Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Day 188/365 Remembering The Help

I've just finished one of those books - those rare ones that are so amazing I dread turning the last page. The ones that make me (a speed reader) slow down and savor the way the author uses words as if they were tiny paint brushes meant to create a landscape in the readers mind.

Last time it was Thirteenth Tale, this time it's The Help, by Kathryn Stockett (a southerner herself born in Jackson, Mississippi and raised by a black domestic in the 1960s).

The basic premise tells the story of several women in the south, including Skeeter Phelan, just graduated from college in the early 1960s, moved back home to Jackson, no engagement ring on her finger, and no prospects. The other women include her circle of semi-friends, mostly married. That circle grows to include the black women who work for those friends when Skeeter gets an idea to collect the stories of black maids: what it's really like to work for a white woman, how bad and,in some cases, how good it is.

Having been raised in the deep South myself, this book hits a chord with me. Reading customer reviews on Amazon, I see lots of folks bogged down in how accurate the dialect was (black or southern white), or was there any way a white woman could write this book, or if a white woman had the right to tell this story, etc. Fortunately I read the book first.

I'd just like to say I didn't notice the dialect one way or the other. So I'm thinking that means it rang true. I found the most direct hit by this author- the most accurate observation - was the sense of questioning and confusion between black and white women. It was (to para-quote Dickens) "the best of times, the worst of times." Times in the early 1960s were changing at a dizzying speed, age-old customs were falling by the wayside faster than they could be acknowledged, and whatever was understood to be true in the evening would be turned upside down by morning, no matter who was involved.

And as a thank you to Ms. Stockett for this book, I'll tell you my own story. My father and his four brothers were raised by a woman named Kathleen. His mother, and her family for as far as she could remember, were all raised by black women. My father was born in 1929, and until 1980, Kathleen continued to work for my grandmother. As a child, when my family visited, from the moment we walked in the door, I answered to Kathleen. She ran the household, the meals, and the children with an iron hand.

When my grandmother passed away, Kathleen retired. My grandmother left her $5000 and her personal set of Samsonite luggage. I have no idea of Kathleen's last name. I never met her husband, or her children. I have a vague memory of my dad driving my grandmother to Kathleen's home with food when her husband passed away. We have never seen her since my grandmother's funeral. Yet, she was an integral part of the household for at least 55 years.

My dad's family was fairly well-off. My mother's family was not, being instead poor rural Virginia farmers who were very accustomed to doing for themselves. When we lived in Louisiana, we were the only family on our street that did not have "help". My mother simply couldn't see the need for it, coming from her farm background. All of my friend's families had maids. It was literally a way of life - having someone else to come in daily to clean your home, run your errands and raise your children.

To this day, I have no memory of any of my friend's parents, but I remember every maid' s face and name. My best friend next door, for all intents and purposes, rarely saw her own mother. All questions and requests for playtime were referred to the maid.

The closest we ever came to having a domestic was at nursery school at church. This was the very youngest of the Sunday School groups, and the black woman that ran it was named Doretha. I remember sitting on her lap, having gotten in trouble for something.

There were thousands upon thousands of black women working as domestics in the 1960's south. I have no doubt there are still a few in some forgotten corner of Mississippi or Lousiana. Now almost every trace of them has disappeared, except in the memories of those white children they raised, and in the memories of their own children.

Ms. Stockett's book brought all those memories back. It is an intricately crafted book for those trying to sort out how they feel about things they may have forgotten.

I've included some excerpts over at While Reading To The Dog. Nothing like the whole book though -it's one to savor. You can find a copy at Amazon -there's a link on my bookshelf.


  1. I remember those days and would love to read this book - I'll have to look for it.

    I had two black maids in the late 50's early 60's - both were wonderful - and I tried to treat them as I'd want to be treated. I worked full time and there was no such thing as day care. But, they did everything!!! I was blessed to have them.

  2. Iris -
    After reading this book, I would love to hear about your experience. And when did you know you weren't going to have "help" any longer -was it a lack of need at some point, or financial or did it become an awkward custom? Or just sort of happened? My grandmother's help came to an end due to her death, otherwise she'd still have the same arrangement.

  3. I personally know a family here who has had their Flossie for over 30 years. Most of their married life. Wouldn't know what to do without her. Now that I'm thinking about it, I know of several black maids like that here in town. So add Alabama to the list.

  4. I'm sure you've missed Kathleen after her being such an important part of your Grandmother's household. Thanks for sharing and thanks for the book review.