I find it interesting to “people watch”, or observe habits of other people. I find it interesting how the wealthy tend to care about the smallest change, and contradictory to those are people who have nothing but still give what they do have. Roberta is an example of the latter.
Roberta is a hard-working immigrant from Brazil. She comes to our house every week for work so she can support her three young children. Roberta is divorcing her abusive husband. Her oldest daughter, recently diagnosed with lupus, is losing her eyesight. Her brother, who has no insurance, has been so ill that he was hospitalized. Despite all of her problems, Roberta keeps a smile on her face.
I recall last holiday season, an exchange between my mom and Roberta. “Please, take the money,” my mom begged. “buy your kids something nice. I know you can use this. Please, just take it.”
Unmoved, Roberta replied, “Okay. I’ll take it, but only if I work extra next week.”
“No, take a break, please, Roberta. It’ll be Christmas Eve.”
“Nancy, you know if I take the money, it would be like stealing. I can’t do that. I must work to earn it.” Roberta’s imperfect English became even more imperfect as she continued arguing with my mom and tears began to spring.
I sat at the kitchen table in amazement at Roberta’s strength. She never accepted extra pay unless she earned it, something I couldn’t understand but now firmly believe in. Being fifteen and living among the privileged, I have come to expect compensation for the least strenuous activity. I baby sit kids and often get overpaid but I don’t resist the generosity, I accept it.
I sat in my chair that morning and realized that Roberta was right. By not accepting the gift I learned that despite having nothing, it isn’t yours unless it is earned.
Last year, I worked in Tijuana, Mexico building houses for the homeless. We slept in tents and worked in dirt. We received no compensation for our efforts, despite a terrible heat wave and unexpected 36 hour downpour. At the apex of the week, work became the most difficult and the downpour worsened. Yes, work was difficult and I thought I would never come back, but we all managed because we all kept smiling. We cracked jokes while working and nothing got us down. At the going away ceremony, I got a turn to play cleaning lady and prepare the house for the homeowners.
They brought homemade empanadas despite having little to share. Most of our group cried. I know how Roberta felt that day. There is a feeling of accomplishment and pride for hard work that can’t be paid for with money. When you know you have given it everything, receiving words of appreciation or even a simple gift can mean more than unjustified payment. From an immigrant who appears to have so little, I have learned so much. In the cleaning lady, I do believe.
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