I can’t encourage you enough to read the book “The Help” by Kathryn Stockett. If you haven’t read it, put it on your Christmas Wish List. If you have read it, give it to your friends.
I’ve never read a truer book about the interaction between black women who worked as Maids in the early 1960’s and their “white ladies.”
Although the book is set in Mississippi, it could very well have been set in Danville, Virginia. I remember those days too well.
People seem to already be forgetting that the South in those days, from Richmond to Mobile, was like South Africa under Apartheid. I was in South Africa in 1997 and felt just like I did in Virginia in 1965.
Everyone had a place and stayed in it. But the times were beginning to change…
In the 1960’s, the bus line ran near our house. The corner of Brook Drive and Lansbury Drive was a major stop for the Maids. Six or seven women would get off the bus around 7:30 or 8:00 a.m. and walk back down there to go home around 6:00 or so. Some of them wore their bedroom shoes to work as their feet were so tired and broken down from standing all day, all they could wear were scuffs.
Most of the White Ladies in Temple Terrace had maids. They didn’t have jobs, but they had Maids. I remember our “car pool” for Miss Touchstone’s Kindergarten, our Mothers would throw a London Fog all-weather coat over their pajamas to take us to “school” and only get dressed and made up around 4:30 before our Fathers came home from work. I don’t know what they did in the meantime…
Back then, a Maid in Danville was paid around $5 a day, as I recall, as I couldn’t believe how little they were paid even then.
For this $5, they cleaned the house, ironed everything from sheets to boxer shorts, sometimes cooked and frequently “minded” the children. While the “Lady” of the house tried to figure out what the hell to do with her life- besides take Valium and wait for her husband to come home. We even had a special refrigerator downstairs just to put the damp laundry in to wait for the Maid to come iron it. If anyone actually washed it besides her…
This led to institutions, such as the Temple Terrace Women’s Club, with no purpose other than to give the White Women something to do with their time.
I will point out, we were from “comfortable” families, but we were not rich. The income distribution in the 1960’s was such that if you were a white man, you had it made. And you had a Maid.
“The Help” totally captures this world. And you see the Maid’s side of life that we never saw back then…
I remember reading “The Help” this summer and just being blown away. I saw several of our Maids in the book. And I saw my Mother. She was a mix of the characters Elizabeth, Hilly and Celia. I recognized both Abilene and Minnie from our Maids.
I was taken back in time and made to remember things I had long forgotten.
As a reminder, my Mother was a poor girl who married somewhat better. My Father’s family had had “Help” for as many generations as could be remembered. Some under circumstances I still can’t deal with discussing…He just expected her to know how to manage the Maids.
But she could not keep a Maid…That was a big bone of contention between them early on. Truth was: The Help scared and intimidated her.
Now mind you, no one needed “help” more than my Mother. She couldn’t/wouldn’t cook, clean or iron. She really wasn’t interested in raising children. Someone had to do it….
The first Maid I remember was Evelyn. She was a very warm and kind lady. She reminded me of my Grandmother. She knew how to lead my Mother along. Evelyn came several times a week and one of those days, my Mother “loaned” her to a neighbor who was getting ready for a party.
Evelyn had a heart attack and died standing over this woman’s ironing board.
My Mother always hated that neighbor, going forward, for killing her best Maid. But she never recognized Evelyn as more than a Maid. I’m not sure she even recognized Evelyn as a person. Evelyn was someone who was helping her navigate her new social position and she was too stupid to realize that. Many years later, I still see Evelyn’s warm and wise face. In “The Help” terminology, she was an “Abilene”.
Then my Mother had a string of “Minnie’s.” These were younger proud Black women who were Maids, but didn’t really like it and didn’t take any guff. They intimidated the hell out of her. The two I remember most were Shirley and Wivonia. They did their jobs but would not take any of her foolishness, didn’t like her, didn’t really want to work for her and it was very clear. She was way too trifling for them. They just wanted to get out of there with good references. They ate her up and spit her out and she found some reason to let them go as “Just not right for Me.”
The last two maids I also remember very well. They were Mildred and Frances.
