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Service with a Smile

I’m pleased to announce our newest permablogger, Heather.  Heather is the big sister I never had, introduced me to NPR and gave me my pre-wedding sex talk.  She’s also an associate editor for Exponent II’s paper and one of the best storytellers I know.  Welcome, Heather!

This week we had some dear friends relocate to California and I got the chance to help with the move a bit. When you really love people, it is so easy to serve them. You can stay up til midnite wrapping framed paintings in blankets or watch their kids or bring in a meal, all with a smile and a happy heart. There’s nothing I wouldn’t do for a friend. But the true test of my Christianity comes when I am asked to serve people I don’t love, people, who, if I am really honest with myself, actually make me crazy. That’s a different story.

Every ward has their wackos, their needies, their hoarders, their chronic movers, their easily offendeds, and our ward is no exception. Many years and 3 children ago, there was a woman who was all of the above. I have come to put her in that unique category of “F-BOHN,” or Freakin‘ Black Hole Of Needs. Some people just suck the life out of everyone around them. This sister, let’s call her Bhonnie Leech, preyed on new ward members who didn’t know to run from her. One set of friends mistakenly let her stay in their apartment for a week until their sister who was to sub-let it arrived. In that short week Bhonnie had filled the entire apartment with her thousands of boxes and would not leave. These same kind souls let her use their car while they were away. When D got in the car he started to gag and choke. There were vapors and toxic smells of the rat juice variety emanating from the trunk. When D opened it up, there were dark red stain all over, like she’d been carting body parts around. When questioned, Bhonnie said, “Oh that smell. Well, it MIGHT be from the time this summer when I bought 10 lbs of ground beef–it was 60% lean and such a bargain!-and forgot about it in the trunk for a week.” 90% of the ward had similar stories. Some even worse. She’s bounced around the area for years and when she lands in your ward, the Relief Society president feels like the doomed character in Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery” who is “chosen” to get stoned to death.

I had miraculously eluded her until the following summer. She calls on Dave’s birthday as I am preparing for about 25 guests to arrive any minute. After 10 minutes of chit chat and hemming and hawing she confesses that she has “a tiny favor.” She has signed up with a program to host foreign exchange students. She has to house and feed them dinner, but she is in California and forget to arrange food for them and could I just whip a little something up and take it to her house and feed the foreigners? I said I was in the middle of throwing a party and unfortunately could not help her. I got off the phone, so relieved to have dodged a bullet but also feeling a tiny uneasy. I knew she’d go down the list of ward members until she found a sucker to help her, someone much nicer than me. I felt guilty, like the survivor of a car accident where every passenger dies but one guy walks away without a scratch.

So when Bhonnie calls a week later, obviously needing “a small favor,” I knew my number was up. “Hi, Heather, how was the party? California is beautiful. I’m having such a nice time.” She gasps a little, like she’s out of breath; I’m holding mine. “Well things were nice but you see I got a call today from the foreign exchange people and I guess my tenants aren’t happy. Well, the FRENCH ones aren’t.” Two Parisian students were staying in her room and said it was not fit to live in. If the situation wasn’t fixed at once, they’d leave and Bhonnie would not get paid. This takes her 20 minutes to explain. I finally say, “Bhonnie, do you need me to go over to your house and clean?” “Um, yes. That would be lovely.” At this point I think cleaning can’t be worse than her rambling conversation.

Getting the logistics taken care of made me want to pull out my hair.

Me: “So how do I get in?”

Bhonnie: “Oh, Masuko is always home. But she’s deaf. So knock loud.”

Me: “Where are the cleaning supplies?”

Bhonnie: “Cleaning supplies…cleaning supplies…hmmm…” I’m already siding with Pierre.

Me: “I’ll bring my own. ”

Bhonnie: “Now you may need to find a lamp for the bathroom, the light wasn’t working.”

Me: “Where would I find a lamp?”

Bhonnie: “Um, well there’s this one part of this one room with this closet…”

Me: “I’ll leave right now and go to your house and you call me in a half hour and can walk me thru anything I need then.”

Bhonnie: “Okay,” and then she blabs about how picky “those Frenchies” are and how lovely California is in August and how she’ll just die if they take her money away and on and on. For 15 minutes she holds my ear hostage as I scramble for cleaning supplies.

By the time I pawn my kid off on my upstairs neighbor, fearing Jonah might get scabies if he so much as touches the floor of her obviously dilapidated house, and head to Chez Leech where I bang on the door until a shadowy figure unlatches the bolt and disappears before I enter.

