Effie Gale worked for my family for more than 40 years. Every Wednesday, she rode the New Jersey Transit bus from her home in Roselle to ours, in Montclair. There she vacuumed, dusted, cleaned the bathrooms, mopped the kitchen floor, put new sheets on the beds, and ironed my father’s handkerchiefs. When holidays were approaching, she washed the wine glasses and polished the silver.
When I was small and my mother was attending library school, Effie stayed late and prepared dinner. Her fried chicken was a rare, special treat. It set a bar few other versions have met. After we grew up and had homes of our own, Effie baked us zucchini bread – a foil-wrapped loaf for each of us when we came to Montclair for Thanksgiving. Sometimes there were fragrant stalks of rosemary from her garden.
Effie sometimes fed us, but she didn’t eat with us. On Wednesdays when we were home, my mother would prepare our lunch and set up a separate tray for her – a woven place mat, a folded napkin, a glass of milk, a plate full of whatever we were having, and dessert. While we ate in the kitchen, Effie ate at the end of the dining room table. Afterwards, she would carry her tray into the kitchen and compliment my mother on the meal.
I didn’t think anything about the arrangement until I was visiting home from college.
“Why the separate tray?” I asked. “Why don’t we just all eat together?”
“Effie prefers it this way,” my mother said, and that was the end of the conversation.
Effie called my mother “Mrs. Horowitz,” sometimes, “Mrs. H.” My mother and everyone else in the family called Effie, “Effie.”
When she wasn’t working for my parents, Effie took care of my grandmother’s house in Elizabeth. Eventually, she also commuted to my aunt’s apartment in New York City. She attended all of our weddings, and the funerals for both my parents and my grandmother. She admired our babies when we brought them home to visit, and long after she retired, she continued to ask after us and send us her love through our aunt.
Effie knew all about our family, but my brother and sisters and I didn’t know much about hers. At Christmas time, she visited her sisters in Louisiana, where she’d grown up. When her husband died, my grandmother and my aunt attended his funeral. Earlier this month, when Effie went into the hospital, her son phoned my aunt, who spread the word to the rest of us.
He called her again on Saturday to say Effie had died.
Effie had an elegant beauty, a bright smile and a good hug. She hummed while she worked, and welcomed “help” from two generations of children. She stayed with my mother and my grandmother through their final illnesses, a comforting, confidence-inspiring constancy as health-care workers of varying qualities came and went. By the time my mother was taking all her meals in her bedroom, Effie was carrying her tray upstairs and they were eating lunch together.
She leaves her son, her daughter-in-law and two grandchildren. She was 91.