On this, the first day of 2009, it feels right to begin something new, something a little scary, but exciting--a fitting step into the year and to this blog. Happy 2009! Welcome to my world. For almost 4 years now, I have been sharing slices of my life with family and friends. So, to them, the life Curtis and I share in Jakarta with our maid, Rusnati, her husband, Roheman--also our gardener, Aan, our driver, Warjo the pool man, and a pond stocked with monster fish--currently on probation, is familiar. But those of you just tuning in may need some catching up. However, if there is one thing I did learn while earning a Master's Degree in Writing for Children and Young Adults at Vermont College of Fine Arts (like how I slipped that in?) it is that back-story is like cod liver oil, a little of it goes a long way and it's best if you sneak it into something...so for now, let’s begin with last Friday.
Last Friday, the last Friday of 2008, Rohemon's Ibu, his mother, passed away. She was overweight but not unhealthy, so it came as a shock. Ibu had suffered what we think is a heart attack the week before. I write "we think" because I am not exactly positive what was wrong with her. Rusnati had called me late that night to tell me Ibu Roheman was in the rumah sakit, the hospital, so she , Roheman, and their youngest daughter, Andrea, were leaving to return to their village, 3 hours from Jakarta, right away..."if it was all right with me." Of course I said it was all right. I also told her that we could manage fine and not to think she had to rush back to Jakarta, and to let me know if she/they needed anything.
Rusnati and I communicate using our own peculiar blend of Indonesian mixed with English, sign language, and lots of repetition, which means we do a lot of smiling and nodding, guessing and waiting as the meaning of what the other is trying to convey becomes clear...clearer. But telephone conversations are a serious handicap to that process, especially when one of the parties is struggling to maintain. In Indonesian, hati means “heart.” Hati-hati means “be careful,” as in whatever might happen could be so scary to you or me that someone’s heart will stop. Originally though and sometimes now, hati also means “liver,” so you can see why I am unsure. During the course of the conversation, I had intended to ask if Rohemon's mother was "sudah meningal" which means "already dead." The answer Rusnati gave was strange, which, while reflecting on it later, may not have been so strange. I suspect that I may have misspoken and actually asked if Ibu was "sudah menikah" which means "already married," instead. As a result, I hung up not entirely sure about Ibu Rohemon's condition. What I did know though, was that I could manage for a few days without Rusnati's help, even though the next day, Saturday, was KampungKids’ day, as she had stressed several times.
KampungKids is a yayasan, a non-profit organization, which supports the needy people in the kampung, neighborhood, near our home. KampungKids has various programs including daycare and tutoring for children of poor families, school scholarship programs and elder care. As part of KampungKids, we provide lunch 1 day a week for 50 malnourished children, which means we make a giant pot of soup and some other type of side dish, hardboiled eggs, fish or chicken nuggets, or fruit, and deliver it to the center. The students go to the center to eat lunch before or after their school session begins. Preparing lunch is a task in which everyone in our household takes part: We fund lunches, Rusnati cooks them, Roheman carries the food to the car, Aan drives it to the center. And, because Rusnati is the most precise vegetable cutter in the world, lunch takes 2 days to prepare. She shops, cleans and cuts veggies and cooks eggs or meat of Friday, and makes the soup, etc. Saturday morning, for a 10:30 a.m. delivery. So it is no wonder Rusnati was worried about it--about me (she doesn’t know I once had a cookbook titled “Food for Fifty.”)
Early Saturday morning, way early, before the birds, I jumped out of bed and, still in my nightie, raced into the kitchen to get the soup going. I yanked open the kitchen door and almost jumped out of my skin. Two women were squatting on my kitchen floor chopping vegetables. I forced a smile and willed myself to smile and act normal.
"Oh hi!" I said, rubbing my eyes, trying to focus and wondering if I had bothered to remove my make up the night before or if it was smeared all over my face along with eye goop and dried drool. The women were Lia, Rusnati's 21 year old daughter, and Onie, the across-the-street maid. In the midst of all she had to worry about the night before, Rusnati had secured their help in preparing the KampungKids lunch. After it was delivered, Onie and Lia washed up and set off for their respective jobs, Onie to the house across the street, Lia to her office, without saying a word, without expecting a word of thanks or payment of any kind.
In the hierarchy of Jakarta staff, driver is the best job, followed by head of staff, often the cook, then maid, then nanny, then gardener. As a driver, Aan’s domain is the car and garage. When he is not driving the car, he is washing the car, chatting with other drivers near the car, sleeping in the car, or sitting in the garage with the car. I had considered asking him to water the front yard—instead of sitting—but didn’t want to impose. I couldn’t very well go out and water with him sitting there in the garage, watching me, either. So I planned to wait until he left to pick Curtis up from work and then water. Around 3:00, I went out to tell him I didn’t need him any more and he could head to the office to wait for Curtis. “I’ll water the plants, first,” he said. “Then go to the office.”
That evening, Lia and her sister, Linda, were back. On Monday, Suharti, Rusnati’s sister arrived. Suharti works for our friends Joy and Mike. She is their maid, with a bigger house than ours, a cat and dog, to maintain. Although Suharti is not familiar with our house, she scrubbed and cleaned, washed and ironed.
That is how it has been ever since. Suharti is splitting her time between Joy’s home and ours, stepping in for her sister. Onie is helping her with the laundry. Lia comes and goes like the afternoon breeze. Likewise, in the yard, Aan and Warjo, the pool cleaner, have taken over Rohemon’s work. Aan waters and Warjo, with 2 other yards and pools to care for, makes time to sweep and water and clean our backyard.
It’s not about me and Curtis, or our comfort, although we reap the benefits. It is for Rusnati and Roheman. It is the Indonesian way. Suharti, Lia, Warjo, Onie and Aan, give what they can. In this time of need, in support of their family, friends, coworkers, they give their time.