Saturday, June 28, 2014

Ode to an office manager

If someone had told me that the day that I met Betsy would be a pivotal one in my life, I would have laughed.


3 years ago, as I sat in our yearly meeting with the two other physicians in our firm, we decided that our budget had room for an office manager. We each had a secretary. We had a nurse and a translator whom we all shared, but office managing had been something that we passed around between us. I had January through April. Jin had May through August and Fawn had September through December. Jin was the best at it, Fawn the worst, me in between. All of us hated it. Payroll, crossing t's and dotting i's on all governmental red tape forms, billing.

We needed an office manager. We decided to hire one.

On paper, Betsy did not look all that impressive. She had an associate's degree in bookkeeping and had only held one job: she worked the front desk at a grade school. Big whoop.

At her interview, she reminded me of a white rabbit. She was tall and willowy, with white blonde hair, light blue eyes and so pale that she looked right next door to albino. Her demeanor was quiet. She seemed shy, extremely reserved.

We interviewed a few others, including one very animated hot shot bookkeeper who currently worked for the dentist in our office buiding. She was probably the most qualified, but it unnerved me when she badmouthed her employer, calling him an unrelenting task master. I felt she was more gossip than substance and while Jin and Fawn wanted to hire her, I nayed her.

The only other applicant that we all thought that we could live with was Betsy.

We hired her.

On her first day, she seemed a little dismayed at the state of our books, but she smiled at her office. Admitted that she had never had her own office.

Four days into the job, she had everything so tidied up that it was nearly unrecognizable to me. A place for everything and everything in its place. She wasn't inclined to lots of office decoration. For the next three years, the sole decoration in her office were two bible verses written on white 3X5 cards tacked directly above her computer, and a photo of her grade school teacher husband and their two sons when they were babies. The boys are now 13 and 16.

Little by little, she and I snuck up on each other. We are not the types of people who usually become friends. Betsy was raised Mennonite in Minnesota. She met her husband when she was in my town visiting her cousin. Her cousin had brazenly left the Mennonites in Minnesota to become a secretary here and became a Baptist. They went to a church picnic and there was Aaron, Becky's future husband, the Baptist preacher's son. She moved in with her cousin, converted to a Baptist and married him. Once, I asked her if she missed her old religion. No, she said promptly. She did not. She absolutely loved her new religion. She adored being a Baptist.

I have never hidden the fact that I live and love a woman. I don't go around talking about it, but I do not hide it, even by omission. I knew that Betsy's religion was dead set agin us but she never said a word to me. She did invite me several times to come to her church for Christmas, for Easter, for the summer picnic. I refused all invitations on principle. If my spouse was not welcome, neither was I. She nodded, not commenting.

Within a year, we were best work friends. Underneath that clean as a whistle pretense, I discovered that meek and mild Betsy carried a freak flag. She just hid it pretty well. And something in her found a pilgrim in me and we just connected.

It shocked both of us. I had no desire to have a bible thumping Baptist bestie at work and she was equally dismayed to have a liberal Democrat bi-sexual one. But, there it was. She and I fit like a puzzle that, at first, seems too hard but then all of a sudden makes perfect sense once you get the outer edges worked out. She openly wept when one of our secretaries had an abortion. I championed her, praised her for being mistress of her own body and realizing that she just could not care for a child. Betsy and I both knew where the other stood, but didn't try to sway the other. She no longer tried to get me to visit her church. I no longer made a stand of not going.

Our friendship deepened. She and I went to lunch once a week and they were long, laughter filled times. We found much to talk about even if she refused to have a television in her home, so couldn't discuss The Walking Dead with me (and frankly, even if she did have a television, that program would have been soundly banned for violence and bad language) and we didn't like the same kinds of books. She loved religious tomes. I like fiction.

We talked about our children a lot. Her passion for her sons equaled mine with my daughter and we often shared problems and how to solve them. Why was her 12 year old such a crybaby? Was this her fault? Why had my daughter grown so distant? Was this my fault? Was she mimicking her aloof Mother?

We talked about work a lot. Many of our clients are foster children, long in the system. We talked long and hard about how to help our pro bono clients. We spearheaded together a help box. A big box in our office that staff members stuffed with diapers, formula, baby clothes, blankets.

Betsy's work was flawless so her yearly assessments were as well. We gave her raises every year.

One day, Betsy walked into my office and asked if she could sit down for a second. Seeing tears in her eyes, I said yes, of course. Turns out that one of the secretaries (mine) had called her a hoity toity holy roller when she thought she couldn't hear. Betsy was stung. I was furious and told her that my secretary (who has since been fired, but not for that) would be chastened. No, she told me. No punishment for being a gossip with a big mouth and bad opinions.