Mildred was a “Minnie”. She was strong, proud and scared the hell out of my Mother. She did her job well, but would not take her foolishness. She scared my Mother so much, she finally had to get my Father to fire her- on the grounds it was “just not working out.”
My Father really resented this….He did not see managing the Maids as his role and this was one of the early breaks in their marriage. He expected my Mother to be pretty, entertain well, raise his children appropriately and manage “The Help” and the house. She eventually failed on all points….
Mildred terrorized my Mother for the rest of her life. She challenged her life vision.
Once Mildred left us, she went back to school and eventually went to work at G.C. Murphy’s discount department store and eventually became the manager. The first Black Woman to ever do achieve this position with that company.
This blew my Mother’s mind. Every time we went into Murphy’s, Lou would ask: “Where’s Mildred? I need to say hello. Can you believe she used to be my Maid? I’m so proud of her.” Mildred would come speak to us, the picture of dignity with a key ring around her neck, and say: “It’s so good to see you Mrs. Michaels. The children really have grown. But, I need to get back to my work, now.”
A couple of points here….A Maid would have called my Mother “Miss Lou” and they both knew it. Being called “Mrs. Michaels” implied a causal, social aquaintance on equal social footing. They both knew it. It was a game people played back then…
Frances was our last Maid. She was an “Abilene” and reminded me so much of Evelyn. She was a very warm, kind, gentle woman. She knew how to handle Lou and all was well…
Until she fell down our stairs and sprained her ankle…
This put my Father into full panic mode. He lived in fear of being sued. He told my Mother she had to handle the situation. He told her to go take a food basket to Frances’ house and check in on her. He frankly said: “I don’t want that bitch taking everything I’ve worked for. You need to difuse this situation.”
God, this led to a battle equal to World War II.
My Mother flat-out refused to go to the Maid’s house. My Father called her every name in the book. He told her she was lazy, pretentious and trifling. He told her if she wanted to keep her house and her lifestyle, it was time she acted her role. Otherwise, she could go to hell.
You had to talk that way to my Mother to get her to do anything she didn’t want to do. You still do….
She agreed, but she made a major production of it. The trip to Calvary did not take as long as her maquillaje.
One of the few motto’s I share with my Mother is: “When over stressed, over dress.”
She poured on a half gallon of Elizabeth Arden “Blue Grass” cologne. She put on one of her nicest wool crepe dresses-in a pale tan/ dark beige with a strategically placed broach. Her pearls. Spent an hour on her make-up. Put on her favorite darker tan Rippe’s coat- with the Mink Collar and three-quarter length sleeves with matching Mink Cuffs. Elbow length tan kid gloves. Four inch beige heals…And a tan tam. Yes, a tam…
She was almost ready to go see the Maid.
My Father had put together a food box. My Mother made him go get a basket….
Once he did that, the Lady Bountiful of Temple Terrace was ready to go see the Maid. She acted more like Marie Antoinette going to the guillotine.
We all piled into my Father’s Ford LTD and went off to Frances’ house.
We pulled up in front and my Mother said: “Aren’t you going in with me?”
He said: “Hell, no. She’s your Maid. Get your ass out of my car and go deal with this.”
She shot him a look that would have killed someone not used to it by now…
She got the basket and walked up the steps and up the walk to the house and went in the door.
Five minutes later, she came walking back out as fast as a White Woman could walk in 4 inch heals. She dove into the car and slammed the door. She looked at my Father and said: “I did it, now get me out of here. I never want to go back here again. It was awful. Frances was propped up in a chair with her leg up and there were Black people everywhere. It was a four room house and I can’t count how many people were in there….”
My Father said: “Hell, Lou. You are from a four room house in Schoolfield (the Mill Village), it should have seemed like old home week to you.”
Frances never came back to work for us after this. She got a job working the line at the local cafeteria. We would sometimes see her when we went there for Sunday lunch. She would call my Mother “Miss Lou” and nod. Lou would say: “Hello, Frances. So good to see you.”
And we would go on with our lives. She never sued us.
My Mother didn’t have another Maid for 25 years.
Read “The Help”.