I just finished The Help by Kathryn Stockett. I read it in a day. Strike that. I inhaled it in a day.
The plot is driven by a fictitious group of housekeepers – maids – and the setting is the early 60s in Jackson, Mississippi. I was in Jackson during this time period – my dad stationed as army detached at an Air Force base there. We were only there a year, but what a year it was.
While we were there the University of Mississippi met a young man named James Meredith, the United States experienced a catastrophe at the Bay of Pigs, and JFK announced that we would put a man on the moon. Pretty heady stuff for a nine-year old news nerd.
My mother, unlike every other mother I knew, left home every day to work in a hospital, and later a doctor’s office. I guess she figured she had little need of her education unless she used it. We – my brothers and I – were tended by a series of housekeepers. And make no mistake, that’s what they were. My mother might refer to them as maids while talking to friends, but we were never to use that word. Housekeeper sounds so much more genteel, I guess.
Helen, my mother’s favorite, was also mine. She made me peanut butter and marshmallow sandwiches every day when I came in from school. She also saved mixer bowls for me to clean with a spoon. Her cakes were delicious but her batter was divine.
She also let me talk her into using her curling iron, then instruments for ethnic hair only, to curl my stringy locks. Burned it to the scalp and brought about my first haircut in years. You would think this would make my mother fire her. It was only when Helen dared to use the sink in my parent’s bathroom to change for an after work date, and left telltale signs of dark hair in the sink, that my mother got around to doing the deed.
Some things aren’t forgivable.
This firing brought us a series of interesting substitutes: Johnnie Mae, who came to work one day with an indention in her forehead as a result of a fight with her boyfriend, was taken to the free clinic in the Black part of town by Daddy, and let go as soon as the doctor told her she would survive. My mother might understand being so angry that picking up a hammer and beaning your significant other was the only thing to do but she didn’t want her children to see the aftereffects.
Then Odessa. Probably seventy when she came, and seventy year olds aren’t as swift as my brothers required. She mainly sat and shelled peas and watched her stories. I don’t think her cleaning skills were up to snuff, either. My daddy’s commanding officer and his wife came to dinner one night and as Odessa tottered around with a tray of canapes a strand of pasta dangled from the underside of the tray. My mother gently guided her into the kitchen, gave her bus fare and sent her on her way.
When I was twenty-five, newly married and one child, I found Ruth. She would work for me for the next fifteen years, and remains a treasured friend. I watched her children grow up as much as she watched mine. They all worked for me at one time or another, and all six are productive members of society.
I think they were afraid not to be.
Forget mixing bowls and curling hair. Ruth refused to clean the oven. When I asked her to she told me that her daughters cleaned hers and would do mine, if I paid them. I did.
Ruth also didn’t cook. She might shell peas or break beans if she had time, but the one time I talked her into making dressing I ended up throwing it out. She couldn’t cook.
What she could do was take care of kids like they were her own and clean house like a team of twenty. My house has never been that clean again.
She was at my house by 8 every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday and worked Tuesday and Thursday for a good friend. She was so thorough that every lightbulb in every lamp and light fixture was dusted weekly. So were baseboards, door frames, and window sills. My refrigerator – inside and out – was cleaned and sanitized every week, too.
I’ve had help since Ruth, but it was like trying to make a mule into a racehorse. It wasn’t going to happen. She spoiled me and my children and when she took early retirement – at 55 – I thought my life was over.
I always wondered what she did when she wasn’t helping me. She had children, but they were getting older so the minutiae of parenthood was behind her. She had no husband or a steady male friend, so she wasn’t taken up with romance.
I asked her once what she did for fun. She told me that she gave up on having fun years before, that it always got her into trouble. She did allow that she liked to fish.
Reading The Help made me wonder about how I was perceived by Ruth. I’m going to ask her next time we speak about what she thought of me while she took care of my life.
If I’ve had several glasses of wine.