The Ironing Lady

Rosa Martinez


HAVANA TIMES – Even though there are household chores that I don’t enjoy (like ironing, for example), I have never been able to give myself the luxury of paying someone else to do it for me, as the two incomes that come into our house just about cover food expenses for the entire family, let alone pay for a bit of help that would give me some more time for myself.

So, like 98% of working Cuban mothers, my only choice has been to organize my time properly and rely upon help from my husband and my girls, who are chipping in more with the chores as they get older.

However, recently, a neighbor told me about a single woman who had five small children and she washes and irons clothes for others, among other things, to feed her many offspring.

She doesn’t charge a lot, my friend told me, if I were you, I’d just take the ironing at least. As her rate is so affordable, many women are taking their clothes to her. It’s a little extra you need to fork out, but it’s worth it, it’s work you save yourself at home.

Cheap, I thought, I can’t lose anything by just going and finding out. So, I didn’t think twice, I got up and went to see the ironing lady whose praises were sung by so many women in the neighborhood.

I didn’t visit her alone, my youngest daughter came with me.

It was easy to find, you couldn’t really get lost, it’s a beat-up house like I had never seen before, and we have all kinds of houses in my neighborhood, from houses made out of cardboard, tin, to the most modern concrete building.

Hi, Chabela sent me, I said from the street.

Come in, don’t just stand there, she called out from inside.

However, if the outside of the house (if you could call it a house) made you feel bad, it was much worse inside.

Don’t look too closely, please, you know, we’re very poor…

My daughter looked at me, her gaze piercing, and she didn’t have to make any sign or utter a single word. Her eyes must have felt the same thing as my own: first, shock at so much misery, second, heartbreak for those five little ones (one boy and four girls) who God only knows what they eat, how they have clothes on their back and how they managed to get by at all.

Don’t worry, I’m not here to inspect anything, I just want to know how much you would charge to iron two girls’ uniforms, it would be 10 blouses and six skirts, that’s all.

The price was really quite cheap, and if I became a regular customer, that is to say, if I took clothes every week, I could pay at the end of the month, which is something she preferred because she would receive a lump sum.

Between one thing and another, we ended up talking for almost an hour. By chance, she knew my parents and I knew her ex-husband. We talked about lots of things, about the children, the excessive heat, the bodega ration store owner (a professional thief), about how expensive everything was, about the broken street. By the time I left, it felt like we had been friends our entire lives.

But, in spite of the pleasant conversation, I still left with my soul shattered into a million pieces, seeing so much hardship, so much more than I myself suffered or could even imagine, in spite of living off a measly state wage. It left me with the feeling that I complain for no reason, that I don’t have such a bad life, that I am lucky for everything I have and, more than anything else, that I need to do something urgently to help.

The first thing I did was to become a regular customer and pay a lot more than we had agreed to. Second, I went to visit her often to continue understanding each other. And thirdly, offer the first bit of help, which didn’t come from me in fact, but from my daughter, who took out all her clothes that don’t fit her anymore and were in good condition to donate it to any one of the little girls they would fit.

When we went back, we didn’t know how to tell her that we had brought those clothes with us without offending her or hurting her feelings. After talking for a little bit and sharing a cup of coffee, I said: look, the girl has a lot of things that don’t fit her anymore and we don’t know what to do with it, I thought that you might be able to…

She didn’t let me finish, she gave me a tight hug for a long while and then went running off to call the four girls. I left and she was still smiling; I should have been smiling too, but on my way home, instead of laughing with happiness, tears came streaming out of my eyes, a lot of tears…

Rosa Martínez

Rosa Martinez: I am another Havana Times contributing writer, university professor and mother of two beautiful and spoiled girls, who are my greatest joy. My favorite passions are reading and to write and thanks to HT I’ve been able to satisfy the second. I hope my posts contribute towards a more inclusive and more just Cuba. I hope that someday I can show my face along with each of my posts, without the fear that they will call me a traitor, because I’m not one.