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Inside Story: I was a slave to my Polish housekeeper

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Magda is probably the best housekeeper in New York City, and for 10 years she was mine. Until I fired her.

She came every week and could clean my entire apartment—1,300 square foot two bedroom, two-bath—in just under six hours, including doing all the laundry.

Each time she would flip the couch over and get down on her hands and knees to clean the floor behind it. Once a month she took all books down from the bookshelves and dusted them. She had her own system for cleaning the refrigerator, the stove, even the medicine cabinets. I never had to ask.

It was like she was cleaning her own apartment. At first I thought that was so great. But then, gradually, it started to seem like it was her apartment.

She became odder and odder over time. For instance, she once forced me to return an upright vacuum cleaner I bought. She preferred the canister style even though it was a pain in the a-- to store. 

And every time I moved something—reorganizing things into different bins during spring cleaning, for instance—she would keep moving them back. And then I would move them back. It would take about five weeks of going back and forth until I won. I never discussed it with her because of the language barrier. It was huge.

She was first-generation Polish, in her 50s when she started working for me, and the language problem was so difficult that the first year she showed up and cleaned on Thanksgiving. She would hand me the laundry card if it needed more money, and she would say thank you for her Christmas bonus. But she never really seemed that receptive to communication.

My daughter was a baby when Magda started working for us, and as time went on, it became apparent that she didn’t appreciate my daughter's level of cleanliness. Like one time instead of hanging up my daughter’s clothes that had been strewn around the bedroom, Magda dumped them on the bed. She grew increasingly cold toward my daughter over time—not hostile, but less friendly.

Then finally when my daughter was about 9, her toys started to go missing. We eventually pulled out the storage drawer underneath the bed and found that Magda had begun hiding all of the toys my daughter hadn't put away. All the random toys were stuffed into bags. I think she was angry at my daughter not cleaning up after herself.

I didn’t confront her. I’m not a very confrontational person overall, and in some ways I’m a wimp, plus there was that language barrier.

By then though I had already been toying with the idea of firing her for six months or a year—because even though she was so good, I just didn’t want her there anymore. I didn’t feel good with her there in the apartment; in fact, I always tried to leave when she was around.

I had been hesitating because she was an older woman and I think it takes a lot to reduce someone’s livelihood without pretty great cause. But once I found out the toys were being hidden it was easy. I told her that with my daughter being older now, I had more time to do the cleaning myself. I gave her a month’s severance.

For a few years, we went through a slovenly phase and didn’t use anyone. I deluded myself into thinking I could handle the cleaning during which I grew to hate the laundry room with a passion.

Then early this year, I started with a cleaning service rather than a single housekeeper, because I don’t want to have the commitment. The service comes whenever I want, which is about every other week; I alternate a deep clean with a regular clean. They’re not as good as Magda but they’re good, and it costs me less on a yearly basis since they come in less frequently. And now that I have cleaning help again, I don’t miss Magda so much.

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