"I fight my own battles, Maria," she told me. And she did.

Our relationship deepened further. When my monthly bloodwork revealed that I was out of remission, it was in her office that I finally let my eyes fill with tears. And Betsy knew not to touch me, but sat carefully and quietly at her desk, her own eyes filling with tears too.

"You'll beat it again," she said, with clear finality. "I pity the cancer that takes on YOU."

Betsy and I never socialized outside of the office, other than our weekly lunches. Her weekends belonged to her husband and sons. She gave the office her land line number, but never gave me or anyone else her cell phone number. She missed a lot of pithy cell texts that I would have sent if I'd had her cell number, but, hey...her loss.

Last week, Betsy came in my office and sat down early one morning.

"I have something to say and it is really hard, but I want you to know first," she told me. I sighed. Somehow knew this was coming. She had spoken a few months ago about a new middle school that was going up just a few blocks from her home. She had mentioned that she thought she might like working in a school again. And two weeks ago, I was called for a reference for an Elizabeth Oleson from that same school. She had applied for the position of front office manager.

I couldn't lie. I informed the school principal that Betsy was the best employee that I had ever known. She easily got the job. It comes with a raise, but less hours. She will have her Summers off now, something she always missed from her previous job.

On her last day of work, we will have her going away party. We will all be jovial and talk about how we will miss her but that our paths will surely cross again.

They won't. We don't run in the same circles. We won't see each other at that Baptist church Summer picnic. We won't run into each other in the literary fiction section of a book store. She grocery shops at a small family owned grocery that is owned by a fellow church goer. I won't see her at Whole Foods when I am eying the produce or buying goat milk for my coffee.

Betsy and I are that common breed: great work friends. If I called her up two months after she leaves, the call would be stilted. We will no longer have the common ground of a shared workday. I will no longer come into her office, flop down in a chair and share about that awful foster parent. She will no longer talk to me about her ideas to order new chairs for the conference room. We will have missed the day to day talk that made our friendship ours. How her in laws visit every month and she has to scour her house down because her mother in law actually does walk around her home with white gloves, checking the baseboards and telling her that she  puts too much mayo in the egg salad. I won't have shared that cell phone photo of Liv's first date and all the drama that ensued with Bing because of it. I won't secretly show her the chicken dance that my sisters and I do every Thanksgiving together. She won't shake her finger at me and frown whenever I say the word damn. She won't make me laugh so hard that I spit out tea by telling me how her son split his pants at work and decided to staple them back together and then the staple burst and cut his ass (or as she put it: his hind end.) We won't have the day to day stuff and there will be too much to tell and none of it shared anymore, so what's the point? Office friendships are for day to day office happenings.

But, I will think of her often and wish her well and sometimes, I will feel her thinking of me too as she deals with some smarty pants middle schooler.

I have been changed by knowing Betsy. She says that she has been changed by me. I am not sure how, but we are.

And I already miss her.


Joanne Noragon said...

Wonderful when it happens; you helped each other.
I once needed a payroll clerk and hired her out of our stock department. She went on to become an attorney, lives in Arizona with a great husband and three children. We cross on Facebook. I'm proud of her and proud to have known her.

megan blogs said...

I had some great work friendships, too, that i was loathe to leave. At my last job, by the time i was leaving, however, most of them had moved on already. What i found surprising is that some had wound back around in the nicest way.

I hope you can find another great office manager and that Betsy enjoys her new job.

jk said...

who is the office manager-- Martine who caught you at a vulnerable moment or Betsy the former Mennonite from Minnesota? Not that it matters really, as the vignettes are well done.

SmitoniusAndSonata said...

She sounds nice . I expect she'll miss the chats just as much as you will ... a peek at a totally different life is important for all of us .

lily cedar said...

What a lovely tribute.

Karen M. Peterson said...

She sounds like a perfect employee and office friend. But I totally understand what you mean about that relationship. Once you no longer have work binding you together, what's left to talk about?

Earth Muffin said...

There is nothing like a great work friend to get you through the day-to-day stuff. I hope she knows how much she's meant to you.

The World According To Me said...

It's obvious you've both made a huge dent in each other's lives. Sometimes someone comes along unexpectedly and you know you're going to be pals. And you know you'll never forget them.

LL Cool Joe said...

Wow I'm a Baptist too, but pretty liberal, I think. And there is no way that Bing should have been excluded from any event at the church!