Sunday, August 14, 2011

A Real Life version of The Help

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We called her LaLa because that's how her name came out when son Mark began talking. She came to work for us in 1977 the year Mark was born. I was thirty years old and had zero experience with household help. I didn't even know other people who had household help. I certainly didn't know protocol applicable to white people having “colored help.” Recently having read, The Help by Kathryn Stockett, I chuckled about similarities in the novel with how LaLa and I, over twenty-five years, broke down the rules and formed a friendship that continues today across miles and more years. Without doubt, she knew the rules and mores that I didn't and probably wanted to teach them to me, so as to be more comfortable. But we forged a new brand of relationship instead.
The name LaLa stuck but nothing else stayed the same. In 1977, she arrived at work in her street clothes and changed into a white uniform. In the last years she worked for me, she still arrived in good clothes and changed but she changed into her sweat pants and t-shirt so as not to soil her good clothes. If she ate at our house, she waited until I had gone out and then sat in the kitchen. This pattern crumbled with great resistance, but in the end, we could sit at the table and have a sandwich together and chat. In the beginning, I knew little of her home life. In the end, I knew her family, knew her sorrows and knew her joys. I attended her family weddings and funerals. She could ask me to take her to the hospital for a test because all her family was working. We laughed over her family’s foibles and strengths just like we did over mine. She loved reminding me that her husband Warren could “do any thing except make money.” She lovingly reminds me when I share the latest news of Denny, “Miz B, Denny has been his own man since he was just a little boy.” We knew each other’s families.
During the early years, LaLa also worked for the Shraders across the street. Because Mark and Denny saw her there when she was not at our house, they thought that's where she lived and that Mrs. Shrader was LaLa's mother. As children, they did not see black and white skin color as a deterrent to being family. We still don’t.
Through four of my husbands, LaLa held her tongue and her opinions about men and dating. I wish she had not. She arrived one morning when I had just begun to accept that Bart was going to die. I flew into her arms and sobbed. She consoled and listened, then went about her work--just one of many times we would cry over what life dishes out. She did, however, pout about the hat I chose to wear at Bart's funeral. I refused to be solemn and wanted to think of the service as a celebration of his life. The vivid purple suit and gray hat with the veil struck just the right chord in my mind. She mumbled for days about it being inappropriate. After his death, she started bringing me a second cup of coffee as I put my make-up on each morning because that's what Bart used to do.
LaLa attended three of my weddings and we have shared more funerals than we care to count. I know the small African-American church in her little town of Keene and have been welcomed there as family for her husband's funeral and her granddaughter's wedding. We share life events and the range of feelings that accompany them.
As I moved through six residences, LaLa moved with me. She even continued to care for us during the short time I lived in Husband Number Four's house, smaller than her own home. She and I both enjoyed the years when I lived alone in my small condo in downtown Lexington. During that period, she loved hearing the news of my friends and my seminary experiences and enjoyed meeting the guys I dated and would sometimes roll her eyes but nothing else in response.
Miss Celia, the poor white trash character in The Help, comes closest to who I was when LaLa and I first met. While college educated and, hopefully, possessing better taste in clothes than Miss Celia, I had more in common with the help than with the ladies in my Women's Club. And LaLa surely had more knowledge about managing a home, entertaining guests and being middle class than I did. She taught me gently about laundry and polishing silver and despaired that I seemed incapable of organizing a kitchen.
Over the years, she loved checking my outfit before I went out the door and became more than comfortable expressing her opinion. She cared for my clothes in loving ways, even washing my stockings by hand. I know how to handle an iron but my skills were no match for the artful ironing LaLa gave to a man's shirt or to my most delicate silk blouse. However, there were a couple of occasions when she put a dollar bill on the counter and said, "Mz. B, take that shirt to the cleaners. It is just too hard to iron." I took that shirt to the cleaners and left that dollar bill on the counter. She still calls me Mz. B even though I am now officially Mz. P. When she called to tell me her husband, Warren, had died, she used my first name, the first and only time. Our relationship transcended the tradition but her ties to certain cultural norms stood fast.
On the anniversary of her twentieth year of working for me, Mark and I created a money tree commemorating our time together and giving her a bonus. The three of us cried together over it and shared memories--like the time the clothes dryer caught on fire when drying a heavy rug. During our early years, the episode pushed LaLa to tears for fear we would expect her to pay for the dryer. We also laughed over the period in which we called ourselves The Poop Ladies because Mark's diapers had to be changed constantly due to his lactose intolerance. When my lesbian stepdaughter and her partner came to stay for two months, LaLa adjusted and called them Those Girls but never once implied judgment with that moniker.
LaLa's call on each anniversary of Mark's death is one I can always count on. She grieves the loss along with me. Mark would come in the door and yell, "LaLa, give me some sugar" and throw his arms around her. She always called him Mark Robert and called Denny, Den-bones. She spoiled them by cleaning their rooms when I asked her not to do so, but she loved them and contributed to the color-blindness we taught in our home.
While I lived away from Lexington I missed the bouquet of peonies that LaLa would bring to me every Spring from her back yard. I love cut flowers in the house and LaLa knew that was something she could give that brought me great joy. The greatest joy, however, comes from the lessons learned, the love shared and a relationship that enhances my spirituality through its very existence.

1 comment:

  1. Brenda, having read the book and recently seeing the movie, made this so interesting to me. Your writing of your experience was delightful. I loved having a little insight into your life that I find now that in college I only knew a very little of. I still cherish those times we spent together, your bright smile, and even better, smiling personality. But there was so much that I did not know that was behind those things I loved.