Wednesday, May 9, 2012

remembering the help

This morning I happened to think back on when I went to see The Help with a friend of mine about a year or so ago.  I am white.  She is black.  We are in book club together.  No matter who I could have been sitting beside, it was a difficult movie for me to watch, not just for the storyline in front of me, but because I didn't want to be lumped into a stereotypical group that the movie most certainly tried to put me in.

I cried the most, sobbed out loud actually, when Aibileen and Mae Mobley said goodbye.  (In fact, my eyes are pretty leaky right now just thinking about it.)  It made me sorely miss Bea, Rebekka, and Irene. 

Although The Help is a work of fiction, it is certainly true that many white families hired black women to help not only with housework, but with raising children.  My mother was one of those women.  I can only speak from my experience.  This account is the way I remember things, the lessons I learned.  Maybe I am wearing rose-colored glasses, nonetheless I think it is important enough for me to record it, just because all white families were not like the Holbrooks and Leefolts.  Perhaps there were white families who did not respect the people nor the race of the women that they hired, but that was not true in our case. 

When my mother and father became parents for the first time, it was to a son who was born with severe mental retardation and seizure disorder.  The medical needs alone were nearly a full time job, but to a new mother who knew nothing at all, it was overwhelming.  Neither of my grandmothers were geographically available or willing to help.  My parents hired Bea.  Bea helped my mother with cooking and with housework a couple of days a week, but more than that, she taught my mother how to be a mother.  There were many emergency trips to the hospital and later a problem pregnancy (when she was expecting me) in which she had to go on bed rest or lose the baby.  If it weren't for Bea, perhaps I would not be here.  When my dad had to transfer to a new job in another state, my parents begged Bea and her husband to move with them.  They had been through so much together in those few years.  She and her husband discussed it, but in the end, they had to remain in Jackson (AL).  Though I was not quite two years old when we moved, when I close my eyes and think back, I can remember three things about Bea: smooth, well-moisturized, beautifully dark-skinned arms, the nurturing juxtaposition of those arms against a cornflower blue dress, and an unfrantic, amazingly safe love. 

Because I was an older toddler, I remember Rebekka a little better.  Rebekka had large bosoms and wore white cotton tee shirts.  Her hair was sometimes curled and sometimes it stood straight up on her head.  She had a beautiful, slightly bucktooth smile and her laugh was infectious.  She and my mom laughed a LOT.  They even dieted together - and unlike Aibileen and Elizabeth in The Help, mom and Rebekka would have tuna salad sandwiches together at lunchtime and discuss the size of their backsides, which I knew to be about the same size because of how far my toddler-sized arms could wrap around their thighs.  Oh, I'm not sure how productive the two of them were together, my mom did housework right along with her, but my brother and I were clean and well-fed.  Rebekka had a son, Kevin (pronounced Kee-vin) who was my age. We were in first grade together.  He had reddish hair and his skin wasn't as beautifully dark as hers, but he had the same smile of his mother.  When he was older, he played football for my dad, who was his coach on and off the field.  Because Rebekka was a single mother with boys to raise, and the money my parents could afford to pay her wasn't enough, she had to find something that paid more. 

I was in high school when my mother had to start working outside the home.  Unable to balance work and home life, they hired Irene to come work one day a week.  Irene was tall and graceful.  Though she had great strength, there was a certain frailty about her as well and I respected her for both. She was working to help support her daughter and grandchildren.  She was elderly, but because she wore a wig, you couldn't really tell by looking at her.  Her perfect teeth clicked when she talked.  My sister and I helped her as she went through the house, picking up stuff so she didn't have to bend over and helping to change the sheets on the beds since the mattresses were kinda heavy.  We would sit with her in the living room as she waited for her daughter to come pick her up.  She told us stories about her family, but sometimes would nod off mid sentence.

Current political correctness tells me that I should be ashamed that I have this experience.  But part of me refuses.  Was it wrong for my parents to hire these women who needed jobs?  Was it wrong that my parents gave these families gratitude that went way beyond a paycheck?  What if I did not have Bea, Rebekka, and Irene as part of my life?  As ironic as it may be, I think if I didn't have the experience of developing a loving, respectful relationship with three very special women, I may have turned out differently altogether (see Hilly Holbrook). 


Maureen said...

We had Mary and Miss Jean (who passed away very suddenly when I was in my early teens; my sisters I don't think ever really got over it), and then 'Tine (our housekeeper, Justine), who helped my grandparents before my mom and dad. We still go see Tine every Christmas in Cherry Tree Crossing. Mary calls Caroline every year on her birthday to tell her she loves her. Whenever someone talks about the book or movie in a way that condemns anyone who had someone else (particularly of a different race) help raise their children, I get a little embarrassed. But then, I remember what we meant to those three ladies. We had sleepovers with Mary's great-grandkids and thought her granddaughter was about the coolest thing. We'd take the city bus and meet up at Chuck E Cheese. Miss Jean was never so proud and happy as when she brought "her babies" to her church. She loved to show us off. She lost a child in infancy, and her husband died in combat, and we were her FAMILY, as she was ours. She once was bringing us treats, and some mean-spirited woman said "But Jean, you don't have any grands." She flashed her a look and said "You know I got my babies". When she couldn't live in her old house anymore, my parents bought a little one for her to live in.
The happiest I ever saw her was when she came to the beach with us, and oh, she had style. Every part of her outfit had to match. Purple hat, purple shirt, purple shoes, purple earrings, purple nail polish. Or green or yellow or blue. My mom has a little painting hanging in our hall that she found at an estate sale and snatched up a few months after Miss Jean died that shows a black woman wearing a beautiful yellow hat and matching dress looking out onto the ocean. I like to think that's Miss Jean in heaven. She was the 8th member of our family.

lizzerd said...

i can't believe you forgot Hazel!!! she was one of the most polite & poised people i have ever known in my life. i remember her taking us to church with her once when mom & dad were in CA on business. after church, we went to greensboro to shop at four seasons. that was a very special time!

:o) mg said...

I barely remember her.. she must have mostly come when you were still at home and I was at school. OK her face is coming into my mind... sweet sweet smile. I remember her voice. Wow. Those brain cells are snappin'.