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Posts Tagged ‘domestic workers’

We went to see “The Help” last night at our wonderful little movie theatre, the Lexington Venue.  It was as full as I’ve ever seen it, full of folks about our age, baby boomers in an upscale Boston suburb, who wanted to see what Hollywood had done with Kathryn Stockett’s novel based on a particularly sad time in our U.S. history.  I expected to hate the movie, and had squirmed in making a decision about whether to see it.  I’ve had enough anti-racism/anti-oppression/multiculturalism training and work to set off my internal radar with cheery, do-gooder versions of other peoples’ histories, and I was afraid that this movie would fall into that hole.

But it did not.  Some have called it a little too upbeat, but I squirmed in my seat as I saw mean-spirited women take on their maids to make sure they did not behave in a manner not befitting their status, watched other characters cast their eyes down as hard-working domestic workers were demeaned and dissed.  And I was transported back to the time when I recalled – as a young girl — the assassination of Medgar Evers, Jack Kennedy, and Martin Luther King, Jr.

More than that, I thought about our own ‘help.’  My mother had grown up with parents who believed that African Americans were less than others.  She once handed out a stern warning to her mother, I remember, when Gram referred to the “niggers” across the street, telling her that such language was not OK while I was around.  She knew, I suspect, that she couldn’t change her parents, but she wasn’t about to let them launch a verbal attack in my presence.

When I was five and we lived in Akron, Ohio, my mother decided that she would like to go back to work, at least part time.  She signed up as a substitute teacher, and often, she got called to come in to school.  She had hired a woman name Elizabeth Baileys — large, Irish, a little rough around the edges, always wearing a blue maid’s uniform — to come and help clean the house and look after me when she wasn’t there.  On days when Mom was at a school, I’d walk home from school for lunch (as we did in those days) to find burned tomato soup and a peanut butter sandwich on my plate.  I didn’t mind, though…in fact, I got to like the burned soup, which developed when Mrs. Baileys would turn the heat on the stove and then go off to clean something, forgetting what was on the fire.  She would sit and talk to me while I ate, send me off to school again, and continue her work.

When we moved to Connecticut Mom began working at Planned Parenthood of New Haven as a volunteer, and later, board member.  She would meet women who wanted access to birth control.  Some of them needed jobs, and she would hire them to help at our house.  She’d pick the women up at the bus stop, bring them out to the house, they would clean some and talk some to Mom about ways to get better jobs, and she would share recipes for ‘economical and healthy’ food, like Sloppy Joes, food that would help stretch a dollar and feed a hungry family while getting a few servings of vegetables in at the same time.  They came and went, some with curlers in their hair (as in the film, “The Help,”), some disappearing into the social welfare system or moving away.

And then Zula Simmons came to our house.  I don’t know where Mom met Zula.  She was elderly, moved slow, and reminded me, when I saw the film, of Constantine (beautifully played by Cicely Tyson).  Zula had served all her life as a domestic worker, and I think she was grateful for the job at our house.  I don’t know that she had much energy left to clean, but she was a presence.  My mother had been hit by psoriatic arthritis and diverticulitis, and her health was not good.  I was in high school and though I was the center of the world, so I expected attention.  I’d come in the door and be greeted by Zula, shaking her finger at me:  “Now your mother is sleepin’ down the hall.  Don’t you make no noise and bother her!  She needs to rest!”  She scared me enough to pay attention — I was not going to take Zula on — so I did as she said.  She was in charge while she was there, made dinner for us, did the laundry, kept me in line, and when my father would come home from work, he would drive her to the bus stop, and off she’d go until her next date at our house.

It was a difficult time.  Our high school had a race riot, with the Italian kids fighting the Black kids, that made it into major news outlets.  On a trip across the country the summer of the Watts riots, we saw groups of restless people gathered on street corners.  The Viet Nam war added yet another element of heat to the mix.  And through it all, there was the help in our house, keeping things moving, keeping the child in line, adding a level of stability.

I’ve often wondered what happened to Zula, just as Skeeter wondered about Constantine in Stockett’s novel.  I hope that she was able to end her days with some dignity and grace, but I fear that she lived in deep poverty and privation.  And now, early in the morning, I drive through the town where I have lived for the last twenty-some years and I sometimes watch the current generation of help get off the bus.  Few of them wear uniforms now, as they walk to the large, elegant houses where they raise other women’s children and cook, clean, and do the laundry.  But they are here, and they, too, call for us to know their names and tell their stories.

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