Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Ratmi's tale

Ratmi worked for my family as a cook in Jakarta, Indonesia.  She was a 30 something woman with a broad smile and more joy than could be held in her short, squat body.  She lived in a room in our house and was there most every weekday morning when bleary eyed, my brother and I stumbled down the stairs. 

Ratmi's faith was a characteristically Javanese mix of superstition and Islam.  We would ask her to fry bacon and because of the Muslim prohibition against pork she would reluctantly comply.  She'd stand as far away from the frying pan as possible with her head turned away, one hand tending the bacon, the other with a kerchief over her nose and mouth.  When she would get sick, she wouldn't take our medicines, instead she'd take a 20 rupiah piece (similar to a quarter) and rub it up and down her body until angry red stripes covered her skin.  It 'got out the poison', she explained.

Ratmi was no respecter of persons or status.  We would constantly try to get her to subvert our mother's rules about in between meal snacks.  She would look quizzically at us, draw up to her full 4' 11" height and shout HA! which was her way of saying that we were full of it and that if we thought we were getting anything out of her we were badly mistaken.

My mother spent quite a bit of time with Ratmi, teaching her how to cook Texas style.  It was widely acknowledged among my friends that Ratmi made the best apple and rhubarb pies in Southeast Asia.  My brother and I loved her:  "like a second mother", my mom said.  Our mother, shocked by the poverty and malnutrition happening right outside our front gate plunged herself into efforts to help the working poor of Jakarta:  helping found a not for profit business to source hand stitched Christmas ornaments, produced by the families of our servants and sold in the US and Europe.  But that left little time for her teenage sons.  So Ratmi filled the gap.

Ratmi had a son by a man who exercised his Muslim prerogative and divorced her.  The boy lived in central Java with her parents.  From time to time she would speak of her ex-husband in dark tones:  "he no good man, he bad", she would say in her broken English.  Her family held her employment by "rich" Americans in the strictest secrecy:  if her ex found out, he would no doubt find a way to exploit that knowledge for money.  Sadly, one day the inevitable happened and Ratmi came to my father in tears.  What was she to do?  The man was a gangster and had police on his payroll.  They had come, telling her to steal things from us for him.  She wouldn't do it and now she was marked for punishment.

In the kleptocratic 'paradise' that Indonesia was back then it was no use going to the police.  We only kept them from robbing us by regular bribes.  My father quickly sized up the situation and realized that Ratmi (and us, so long as she was there) was no longer safe in our home.  So he got her a job cooking for one of his company's oil exploration camps 2,000 miles to the east in Irian Jaya.  There in the jungles of New Guinea she would be safe from the big city gangsters.

We were heartbroken by her departure.  Ratmi was family, one of the things that made living in Indonesia among all the filth and pain and suffering a true joy.  We cried bitter tears at her departure.

Ratmi had a hard life to provide for her son in that poor, broken country.  But things have gotten much better.  Indonesia no longer pretends to be a 'statist paradise' and democracy of a sort has come to the land, along with more market oriented economic policies that have almost eradicated at least the visible malnutrition.  It's still a hard life, but I like to think that Ratmi is at home in Yogyakarta now, teaching her daughter in law how to make real, honest to goodness Texas "Sonofabitch" stew and apple pie....and how to fry bacon from three feet away.

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