Mortification is nothing new to me. How is it then, that mortification never ceases to mortify?
Last weekend was a perfect example.
On Friday morning, our lovely, smiling, always pleasant maid (who we refer to as 'Tita L', or 'Auntie L' in Tagalog) says to me, "Madame, is it ok if I can ask you something maybe if you don't mind", covering her giggles coyly with her hand. I've come to recognize this giggle, this roundabout way of approaching an issue. It usually ends up introducing some odd touchy subject.
My defense shields immediately go up; both feet planted firmly on the ground, weight on one hip, palms braced flat against the countertop of the kitchen island between us, my brain processing 30 horrific scenarios a minute of where this conversation might lead (e.g. "Madame, I'm pregnant", "Madame, can you loan my friend some money", "Madame, I shrunk all of Sir's dress pants", "Madame, I spent 1,000 QAR on phone bills last month").
Why I would think these things is anyone's guess. In the four years she's been with us, Tita L has never done anything even remotely disturbing. But somehow the cynic in me is always bracing for the worst.
I force a smile to my lips, will it to reach my eyes, and tell her that she never has to ask if she can ask me something. "Ask away", I say. And she drops the bomb.
"Madame, if it's okay with you, maybe can I get my salary for last month?"
MORTIFIED. MORTIFIED. I am MMOORRTTIIFFIIEEDD ........ It is now 9 days past her pay day.
I stand there wide-eyed. Immediately shift the blame to her (I know, I want to hit me too) ... "Tita L, why did you wait so long to remind me? I completely forgot. Oh, gosh, Smilin' Vic, we forgot to pay Tita L."
Tita L is still smiling. "No problem, Madame, I just ask because my daughter's tuition, she is starting the semester, it's ok Madame if you don't have it now. I'm just asking. It's ok." My shame is compounded with every word she utters. I wish I had a valid excuse. I don't. It doesn't feel like I've forgotten something, it feels like I've neglected to remember.
Smilin' Vic walks into the kitchen. He says to her "Tita L., you have to tell us these things when we forget." (I know, I wanted to sock it to him too.) He heads off to the ATM to get the cash.
Once I get over the initial wave of mortification at being such a dimwit for forgetting her salary, and over the second wave of mortification at projecting my frustration at Tita L, and once I divert my frustration to Smilin' Vic (I have to let it out somewhere), I shamefully and profusely apologize to Tita L.
It was such a horrible feeling. For those of you living in the ME, you will have heard of or even witnessed first hand some of the household help here who are not paid, are abused, are disrespected, are kept as virtual prisoners in the homes where they work. In extreme cases, even though it is illegal, some sponsors keep their maid's passport, don't pay them for months, and don't ever let them out of the house.
We have vowed to always show Tita L the same respect we would any trusted colleague or family member. We have always given Tita L her salary on the 4th Thursday of the month. She has the same freedoms we do. She has her own annexe off the back of our house. She has cable and the Philipinno Channel. We pay her more than three times the going salary for live in help in Qatar; she gets a yearly bonus and raise. We don't do this because we're good people; we do this because she earns it through hard work and a great attitude. We do it because she has every much right to dignity and autonomy and respect as any hard working decent human being.
Yet in one single moment, I saw the possibility of all this imploding. I really felt shame. That someone who relies on me and trusts me would have to ask me for her salary. Smilin' Vic and I are human; we don't get everything right, we forget things. But this is really one of those things I chalk down to negligence. I tried imagining myself having to go to my employer at the end of the month to ask for the salary I had rightly earned. The thought left me quite powerless and disheartened.
They say you can't make the same mistake twice. The second time you make it, it's no longer a mistake. It's a choice. This is one mistake I hope never to repeat.
Shame on me.