I find Bhonnie’s room and am sicked out by the mustiness and thick layers of dust on everything and the piles and piles and piles of boxes and junk. I am paralyzed in there and so I move on to the bathroom. There are 3 non-working lamps in the bathroom. I hunt around the house for one that isn’t broken and though there are several in the living room, only one works. I steal it and put it in the bathroom so I can see what I need to do.

I turn it on and immediately wish I hadn’t. The bathroom belongs at a truck stop, or a really bad Taco Bell. The sink had a grime ring and a hair clog. After trying to clean the soap holder with a sponge, I resorted to my key ring attached Swiss Army knife and proceeded to scrape soap scum an inch and a half deep that must have started collecting in the Carter Administration. I won’t talk about the shower. Some things are better left unsaid.

It’s at this point that I start to get really resentful of Sister Leech. This is not a friend in need, this is a nut job slob using me just like she uses everybody in her path. “Why on earth am I doing this?” I asked myself. Honestly, I know that if I hadn’t volunteered, some other, most likely kinder person would have been roped in. I imagined her visiting teacher who is so good to her, having to leave her 4 kids to come over and do this. I thought of all the woman in all the wards who had served this woman and thought, “I’m taking one for the Relief Society.” Okay. I can live with that.

The toilet was my undoing though. I was so frustrated and the phone is ringing again. Bhonnie keeps calling asking how things are going and to tell me how much she appreciates me doing it and that she will make me dinner when she gets back, but not that first week because she has a lot of stuff to do and did she mention how much she appreciates it? Ring. Ring. I am racing to finish, to be done, to run back to my little apartment that didn’t make my skin crawl. I pre-flush and start scrubbing the bowl with Bon Ami, my cleanser of choice. The Frenchmen have terrible aim and there is dried urine all over the rim that requires me to really use force to loosen the stains and before you can say “sacre bleu,” I lose my leverage and the brush bristles ricochet off the rim and yellow toilet water sprays me full in the face.

I am dripping in eau de toilette. I try to come up with a single good reason to stay and finish cleaning. Let them banish Bhonnie as a host family. No one deserved to pay for her inhospitality. I want to be a good person. I do. But I need a way to justify this. And then it hits me. I’m cleaning for Jesus. “I’m…cleaning for…Jesus,” I say it out loud, trying on this bizarre worldview that allows me to be covered in a stranger’s piss, cleaning for a woman I don’t like, and somehow still be okay with it. I’m feeling rather pentecostal but oddly at peace as I pick up the toilet brush and say again, “I’m cleaning for Jesus” and get the last of the ring off the bowl. I spray the mirror with Windex and chant, “I’m cleaning for Jesus” with each wipe. “I’M CLEANIN‘ FOR JESUS!” I shout this mantra as I dust and and tidy, thankful that the only person within earshot is deaf. My voice is hoarse by the time I leave.

This epiphany has stuck with me over the years and made me a better sport when called to serve people I’m not lovin‘. When I send Dave off to help move families whose income is triple ours, I think, “Well, he’s movin‘ for Jesus.” Or when I want to kill a visiting kid who hollers at me from the bathroom that they need “help” even though they are 5 years old, I remind myself that I am wiping for Jesus. Over the years I’ve cooked for Jesus, cleaned up cat poo for Jesus, babysat for Jesus. Once I even waxed arms for Jesus.

I ran into Bhonnie about a month after that incident. She was tan, the Frenchmen were satisfied, but she might have to move out of that house soon so it would be a while before she could cook me that dinner. I tell her it’s all good, no repayment necessary. Honestly, I’m happy to clean for a Friend.

EmilyCC

EmilyCC works for a national non-profit and lives in Phoenix, Arizona with her spouse and three children. She is a former editor of Exponent II and a founding blogger at The Exponent.

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14 Responses

  1. jane says:

    Wow. Wow. I am just speechless. Really good writing, and more importantly, really good living.

  2. JohnW says:

    That so messed up. I’m just imagining Jesus watching a TV screen screaming, “NO! You’re supposed to learn where to draw the line!”

    That’s right, I think of my life as Jesus’s reality TV show.

  3. Caroline says:

    This is hilarious!

    And you’re a saint, Heather. I’ve been in R.S. for 12 years now, and I’ve never done anything like this. The closest I’ve come is probably bringing dinner to a family that’s just had a baby.

    But you’ve inspired me to be willing to get down and dirty if the need arises. And let’s face it, almost nothing could be as bad as what you went through with Leech.

