I remember the first time that I met Warni. We were preparing for a trip to Anyer, located on the coast of the Java Sea. We had been living in Jakarta, with my in-laws for six months and had recently moved to our own place. I had a young girl of sixteen to clean my house, but she only lasted a week. After seeing maids come and go at my in-laws, I was seriously debating whether it was worth the hassle. Yet there she was, with her daughter beside her, inquiring whether or not we needed a maid. Warni was a diminutive woman with her black hair pulled neatly back from a serious but pleasant face. When asked, she explained that she had been referred to us by our previous helper and had until recently been employed by an expatriate family who had returned to their country. Her attire was mismatched but obviously well cared for, and she seemed to have good personal hygiene. With mixed feelings, I told my husband to tell her to see us when we returned on Monday.
Returning home, sunburned and relaxed, we found Warni waiting patiently by our front gate. In spite of her impassive face, she was irritated that we had returned a day later than promised. Nevertheless, it was the beginning of a relationship that would last for seven years until we left Indonesia.
From that day, Warni took care of our house, did our laundry and shopping, mailed our letters and paid our bills, braving the heat of the dusty, crowded city on a monthly pilgrimage to pay the utilities. I trusted Warni with money: her honesty was impeccable. One day, she came to me with money in her hand.
“Ibu, there is money.”
“Where did this money come from, Warni?” I asked.
“On street in front of gate.” She replied, without expression.
If there was money in my husband’s pocket, she refused to wash the pants until I broached the matter:
“Warni, have you washed Pak Edward’s pants?”
“Not yet, Ibu. There is money in pocket.”
If not for Warni, I could not have stood the every day frustrations that come with living in a third world country. She was my protector, my buffer from all things confusing and unpleasant. When maggots rained down from my ceiling, time and time again as some hapless rodent died in my roof, we fought them together. Warni swept them up, while I frantically called my husband, whose best advice was to close the door to that room. When time and termites took their toll on my roof and the monsoon rains showered filthy water into my kitchen, Warni was there. She spent seemingly endless hours cleaning it up, while I cried in my bedroom, pulling my hair in frustration. After she had finished, Warni went home and cried.
As a result of the roof dampness, mushrooms began to grow out of the ceiling, hanging on limber stalks. I left them there. One day, as Warni and I stood looking at our impromptu mushroom crop, she told me that the landlady was wondering why we didn’t remove them.
“Ibu, Tante Endang ask why we don’t take down.”
“Warni, if Tante Endang doesn’t fix my roof, we will use them to make soup and feed it to her!”
Through our years together, Warni and her family became a part of our family. When holidays came, we made sure that there were gifts, food and a bonus, careful not to offend. On the Muslim Day of Sacrifice, animals are butchered at the mosques and the meat is given to the poor. Knowing that Warni could use it, I asked her.
“Warni, have you gone to get your share?”
“Why not, Warni? It’s free meat.”
“My neighbors all rushing there, “ she replied, “Like they’ve never eaten meat before! I no need!”
Just as she helped me through my daily crises, I helped Warni with her family’s needs. When she came to tell me of her mother’s death in south Sulawesi, I sent her there. We often paid her daughter’s school fees and encouraged Warni to get some career training to prepare for the day when we would leave.
Often, I would give her our old clothes and other items to give away or keep, as she saw fit. She took them without comment, laying them aside until she left for the day. It wasn’t long before looking at Warni, I would have feelings of dejevu, as my clothing came back on her person, matched in her own unique combinations, complementing the rubber thongs that she habitually wore on her brown feet. I couldn’t resist teasing her—getting any reaction from Warni was a challenge:
“Warni, that shirt looks familiar, where have I seen it before?”
“Was yours, Ibu.” She answered, straight faced.
“Be careful, Warni” I cautioned, playfully. “People will think we are twins!”
When my daughter was born, Warni was there. From that moment, she helped me care for Chelsea. Often, she’d carry Chelsea at her waist in a long strop of colorful material, a sarung, tucked in at her shoulder. It was there that Chelsea spent countless hours at Warni’s waist, as, walking around outside, Warni fed her rice porridge mixed with vegetables, or the sliced juicy papaya that Chelsea ate several times a day.
Warni was like Chelsea’s second mother, caring for her when she was sick, feeding and bathing her. If not for her, I would never have gone to work, not trusting anyone else to take care of my child. As Chelsea had a strong personality, Warni had her own means of discipline. When annoyed, there was no explosion of anger, no spanks—just a period of being ignored. Warni would set her down, removing the sarung that tied them together. With her toffee face set, she would walk away, going about her chores, until Chelsea begged to be forgiven, running eagerly to fetch the cloth that would reunite them once again.
Warni had her own sense of humor. One day, as I was searching frantically for some treasured item from home, Warni stood calmly watching as I tore through every cupboard in the house. Finally, in desperation, I asked:
“Warni, have you seen my magazine with the rabbits on it?”
“Where is it?”
“I threw it away.”
I drew a deep breath, sputtering with incredulity.
Looking at her stoic expression, I detected a hint of a twinkle.
When my willful child decided—demanded—that she be allowed to eat a packet of chili sauce, proclaiming she liked it, Warni stood by.
“Chelsea want eat chili? It hot!”
“Okay, Chelsea no cry if hot!”
When Chelsea ate it up with her stubborn, “mmm, good, I like it” then frantically asked for a drink, Warni laughingly obliged.
“Nah, see, I told you!”
As much as I cared for her, I was not aware of how irrevocably our lives were intertwined, until I visited her home prior to our leaving Indonesia. Parking on the street, we made our way, snaking through the narrow mud packed path between the shacks. Chicks scurried before us, occasionally echoed in the dark shadow of a rat slinking out of sight in the smelly gutter. Although I had been there before, this was the first time I had actually entered beyond the door to partake of her humble, sincere hospitality. Her husband had informed us that since her employment with us had ended, she had been at home crying daily.
As our eyes adjusted to the inside of Warni’s home, it was clear that Warni would never be able to forget us. Her house was neatly kept, in sharp contrast to the surroundings and surprisingly well furnished. We looked around in astonishment: all the items that Warni had disposed for us over the years were arranged with care in her tiny home: hand painted woodwork that was my hobby, Chelsea’s baby toys and stuffed animals, miscellaneous soft furnishings, and the odd piece of furniture. Interspersed between the items we’d accumulated and discarded over the years, were photos of Chelsea and Warni, proudly displayed.
I left Indonesia and Warni behind with a heavy heart, knowing what she had meant to my daughter, my family and to me. However, I carry her memory with me to my native country, where she will always be with us in photos and in our hearts. I know that Warni will also remember us, inevitable, as she is surrounded by the accumulation of our life in Jakarta. In a way, this somehow comforts me—knowing that, even though we disposed of and packed up our Indonesian experience, somewhere in the back streets of Jakarta, a part of us remains.
jkb 2000 (pictured daughter and I)