For as long as I can remember, my aunt’s home on the sixth floor has been cleaned each Monday, Wednesday and Friday by Mrs. Pang. Every year when I come back, Mrs. Pang opens the door and in her rough, deep voice, calls out, “Is Betty back? I see an extra pair of shoes in the hallway.” And I, still sleepy, rise and say, “Yes Mrs. Pang, I’m back.”
“Ah…that means I’m another year older!”
She is as integral to my experiences here as any other member of my family, not least because for many years, she and I have shared the mornings. With my uncle at work, my aunt at her womens’ club and my cousins either at cram school or now, at work as well, Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays mornings would be quiet, the apartment filled with my solitary, unproductive actions if Mrs. Pang did not come and work her magic. When she is here, there is a sense of industry and because she is working, I too, try to “work.” I read and write – for that, even when I’m not at school, is what I consider “work,” but it’s nothing compared to what she accomplishes.
She begins in the kitchen, sorting out last night’s (the weekend’s too, if it is a Monday) trash, washing dishes, wiping down the stove and counter tops, boiling water to drink and then, before moving onto the balcony, collects the laundry and starts load number one. Next she hoses down the balcony and scrubs the floor with a long scrub brush. The bathrooms are next, along with the bedrooms, where she dusts, changes linens, puts things away, and restores general order for my aunt, uncle and cousins, who can messy a tidy room in an astonishingly short time. When she’s not scrubbing, she’s ironing my uncle’s work shirts or, if the occasion arises, darning socks and patching holes in my cousin’s favorite sweaters. My aunt is not an untidy woman, but next to Mrs. Pang, she seems almost hapless, as would most women. Having recently moved back to their newly refurbished building, my aunt told me that if it were not for Mrs. Pang, who helped pack and store and unpack and replace nearly everything in the house, they would never have been able to move back as quickly as they did.
“I don’t think I could live without Mrs. Pang,” she said.
Uneducated and almost comically simple-minded, Mrs. Pang is an unlikely role model, but I look forward to hearing her key at the door because in her person and in her work she reminds me hardships are a part of life.
Seventeen years ago her husband was diagnosed with colon cancer. He underwent surgery, which was deemed successful and to celebrate his new found health, asked his son to buy him a noodle soup from a local shop. He ate the noodle soup, got an infection and was dead within the month. He left her with two children, whom she raised on her meager cleaning income. To hear her talk about her husband’s death is to hear a woman narrate the facts of life – there is nothing to contemplate – no hint of, “Why me?” or even a heavy sigh that denotes the hard times that came afterward – she scrubs, wipes, mops as she says, “A month later he was dead.” My face is filled with polite horror as I wait for her to continue, but there is nothing else to say. She continued working and living, each day at a time, through her children’s college educations and marriages and now, even as a grandmother, she works.
“Not as much as I used to,” she says, “Just your aunt’s house and one other lady’s. But I should keep working for as long as I can. A person has to work. What are they going to do otherwise?”