  4. Caroline says:

    JohnW does bring up an interesting point. When does one draw the line with people who are constantly and manipulatively needy? Does one help them out with, say, 3 disgusting tasks, and let them fend for themselves after that? Could the R.S. have a Leechy slush fund so that professionals could be hired to take care of some of the most disgusting tasks? I don’t know…. I just hate the thought of good kind souls getting repeatedly taken advantage of.

  5. Azucar says:

    I think I found a new mantra!

  6. anon says:

    I am generally happy to help out those who need it, but i am afraid I would have turned around and walked out of that house. She was perfectly capable of cleaning her own house before her guests arrived, but refused to. I don’t think being charitable means that we step in and take over responsibilites for those who are able but don’t want to be bothered. Personally, I think that the guests moving out and her not being paid is a consequence of her actions that she needs to learn, not be rescued from.

  7. jana says:

    Awhile back I was serving with the sister missionaries and they were asked to clean the house of a woman in the ward who’d recently had some health problems.

    We got to this lady’s house and it was absolutely immaculate. She had a list of things she wanted us to do that included moving all of the furniture in the LR to vacuum underneath it, cleaning the (spotless) windows, polishing the wood on the front door, etc.

    This lady then proceeded to tell us how she’s had to let her cleanliness standards “relax” since her ailment, only doing a thorough vacuuming once per week, and so forth.

    Quite frankly, I was annoyed. I felt like my time was “worth more” than cleaning an already clean house. But as I was polishing I found myself in that same rhythm that Heather describes. I knew that I was serving this woman and it was the service that was important, not what I was actually doing.

  8. AmyB says:

    Heather, I love your writing style. I also think it’s great that this experience turned into a lasting lesson for you.

    I couldn’t help but be really annoyed at this woman though. She probably stays around in LDS wards because they enable her bad behavior. Sometimes Mormon politeness makes it difficult for us to know how to handle these types of situations. The description of her makes her sound strikingly similar to scam artists who woo people with their sad stories and prey upon people’s natural tendency to want to be nice.

  9. Jim Donaldson says:

    The rule I’ve applied is this: The Lord requires us to go a second mile, he doesn’t require us to go round and around in circles. I hope it’s true.

    I’m sure that you’ve built a very nice treasury in heaven, and that’s a good thing. We all need to by doing things like this sometimes.

    It is an interesting question though whether a ward (or a person) does a greater thing by simply doing whatever is asked without audible complaint, using whatever mantra necessary, or whether somebody (bishop, RS president, visiting teacher, home teacher…) at some point needs to take a deep breath and try to teach whatever the correct principle is here, and enlisting the rest of us in teaching and reinforcing the lesson.

    Quite the storyteller indeed.

  10. Jim Donaldson says:

    Weird, the emoticon above was intended to be a close parentheses. I thought it was.

  11. madhousewife says:

    This is a great essay, and so well-written. I laughed out loud during the cleaning-toilets-for-Jesus part. Bhonnie is a user, and she doesn’t deserve any of this good service, but you have the right attitude. We’d all be in a world of hurt if no one was out there was willing to give us better than we deserved.

  12. madhousewife says:

    I don’t think being charitable means that we step in and take over responsibilites for those who are able but don’t want to be bothered.

    You know, I certainly agree with this. I don’t think anyone could reasonably blame Heather for refusing to clean this woman’s house. It was unreasonable of Bhonnie to ask someone else to do it in the first place. But true as all that is, the fact remains that if Heather hadn’t agreed to do it, Bhonnie would have found somebody else to use. Heather was thinking of the other innocent souls who’d be spared this service project from hell. I think that’s a great attitude to have. But ultimately I think Jim is right; at some point there should be an intervention with people like Bhonnie because allowing her to continue being a thoughtless leech isn’t exactly bringing her closer to Christ, either.

  13. Ziff says:

    Wow, Heather! You’re really impressive.

    Your mantra reminds me of a (social?) psychology theory I remember reading about several years ago called action identification theory. If I remember right, it talked about how people felt about doing things depending on how they identified what they were doing, at what level. Meaning, that they could identify with the details (I’m scrubbing this nasty toilet) or with the big picture, as you did. I think that one of their conclusions (and I’m sure I’m grossly oversimplifying) was that people are happier doing things they don’t like when they identify the things on a high level, with the big picture.

    And madhousewife, I really like your point that even if Bhonnie was actually capable of doing the cleaning herself, Heather still saved someone else in her ward from getting guilted into doing it.

  14. maralise says:

    I loved this. Thanks.

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