Friday, May 7, 2010

From whence commeth my help

My daughter has a blog post about her new favorite book, The Help. When she asked to borrow it from my bookshelf, I was a little hesitant... I wanted to share it first with my mother, who was a young mother just like Elizabeth in the book — in 1960 she was fairly new to a town where practically everybody is kin to everyone else,  and she was trying to figure out the rules.

But I was also curious about how Meredith would view this book set during my childhood. Since reading The Help, I've found myself wondering so much about the black women in my life as I grew up. I am a Southern child of the 1960s, as are 99.9 percent of my friends, and we have talked about The Help over walks and lunch and over the phone, asking ourselves just which character we might be — and who might our mothers have been. It is not always a comfortable talk.

Of course I want to be Skeeter. The one who wants the stories from these women who have never been asked. When I read the chapters when she secretly meets with Aibileen and Minny in the night at risk to all,  I can imagine myself, driving down the dirt road behind our church that led to the "colored" section and those yards swept clean of grass. I felt scared for the three of them because I knew the danger of it. I wished I were that brave a reporter. Now.

"Our help was like family," some of us say, knowing the irony of that statement is a major theme of the book. Though I did not grow up with a daily housekeeper besides my mother, we did have help. And more than a few of my friends had black women who minded them every day (even though only one of our mothers worked.)  Louvenia and Peggy,  Addie and Lucille, Hattie May and Irene were fixtures of my childhood. Odessa, a baby nurse who went from house to house taking care of my town's white newborns, is in my wedding pictures, a shadow in the back of the narthex as I entered in the church, her arms folded across her white uniform. And Addie, a rotund and warm woman who drove a yellow VW, took care of us when my father was hospitalized for weeks— two hours from home — and my mother spent many weekdays with him.

My mother just finished reading The Help, too. When I was born, we lived in a tiny ranch with one bathroom, and since bathrooms play a significant role in the book, I asked her where Odessa, who might have stayed all day when I was a baby, relieved herself. "I never thought about it," Mama said, "but I'm sure she used the same one we did."

When I was five, we moved into a larger house with two full baths and a small half bath off the utility room next to the kitchen. After reading The Help, I wondered: Was that what the half-bath was for? Our help? These are not comfortable questions. You don't have to write the checks to know the help wasn't  always treated fairly. I always felt that Odessa and Bea and later Addie and Lucille — the women who worked for us and others — felt welcome, even loved, by my family. I hope that is true.

Full disclosure: Marjorine has cleaned my house one day a week for close to 15 years, and she is now 74 years old. I have asked her to slow down, to retire, but she won't, instead spoiling me by ironing my sheets to a crisp cool (one of her favorite things to do), and caring for my house when work keeps me from it. She says she wants to work, "loves to clean" as she says it, though I think that she, a widow whose grown daughter and four children live with her, needs to work. I worry that one day I'll come home and her car will still be here, and I will find her hurt, or worse. But she keeps coming, taking her time, admitting to me that she has recently felt the need to slow down.

The day I finished The Help, I asked her if, back in the day, any of her employers had ever mistreated her. She did admit in her own way that one woman was not always kind. Though as wise Marjorine put it, the woman, then young, had her own set of problems, but as she grew older, she also grew to trust. Silently I wondered if I had ever treated her badly, if she felt patronized by the Christmas gifts I give her, or the bags of clothes we can't wear anymore that I pass on to her. I always thank her when going out the door, but she can't know how many times, when she does a particularly good job, I think I'll call to say so and never do.

Marjorine raised 13 children and lost two of them, one — her first born — died on Christmas Day. In the past five years she has lost her husband and her mother, a sister and a son. Can you imagine that? She has seen one son go to prison, and another build a business from the ground up. One granddaughter (one among about two dozen total) will graduate from college this weekend. And she may be the first to in Marjorine's family finish college. I am certain, though she has not told me, that she has helped foot the bill.

Marjorine has never ridden in an airplane or seen the ocean. The mountains make her dizzy, she says, as does just thinking about that ocean, moving all the time, so having her feet planted in her garden suits her just fine. When her father died when she was a young girl, Marjorine left school to take care of her siblings so her mother could go to work.

When my daughter got married last spring, Marjorine dressed in her finest and came to the church. As I stood in the back, waiting for the ceremony to start, I could see her salt and pepper hair and cool brown skin in the middle of a sea of white. And while my friends all looked back trying to get a glimpse of the bride, Marjorine kept her gaze forward, toward the large cross that looms over the altar. She didn't stay for the reception, and I was sorry for that, but I understood.

She comes so early some weeks that my husband and son are not yet out of the house, so she sits in her car and reads her Bible. I wonder sometimes what her favorite Bible story is. I don't have to ask to know that Jesus is at the center of her world. When she does come inside, she always asks about my week, my children. One day she brought me the program from her husband's funeral. I never met him. A couple of weeks ago to told me my son could use a bigger closet for all of his clothes.
My daughter said on the phone the other night that when she was reading The Help, she pictured Marjorine. She is the "cleaning lady" my children have ever known.  In the early 60s Marjorine would have been about my daughter's age, in the middle of raising those 13 children, working in tobacco on the farm she and her husband eventually would own, taking care of other people's houses, people who might have been a little bit like Hilly.

My good friend Grace teases me that when Marjorine dies, they'll ask me to be a flower girl at her funeral, something Marjorine has been for friends many times. And it would be an honor. In our 15 years together, we've talked about lots of things — raising children right, saving money, menopause and religion. Though I have gathered some stories about her life in the small moments when we are together in my kitchen, I don't know the color of her living room sofa, or if she even has a middle name.

When I was leaving the house on Tuesday this week, I wished her a Happy Mother's Day, then was flushed with guilt, because I had failed to get even a card for her.