Helga’s Post # 66:
Everybody loves to read a good zinger in a novel. And I am sure all of us writers want to come up with some of our own to make our writing ‘zing’ just a little more.
Easier said than done, for me at any rate. Good humor is a tricky beast. Try and coax it out of its cave, and you’ll find it’s not going to appear any time soon. It’s hibernating and won’t listen to your command if you try and force it. So what’s the poor writer to do?
Most of the time when I try to instill humor in my manuscripts it doesn’t quite work. It sounds contrived in suspenseful plots. But once I stop trying and let the past surface, voilà, a host of vignettes emerge from the recesses of my brain, ready to be used in my stories. Some real life events that make me smile even decades later.
Every one of us has saved such events in our minds. They are part of the repertoire of our lives. Events that have earned a place in our stories.
One such event in my life, usually shared with friends after dinner when we don’t take life too serious for the rest of the evening, happened many years ago. It’s not even particularly funny, or eventful even, except for me, because I am the only actor on stage.
We had just arrived in Vancouver from Vienna in the sixties, my friend Veronika and I, eager to explore the new world. Just for a year, we’d said to our families, and, okay, to our boyfriends too (not that we had illusions they’d wait for us). We were young. And from what we were told, pretty. Apparently, we had plenty of old world charm and some attitude too (not our own words). We were ready to conquer.
But we needed a job, and fast. Staying at the Y was not a long-term prospect. The local employment office arranged interviews with wealthy families who were looking for maids. Jobs were scarce and our knowledge of English too basic for anything else. Vroni and I dressed in our finest and took the bus to Shaughnessy for such an interview. Mrs. McMahon was awfully nice. Too polite to hire one of us and show the door to the other. She hired us both, for a salary of $150 a month each, room and board included, instead of the $200 if it had just been one.
Vroni and I knew zilch about housework. We had worked for IBM Austria in the typing pool, irreverently referred to as ‘Schlangengrube’ or snake pit by the self-important computer salesmen for whom we typed endless proposals on the recently invented IBM Selectric. And we were good.
But typing 85 words per minute was no help in our new job. We had no idea how to go about the day-to-day tasks of cleaning and tidying a house. Besides, we felt it was beneath us. After working for iconic IBM (urging staff with signs on every wall, including bathrooms, to THINK), cleaning someone else’s toilets was humbling. We tried though, needing the money and knowing this was a temporary stop on the way to better things. For the first week, Mrs. McMahon, bless her soul, looked the other way. ‘You poor girls! You must be exhausted from your trip across the ocean, and then the entire country’ (in a pickup truck with a man we had met on the boat crossing the Atlantic – but that’s another story entirely).
By the second week, Mrs. McMahon’s voice took on an edge. Cheeks flushed, she demonstrated how I had to use more force with the vacuum cleaner, ‘not just stroking the carpet like you’re holding a feather’. It went downhill from there. One morning she caught me trying on her 19-year old daughter’s shoes. Not just one pair, but the whole collection. I remember one in particular. Bright green high heel suede pumps. My size. I had harbored a plan to borrow them for my upcoming 21st birthday party, until Mrs. M nixed that.
I also failed to get her approval for the way I made her son’s and daughter’s beds. I figured they are younger than me, so the brats should do it themselves. Teaching them a lesson so to speak. Mrs. M didn’t see it that way.
Vroni, provisioned with a white French apron, became designated server at dinner time. Mrs. M rang a silver bell every time the next course was ready to be served. Vroni and I ate in a separate room of course. Often, lamb was served, which we didn’t like at the time. A week into our job, Mrs. M wondered why the family’s retriever was getting fat.
Then there was the small matter of sleeping in and Mr. McMahon having to leave for the airport without breakfast. It was the morning after my birthday party when we had to sneak back in the house at four AM, eight hours past our official curfew.
Mrs. M had a soft spot for Vienna and the city’s famous confections and cakes. She confided that it was linked to her honeymoon, though we didn’t understand most of what she said. No matter. Her soft spot prolonged our stay in the household. Would we bake something for her upcoming party of about seventy guests? Of course we would. Out came my cookbook (which my mother had smuggled into my suitcase when I left home). We drew up a long list of ingredients and Mrs. M took us shopping. Several pounds of butter, dozens upon dozens of eggs, red currant jelly galore and gallons of whipping cream. Even some lard for authenticity.
What poor Mrs. McMahon didn’t know, and we frankly had not the heart to confess, we had never baked, or cooked, anything in our lives.
But we had noble intentions. We really tried. After ingredients were unloaded, aprons, mixers and kitchen scale supplied, Mrs. M wished us luck and left for the day. “I don’t want to be in your way. You girls know what to do.”
It would take much more space than a simple blog post to go into details. Suffice to say, it was not a success. Flour spilled everywhere. Sugar crunching beneath shoes. Strange looking shapes emerging from the oven that had no resemblance to the beautifully colored photos in the cookbook. Mrs. McMahon returning, wide-eyed, holding her hand to her open mouth before retreating to her study. Ears to the door, we listened as she picked up the phone and called the employment office.
Time to face reality. To accept defeat. We were failures. In fairness, Mrs. McMahon gave us a week’s notice to find another job. I think she felt guilty, because she suddenly had long commitments away from the house. We passed the time lounging at the pool, phone in reach so we wouldn’t miss calls from the employment office. Mr. McMahon liked to keep us company, and we overheard him trying to convince his wife to keep us employed. She stayed her ground and I have to give her credit – firing us propelled Vroni and me into the next, and far more exciting, chapter of our lives in the new world.
And I got carried away again, telling a story that has little to do with the topic of writing. But here’s the thing: once you start walking down memory lane, it’s easy to lose track. That’s because many branches lead into all sorts of directions you never meant to go on. And that’s how my writing often ends up. Sure I have a plan, not exactly an outline, but a synopsis, or a mind map, something. Until some tiny detail, like green suede pumps, triggers an event long forgotten and I veer off my intended course.
I wrote this post for Vroni. My beautiful, charming friend who loved to dance, leaving us far too soon just as she turned forty. Leaving a five-year old son behind and many grieving friends. I will make sure you dance again, Vroni, in my stories.