those who needed it in her infamous “christening bowl,” took care of the narrator and her husband when they were sick. She only let a few people in her life, and even then she was still incredibly guarded.

No one knew what was behind her door, although there were many rumors. No one knew where she came from, nor did they know who was sending her money regularly. All these questions (and many more) were soon answered, either by chance or by merit, as Emerence slowly revealed herself to the narrator.

The bond between us – produced by forces almost impossible to define — was in every way like love, though it required endless concessions for us to accept each other.

Something else that interested me in the book was how the narrator analyzed Emerence, in the context of the political conditions of Hungary. The old woman was an atheist, anti-intellectual (or so she was labeled), worked using her hands. She was, in every way, a proletariat. But as she was also described — she was an empire-of-one. She worked alone, steering herself in whatever necessary decision she deemed.

I was also struggling to understand her mentality, something that is probably shared by many folks, which was useful to read:

…to persuade her of the significance of everything that had happened in Hungary since the war, the redistribution of land, and how the working class — her class, not mine — now had endless opportunities opening up for them. Emerence replied that she knew the peasant mentality; her own family were peasants.

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Returnees, 1901 by Izsák Perlmutter

All political affiliations aside, I can’t really put into words the relationship of these two women. One had an intense need to immerse herself in the life of the other, while the other was for the most part insouciant, but tender when she wanted to be in her own way. In the world I grew up in, the narrator (only once referred to as “Magdushka”) and Emerence’s relationship has been traditionally viewed as feudal. But in their case, I’m not so sure.

Regardless of what I do and don’t understand, The Door (Amazon | Indiebound) turned what I knew about life — and how we choose to live — upside down. Emerence was searing in a way that left you with no choice but to question and challenge your beliefs about what it means to serve, to love, to truly care for someone. She may have unconventional perspectives about writing (an occupation comparable with play), priests (liars), doctors (ignorant and money-grabbing), lawyers (didn’t care who they represented), but she knew how to take care of people. Especially those she came to love, like the narrator, who may not have known how to take care of her in return.

* * *

41b-uy-rbcl-_sx311_bo1204203200_The Door (Amazon | Indiebound) by Magda Szabó, translated by Len Rix with an introduction from Ali Smith
NYRB Books (288 pages)
January 2015 (translated edition)
My rating: ★★★★★
The Door

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