It was surreal to be in the hospital room at LAC+USC talking with the hospital staff about what to expect in the days ahead in hospice care for our long-time babysitter and housekeeper, Maria Jeritza Sagastume, who was sleeping on her side, an IV in her bruised and swollen arms. At age 46, with two minor children and a 24-year-old daughter, Jeritza’s body was shutting down due to an infection and the relentless tumor in her brain.
I thought back to the first time we had met Jeritza.
After our first child, Rachel, was born back in 1991, we realized that we could need reliable childcare so I could return to my Israel advocacy job at the Los Angeles Jewish Federation. I heard too many stories about infants getting sick in day-care centers but we couldn’t swing the cost of having someone in our house on our own. A good friend from shul was pregnant with her #2, and was interested in part-time work and day care, so we decided to share a babysitter.
Back in those pre-Craig’s List days, it was a little more complicated to find in-home childcare. Our friend suggested taking out an ad in La Opinion asking for an English-speaker, and we had multiple candidates.
Jeritza was a little nervous during the interview, but spoke in fluent if heavily accented English about the twins she had taken care of, as well as the Jewish older woman she had worked for who had taught her how to manage a kosher kitchen. Jeritza had come from Guatemala in search of a better life, and was a single Mom with a beautiful three-year-old daughter that a neighbor babysat while Jeritiza worked. No other candidates came close to her experience.
After four months of maternity leave I went back to work, exhausted and nervous about leaving my beautiful little girl alone with a stranger. But Jeritiza told me it would be okay, and it was. Our friend’s son started coming over a few months later and the two were like brother and sister, hiding in the closet together, dumping baby powder over each other’s hair, and laughing over every little thing. Jeritza had a schedule all figured out, with their eating and napping schedules mapped out so that child received undivided attention for part of the day. The kids blossomed, and when they turned two, we enrolled them in an Israeli Gan (home day care). We gave Jeritza plenty of notice, and thought that was the end of our employer/employee relationship.
Fast forward to after Danny, our second child was born. Jeritza was working for someone else, and we had hired a friend of hers who didn’t drive. But by 13 months, when Danny’s developmental milestones were lagging behind, we needed to enroll him in an Early Intervention program three mornings a week which would mean someone to drive him. Along with Early Intervention was Occupational and Physical Therapy at Cedars-Sinai, and although I had cut back to part-time work, I still needed someone who could drive Danny to all these places as well as our daughter’s after-school activities; Jeritza came back in our lives. She caught on quickly to the exercises we were instructed to do daily with Danny, stretching his arms diagonally and encouraging him to roll and crawl.
Although she left us again a few years later to follow a boyfriend to Iowa, we stayed connected. We provided references for other employers, and when she came to Los Angeles with her two kids, we employed her again a few days a week. She helped us with the move to our new house 12 years ago, while pregnant with her third child. On Fridays, she helped cook Shabbat dinner, taking special pleasure with making a sweet tzimmes and perfect matzo balls. When we went out of town, she was the house sitter. No one else but her has ever changed our Passover dishes, and she was there to help with my Mom’s shiva minyans in our home six years ago.
Even when she wasn’t working for us regularly, we talked. Sometimes I would call from the car, and we would catch up with the kids and other people we knew in common, from former/present employers to her siblings still living in Guatemala.
In July of 2011, she collapsed with a seizure while signing up her son for summer school and the diagnosis at Kaiser was swift and cruel—a brain tumor --glioblastoma, grade IV.
Her funeral services were yesterday, and I still can’t believe she’s really gone. We will stay close to her children, doing what we can to help, but it feels like an important part of our extended family has disappeared. We will miss you, Jeritza.