Here’s to the Brigids

By Joanne Pateman

    As I make up a lot of beds today, as I smooth the sheets into neat hospital corners, fluff up the down pillows, and erase any suggestion of a crease in the white matelassé bedspreads, I think about my Irish forebears who emigrated to the States and were maids. They made beds just like me. They were Irish just like me. They were all called Brigid, because their employers couldn’t be bothered to remember their real names — Fionnuala, Maeve, Siobhan, and Orla.

    Poetic names oozing with Celtic heritage. You can almost smell the smoke from the earthy peat fires emanating from their names. You can see the Cliffs of Moher jutting into the Atlantic, taste colcannon, a classic Irish dish of mashed potatoes and cabbage, and hear the dum, diddley, dum from the fiddlers playing in the pub, sipping their Guinness.

    The Brigids, with their blond or red hair, blue eyes, freckles, and fair skin, resembled their Viking ancestors, although there were a few who had black hair, blue eyes, and darker skin. They were called “Black Irish,” thought to be descendants of the Spanish sailors who washed up on the west coast of Ireland after the shipwreck of the Spanish Armada of 1588.

    No matter what they looked like, as far as their employers were concerned, all the Brigids were the same, there was no difference between one maid and another, which took away the young women’s identity, sense of self, and uniqueness. The Brigids were happy to have the work, however menial. They were good workers. They cleaned, cooked, and took care of the children. They worked from 6 in the morning until midnight with one day off a month. Later, in the 1900s, they got a half-day off each week.

    But there is a difference between those Brigids and me. Today, I am making beds in anticipation of a 3 o’clock showing of my two houses in Southampton for rent this summer. I’m grateful for the Brigids who preceded me, enabling me to have a good education, a better life, and even own real estate. I am not an Anglo-Irish landlord who condoned the potato famine of 1846 and exploited my tenant farmers. I’m just a property owner trying to make a living to survive in the off-season when the investment bankers retreat to their Park Avenue, Tribeca, and Flatiron condos and private schools and nannies. They are nice people but would prefer to sit in semidarkness rather than insert a new lightbulb. I guess in the city, that’s a job for the superintendent.

    Actually, I have my own Brigid. My favorite day of the week is Tuesday, when my Brigid, Cirlene Alves, a lovely Brazilian woman, comes to clean and makes my bed with freshly ironed sheets. She does laundry, vacuums, and cleans the six-burner stove. Sometimes she prepares pink beans with garlic and a side dish of thinly sliced collard greens she knows I like. Lemon furniture polish tickles my nose as I inhale its clean, acidic scent. Every week my Brigid even washes the covers to the dogs’ beds. They rush to lie down on them as soon as they are put back on. Spoiled dogs.

    I like the poetry of the everyday, the rituals of a domestic life, the rhythm of making order out of chaos — cooking dinner, setting the table, lighting the candles, eating by the fire, even if it’s just my husband and me. The repetition is soothing, like the incantation of Mass being said or the prayers along a blue glass rosary. I like my throw pillows arranged just so with the designer’s chop that my Brigid taught me, a neat indentation just like those that grace the photos in the glossy decorating magazines. I take pride in my house and home, embrace the cocoon, the comfort of the familiar.

    I owe the Brigids. I thank the Brigids — the Fionnualas, Maeves, Siobhans, and Orlas who came before, who I feel a connection to, an affinity with, who worked hard and made a path for later children of Irish immigrants like me.


    Joanne Pateman, a former advertising art director, earned an M.F.A. in writing at Southampton College. She regularly contributes “Guestwords” and fiction to The Star.