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taryn gee The Globe and Mail

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Underwear drawers always hold more than just underwear. Snooping in my mom's was definitely the most exciting activity in the stillness of my childhood home. Not that her dresser drawer held anything of worth; nor was it the repository for the adoption papers I was forever hunting.

But it was a vault full of glimpses and suggestions: a tiny baby aspirin bottle filled with impossibly small seashells; broken jewellery waiting to be mended; Avon lipstick samples; a foreign perfume bottle labelled with an unpronounceable name, and my mom's teenaged diary.

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Most important it held my mom's scent: the scent of a woman.

When I was 16, a hotbed of contraband sat hidden under my bras, camisoles and panties in the top drawer of my dresser. To my teenaged brain, the fact it was out of sight meant the subtext of my panty drawer was invisible to everyone but me.

So it was the height of embarrassment and anger when I returned from school one day to find that the contents of my top drawer had been tidied. There, in the far back corner behind my folded undergarments, laid out in a neat little row, were my pipes, rolling papers, condoms and birth-control pills.

This was the handiwork of my mom's cleaning lady, the ever-efficient Mrs. Otto.

An underwear drawer, like a diary, has a tangled ethos. There is an implicit understanding that it is private, yet there is also the understanding that when you choose to keep something, it might be found.

I had nowhere to take my complaint, and in the days that followed I was a prisoner in a jail I had constructed myself. I waited for the sentencing that surely was coming, for my parents to unleash some ultimatum that would see me sent away or condemned to further rules.

Mrs. Otto's meddling in my underwear drawer was not going to deter a lifestyle on which I depended in those days, but I did have a genuine fear of my parents.

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However, nothing came of it. No words were ever spoken about it by my parents or by Mrs. Otto.

That did not mean the issue was forgotten by me. I was the one trapped by my own behaviours, my outrage at being discovered, and my fear of repercussions. And perhaps those three adults knew it.

Nonetheless, my secret stash was back to being a secret even if everyone knew.

When I was 33, I registered for a writing workshop and set in motion a desire that had been incubating for years. With pen in hand, I was finally going to have my revenge against the malicious Mrs. Otto. It was time for her to leave my head, where she had taken up residence in a rocking chair, peering at me over a cup of smugness. I needed to exorcise the cleaning lady who still maintained power over me.

It was in that workshop that I first created the fictional cleaning lady Mrs. Kuntz. The hatred was ready to pour from my pen when an interesting thing happened.

Mrs. Kuntz had just washed the kitchen floor when young Pearl walked in the back door, returning from school. She asked Pearl to sit down with her and let the floor dry before she crossed it. And in that early conversation on paper, a relationship began – the kind of mentoring relationship I had longed for as a teenager.

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My fictional Mrs. Kuntz, it turned out, was a well-read, educated woman who cleaned houses because the Zen of housework helped her think.

Pearl took to her immediately, finding answers to questions she hadn't yet asked and information that was not coming readily from her mother. The cleaning lady was anticipating Pearl's needs.

Mrs. Kuntz turned out to be my redemption. She wrapped herself around me like a shawl, mending those years fraught with angst. With the transformation of Mrs. Otto into Mrs. Kuntz, the pent-up emotion left my body. In the space where I intended to send a bitter bullet I now found solace.

I named the story Thank You, Gina Lollobrigida because of the scene that changes everything for the two unlikely pals. Mrs. Kuntz, noticing that young Pearl is in need of skin care, offers a little jar of Avon face cream to soothe her parched skin. Not wanting to point out what might be embarrassing for Pearl, Mrs. Kuntz tells her a story about Gina Lollobrigida and how she remained wrinkle-free by never moving a muscle on her face. "Make her angry," Mrs. Kuntz said, and "she'd throw that beautiful bust in the air before she lifted an eyebrow. Always take care of your face, dear."

Grace in a little jar of face cream – not only for Pearl but for me, too.

I was still searching for the scent of a woman, still hoping to learn something.

Thank you, Gina Lollobrigida was the beginning of my life's passion. Now, my writing is the place where I show my silky slips and the subtext of my life – buried somewhere under the lace.

Leslie Morgenson lives in Waterloo, Ont.

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