Last Thursday night, I saw
The Help. The theater was filled primarily with women.
At the time, I wondered about that. Of course, it is still women who hire the domestics, work with the domestics, and pay the domestics. Is it also women who will best understand the heart of the film?
Born in ’51, I grew up in the pre-Civil Rights South. I remember those years as carefree and frivolous. Even though my mother had actually gone through law school, the times and the culture didn’t rally around working women. She and her ilk were stay-at-home mothers. They crafted. They played bridge. And they drank non-Starbucks coffee and sipped non-green tea.
We had a maid named Cleo. I don’t remember her last name. Not even sure I ever knew it. I do know that she was terribly overweight (in today’s culture, merely full-figured) with speckled chocolate skin, and I loved her with abandon. When her workday was finished and the time had come for her to head home, I would cling to her and sob. Never, in my life since, have I known such comfort and reassurance as in the voluminous folds of Cleo’s bosom.
She lived south of town, somewhere across the tracks in what we then called “Colored Town.” Black folks had their own stores and schools and churches and, other than hiring them to do our laundry, clean our houses, and weed our gardens, we didn’t intermingle.
In the book and movie The Help, the character Hilly Holbrook builds a separate bathroom for her maid. Separate but Equal. I don’t ever remember that being an issue in our house. But was it? All of my friends had maids, and I don’t ever think it crossed my mind about where they used the toilet. Was this one of those discreetly discussed irritants among my mother’s gaggle of gals in the neighborhood? I always assumed I lived in a tolerant, Christian, fair-minded community? But, did I…?
I never thought to ask about Cleo’s life outside of my own. My seersuckers were neatly pressed, and my chicken pot pies or bacon and egg sandwiches were always fresh, hot, and tasty. Those things, I did care about.
Once the concept of Rights-for-All caught on and seemed as if it might actually be in society to stay, our First United Methodist church switched places once a year with our black counterpart—-Stone Chapel Methodist. Our preacher and choir entertained (a doubtful word, I must say) the Stone Chapel congregants, and theirs most definitely entertained ours. In my opinion, we got the better end of the trade. Not only were the songs their choir sang livelier than the staid old hymns subjected on us at my church, but their choir members clapped their hands and swayed to the music, fanning away the sweat that accumulated on their brows.
It was as if the words of the songs actually meant something to them. As if certain elements in the swell of the notes made the Holy Spirit just reach down deep inside, grab hold, and shake you to the core.
And the Stone Chapel pastor, oh, my! Unlike our pastor, theirs didn’t stand like petrified wood behind the pulpit, hands folded primly behind his back with his eyebrows clenched together in hopeless admonition. No, the Stone Chapel Reverend literally hopped around the dais with an effervescence of joy, waving the Bible at us as if that Good Book actually had something relevant to impart in our lives. Afterwards, the two congregations joined in fleeting solidarity for a buffet lunch at Stone Chapel Fellowship Hall.
When I was a baby, the black lady who came to free up my mother’s time by watching over my swaddled form was named Robbie. Later, when I was in high school and, of course, after we and our schools had all become fully integrated, Robbie was my Home Economics teacher. It was my due, of course, as her former charge, to take top place as Teacher’s Pet.
We had a different maid by the time I was seventeen. Her name was Georgie, and she wasn’t much older than I was. If I had plans for an evening, Georgie would wash and iron my skirt and blouse, comb out my tangles and curl my hair, and offer indispensable dating tips. She was 19 and already married.
My parents were kind, generous people and we, as their kids, were never, ever allowed to utter racial epithets or bigoted slurs. Still, I wonder…what was it really like for the women who worked for us? Did Cleo love me as much as I loved her? What was Georgie’s life like when she left our house and drove across the tracks to her own young husband? What were Robbie’s struggles with the world at large, and how did my parents address those struggles?
I do love thought-provoking books and films, and I’m particularly thankful for Kathryn Stockett’s The Help. Not only because it provides the necessary ingredient in all fiction—–that of entertainment—–but also, because, well…doesn’t it just make you ponder?