The photographer Vivian Maier worked for me for three years in the early 1980s, though no one knew she was a photographer then. She was in her late fifties, I was in my late thirties. I had a big house in Chicago, a busy husband, two children of six and eight, and a five-month-old baby, and I wanted to go back to work. It seemed to me that a live-in nanny might simplify our lives and so when I saw her ad in the local paper, I phoned her.
She spoke confidently, with a bit of an accent. Yes, she said, her background was French, and she made delicious crème caramel. When I asked how she managed children, she said she kept them busy and safe but left the coddling to their parents. I asked her to come to an interview. It was the end of August. A tall, imposing woman came up the front steps in black Oxfords and a black skirt, black jacket and wide-brimmed black hat. Her shirt was a brightly patterned cotton print, short-sleeved. Her hair was brushed back from her narrow face: a no-nonsense face, intelligent, observant, composed.
She didn’t fawn over the children, but spoke to each of them, including the baby. She said she didn’t believe in television for children and asked if we had a stroller; I said yes, and a pram. She said she would need them both. I showed her the house and the three attic rooms we could offer her. I said if she came to live with us, I would carpet the attic hallway and her bedroom. We would all eat dinner together, but I would do the cooking. She said she wanted to cook, at least on the days I was at work. I said I’d think about it. Then we talked about her salary. I asked what she expected and she said: ‘Well, I have to live.’ She asked for $175 a week, and she wanted me to pay all the social security, her share and mine. I agreed, feeling slightly outmanoeuvred. She had another request. She wanted a deadbolt put on the attic door before she moved in.
I could see her point: she wouldn’t want the children to get into her things when she was out. I asked what colour carpet she’d like; that surprised her. ‘Rose-coloured,’ she said. I wanted to know what we should call her. She said she always addressed her employers as Mr and Mrs So-and-So, but she wanted us to call her Viv. Why didn’t she want parity? She just didn’t, so Viv it was. On her way out, she saw the New York Times lying on the kitchen table. ‘Wonderful,’ she said.
Viv moved in on a Friday to a rose-carpeted attic with a deadbolt on the door. She had two or three suitcases, some bags and boxes, and a camera – a reasonable amount of luggage. Looking back, I marvel at what a plunge it was to hire her. But at the time, I felt enormous relief, and excitement too.
We quickly learned how much she cared about food. Not drink: she didn’t drink coffee, tea or alcohol, only water, or lemonade if we had it. She liked sweets. She made crème caramel from time to time but it was solid, nourishing food she cared about. When I made the first grocery list for our new household, I asked if there was something I could get for her. Canned peas, she said. Buy a case of canned peas, or two if they were cheap. She liked them for breakfast. Canned peas were full of nourishment. The next morning we watched her open a can and eat the peas with a serving spoon, standing at the kitchen window. She liked soup for breakfast too, always warm or at room temperature, not hot.
Viv wanted very badly to do our cooking. On my first day back at work she suggested that I give her ten dollars so she could pick up something special for supper. That evening, a great grey-white beef tongue sat on the dining-room table, lolling over the edges of the platter. The children stared. ‘Don’t even pass it to me,’ my husband said. If she had sliced it thin and served it with a sauce, it might have had a chance, but that kind of fussiness was not in her repertoire. She ate a lot of tongue by herself that week.
The next evening a pot stood on the table. I had approved a stew but when she lifted the lid, whole unpeeled carrots floated in a broth alongside hairy-rooted little turnips. There was meat underneath, but I don’t think we got that far. ‘I like to see what I’m eating,’ Viv said. My husband groaned.
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