Just a Family Thing

Lucia Berlin was dead 11 years when her short story collection, A Manual for Cleaning Women, came out. It was her first taste of commercial success. For most of her life, Berlin worked as a cleaning woman, hospital ward clerk, switchboard operator or a teacher of Spanish. She grew up in mining camps in Idaho, Kentucky, and Montana. As a child, Berlin developed scoliosis and wore a steel brace for most of her life. Berlin lived in Texas, Chile, Mexico, and California. She raised four boys, mostly on her own, despite having married three times. Often, Berlin was drunk.

Lucia Berlin based many of her stories on events in her own life. One of her sons said, after her death, “Ma wrote true stories, not necessarily autobiographical, but close enough for horseshoes.”

Lydia Davis in the Foreword to Lucia Berlin, A Manual for Cleaning Women (Farrar Strauss Giroux 2015)

I don’t actually like omnibus short story collections that cram together into one fat volume the life’s work of an author. A Manual for Cleaning Women is not that. This is a collection of work, old and new, lovingly curated by Berlin’s friends. A Manual for Cleaning Women is not a life’s work but rather the work of a life.

In the beginning

I bought my copy of A Manual for Cleaning Women back in 2017 at a bookstore in Sausalito. It’s fun to revisit that place in the title story. Guided by bus signs (42-Piedmont to Jack London Square, 33-Berkeley Express), we follow the narrator as she cleans houses for Mrs Jessel, the Blums and Linda.

As in any line of work, there is a code of conduct. Cleaning women should not make friends with the cats. They should avoid houses with preschoolers and psychiatrists. But go ahead and take that 15th bottle of sesame seeds, your lady will never notice. And accept whatever she gives, however torn or dirty. You can always leave it on the bus.

It’s not hard to imagine Berlin writing this story based on her years on the job. Or perhaps as inspired by her experience of heartbreak.

He was like the Berkeley dump. I wish there was a bus to the dump. We went there when we got homesick for New Mexico. It is stark and windy and gulls soar like nighthawks in the desert. You can see the sky all around you and above you. Garbage trucks thunder through dust-billowing roads. Gray dinosaurs.
I can’t handle you being dead, Ter. But you know that.

Lucia Berlin, “A Manual for Cleaning Women”

Friends and Family

Remember The West Wing and the episode when Leo McGarry is about to be outed in Congress as an alcoholic? His poor lawyer is blindsided and Leo won’t help her out. He tells her not to worry. It’s just a family thing.

“Dr H.A. Moynihan” is a dentist with a gift for casting dentures. He can make them so they won’t slip or whistle. He knows how to color them just right, add a chip or a filling to make it look like all the rest. He’s the best dentist in West Texas. He’s also a drunk.

Every night he got drunk and mean. He was cruel and bigoted and proud. He had shot my uncle John’s eye out during a quarrel and had shamed and humiliated my mother all her life. She wouldn’t speak to him, wouldn’t even go near him because he was so filthy, slopping food and spitting, leaving wet cigarettes everywhere. Plaster from teeth molds covered him with white specks, like he was a painter or a statue.

Lucia Berlin, “Dr H.A. Moynihan”

Berlin battled alcoholism for most of her life. Her mother and her grandfather were both drinkers. Her third husband, Buddy, was a heroin addict. Before Berlin died in 2004, she was at work on a series of life sketches that could have evolved into a full-on memoir.

Is it reductive to imagine that all of Berlin’s work is autofiction? It’s hard to think any writer could conjure up this alcoholic experience without having some sense of the hair of the dog that bit you.

In the deep dark night of the soul the liquor stores and bars are closed. She reached under the mattress; the pint bottle of vodka was empty […] If she didn’t get a drink she would go into DTs or have a seizure.

Lucia Berlin, “Unmanageable”


Editor Stephen Emerson says in his Introduction to A Manual for Cleaning Women, “Lucia’s writing has got snap.” He says her stories contain joy and her language, suddenness.

It’s a terrific way to describe the mind that animates Berlin’s stories. It doesn’t matter whether she’s drawing on an experience the real Berlin might have had. In “Here It Is Sunday,” an inmate at County Prison #3 takes a writing class from Mrs Bevins so he can see his friends from the street. In “Homing,” an old woman recalls a time in her life when she had her “own napkin and napkin ring that went on the sideboard with everyone else’s.”

It’s the language that thrills me. Check out this flash piece, the only one in the collection. It snaps on every line.

When fresh it looks like caviar, sounds like broken glass, like someone chewing ice.
I’d chew ice when the lemonade was finished, swaying with my grandmother on the porch swing. We gazed down upon the chain gang paving Upson Street. A foreman poured the macadam; the convicts stomped it down with a heavy rhythmic beat. The chains rang; the macadam made the sound of applause.
The three of us said the word often. My mother because she hated where we lived, in squalor, and at last now we would have a macadam street. My grandmother just so wanted things clean—it would hold down the dust. Red Texan dust that blew in with gray tailings from the smelter, sifting into dunes on the polished hall floor, onto her mahogany table.
I used to say macadam out loud, to myself, because it sounded like the name for a friend.

Lucia Berlin, “Macadam”
24 Apr 2022 | Karen Kao