Dona Maria, my guardian

One afternoon, the doorbell rang at our front door, which is accessed by the social elevator. (The social elevator serves one apt. per floor, and the service elevator, which is reserved for all maids, service people, and folks with dogs, serves all four apts. per floor, and is accessed at the back door.) I was working in my usual spot in the living room.  Our once-a-week maid, Dona Maria, was cleaning in the back.

Before I answered, I looked through the peephole, and thought I heard (over the sound of the vacuum) my name, “Ana.”

I could see a dark-haired woman, and thought it was our friend Fabiula, with her son Daniel. So, I opened the door—to a stranger dressed in sort of a maid’s outfit. She immediately began talking, the gist being that she was supposed to clean an apartment on our floor, but couldn’t get to it.

Little warning bells went off in my head, so I looked past the open door, and saw Dona Maria standing in the hallway, arms crossed, listening. I motioned her over and she stepped in front of me…and took over.

She asked the woman what she wanted (gruffly, and remember, all of this is in Portuguese), and then in no uncertain terms told the woman to go back down to the lobby and find the service elevator, that this was no place for a maid and that the maid knew better than to knock on my door. The woman pushed the elevator button, and had to stand there in our tiny foyer waiting for the elevator to come back up 24 floors, the whole time being berated by Dona Maria, who kept an eagle eye on her until the elevator door closed behind her.

Then she turned to me. Uh-oh. (Now, Dona Maria is two years older than I am.) But I was in for it. Sure enough, she put her hands on her hips and told me that I was not supposed to open the door to strangers. This is Brazil, and things are different here. I only open the door when I am expecting someone. I tried to explain that I thought it was a friend, but she wouldn’t have it. If I wasn’t expecting someone, or if the porteros hadn’t called and told me that someone was coming, I was never to open the door. Cuidado: it isn’t safe.

I said I thought this was a secure building. She said no, anyone can get in (well, they can’t actually, since they have to be admitted by the porteros, but once in, they have the freedom to roam). She said I have no idea who is in the buildings at any time, and I cannot trust anyone.

Properly chastened, I went back to my computer and she returned to her cleaning. “I’ve just been hollered at by my maid,” I wrote to friend Meg Shreve, with whom I was also Instant Messaging.

A few minutes later, Dona Maria reappeared, and called my name gently. “Dona Ana.” I stood to speak with her and she patted my arm, and proceeded to tell me in a much gentler voice that one minute of a kind heart could lead to a great deal of trouble.

The woman was likely “casing the joint,” she implied. If I had let her walk through the apartment to the back door, she would have scoped out everything we had, and the next thing we know, we would have been robbed. I was too kind, too trusting, and I had to be aware that things here were not the same here as at home.

Just then, the intercom phone rang. I answered (usually, Dona Maria answers for me), and was told that the water delivery boy was here. I said he could come, hung up, and told Dona Maria. She said yes, that’s the way it works. The porteros call and then I know to expect someone.

We both went back to work, and the phone rang again. This time, she answered (thank goodness, ’cause I’m not sure I would have understood.) She hung up and explained to me that the service elevator was busy with people moving furniture, so the water was being delivered in the social elevator.

Sure enough, minutes later, the front doorbell rang. I looked through the peephole and saw Neto, one of the porteros, with another man in our foyer. Dona Maria was at my side as I opened the door and greeted Neto. Dona Maria directed the boy to place the two water bottles inside the front door, thanked Neto, and nodded them on their way. I also thanked Neto (one of my favorites), and then closed the door.

“That’s how it’s done,” she said (again, in Portuguese). I told her that I needed her by my side every day. She patted my arm, winked, and went back to work.

My guardian.