365 Days of Earrings

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Reflections on The Help

I came pretty close to being raised by The Help. In October of 1960, when I was 4, my mom's tuberculosis reappeared. She'd been healthy for over 15 years, after spending time in a sanitorium during her late teens. I remember the day she sat me down on top of the washing machine while she took laundry out of the dryer. She told me that she was sick and that the doctors needed her to spend some time in the hospital so that they could help her get better.

Before she left, she hired a "lovely colored woman" to care for my brother and me. My dad traveled a lot, in those days, and we needed someone to stay with us. I don't really know much about the series of women who lived with us during the year that my mother was gone. But none of them lasted very long.

There was Mrs. Van, the angry middle-aged white woman who beat my brother every afternoon. We didn't tell anyone until our mom came back home the next October.

There was the elderly lady my dad fired because he found mold growing on some food in the fridge. (Whew, lucky he's not checking my leftovers!) I remember walking a mile home, carrying two heavy glass milk bottles while she carried the rest of the groceries. We sat on someone's stoop to rest, and a woman came out with a broom to shoo us away.

There was the young red-haired girl who'd never seen an ice cream cone before, and wondered how to wash the cone for next time.

There was the dark-haired Eastern European woman whose accent I loved, and who held me on her lap when I was sad.

Some old, some young, some tall, some heavy, some white, some African American... ten or twelve women over the course of that year. The doctors removed parts of each of my mother's lungs. We think that her many x-rays led to the cancer that eventually took her life some 12 years later. But on Halloween of 1961, she came home. I looked out into the audience of my kindergarten Halloween skit, and there she was, next to my dad.

Because of her reduced lung capacity, my mom was supposed to rest after lunch each day, and never exert herself. Climbing a flight of stairs might be too much for her, they said. For most of the rest of her life, we had a cleaning lady who came to help her with housework once a week. Until I was old enough. As a teen-ager, I cooked and cleaned, but never very graciously, I'm afraid.

My mom insisted on paying her help legally, signing them up for Social Security and paying extra to cover both portions. Some women refused to work for her, since they needed the money now, not later. I remember listening as my mom explained to Leona that just reporting her one day-a-week's income would mean that when she retired, she would get benefits. My mom filed the paperwork, and I hope Leona received her Social Security payments. I had the sense that she was tolerating this eccentricity in my mother. "Yes'm, Mizz Richards. If you think it's best."

I went to see The Help today, and I'm enjoying the book even more than the movie. It's a tale that needs to be told. Is it possible that even today it can only be a success if written by a white woman?

My childhood bore no resemblance to the one I saw in the movie, even though I grew up during those same years. But the tensions between white and black, the lack of understanding, were palpable. Nonetheless, that world remains mysterious to me, since my parents did their best to teach us that we should treat all people with respect.

In my suburban early childhood, the only African-Americans were domestic help and garbage men. I entered 4th grade at National Cathedral School, in Washington, DC in 1965, and began to meet the daughters of Washington's elite: professional people and diplomats from around the world. How I loved learning about other cultures and lifestyles.

I was lucky enough to go to school with some amazing African-American girls in the late 1960's and early 1970's. I sat next to my friend Susan in 5th grade, when she had hiccups for three days. Her dad was an artist who rendered JFK's doodles in metal. For several years, one of my best friends was Marilyn--funny, smart, iconoclastic. She was spending the night at my house the evening that Martin Luther King was shot. I was hurt when she chose to spend her time with other African-American students, rather than me. But I understood. Among my great friends in high school was Francine, the first true naturalist I ever met. She knew bird calls and could identify trees. She was also brilliant, and kind, and goal-oriented. How I admired (and still do)Francine's intellect and compassion.

When I left home for the movie, I was wearing my African seed earrings and a bracelet from Beads for Life, a Christmas gift from my niece Julie. (http://beadforlifestore.org/) I thought that I'd come home and take a picture of them. But I guess I lost the bracelet today as I pulled my fleece off on my way out of the chilly theater. It makes me so sad to have lost it, since I'd been thinking of Julie today, on her 30th birthday.

But I've spun a positive interpretation in my mind: I'm hoping that someone will pick up that bracelet, see the Beads for Life tag, and learn about this wonderful organization that helps Ugandan women support their families.

When I was young, labor was a bargain. I think many people in America have forgotten how that divide affected our society. They've forgotten that cars and TVs and homes with indoor plumbing were once the privilege of the wealthy. Is there really anyone who thinks that was a better time?


K├Ąthe said...

Incredible post. What a profound message and window into your childhood! Love you, Mom!

J-ROK said...

Wow. Quite a childhood you led. So different from mine. I think it's brilliant to accidentally/on purpose drop bead for life jewelry in hopes of brightening someone's day and spreading the gospel of fair trade!e