Wednesday, September 21, 2016

A Full Cup

In my early youth, weekday mornings began with the arrival of our maid, Mary. Arriving dressed in her own personal clothes, she would step into the storage room off the carport where the lawnmower and other tools were kept. There was a small toilet in there for her, and any other “help” to use when needed, and maybe a small sink. My brothers and I were told not to use it, and I got the drift that the help was not to use facilities inside, for any reason. Mary would dutifully, then change into the white uniform that my mother insisted be worn while at work. Once properly dressed as a maid, she would come in the back door to begin our day with breakfast.

 I don’t remember when Mary began working for mom. She was just there from my beginning of awareness. She was dark chocolate, quite short and round, and was the best hug giver ever. Mary would always envelope me into her arms and into the folds of that soft, white dress, with such love and warmth, and smile, and let me know that life was fine no matter what. She gave me unconditional love and never once missed giving me a small gift for my birthday or Christmas, which I am sure was not easy on her meager income from my mother. I only knew I was happy every day to see her, and adored her. I still have a tiny tea cup she gave me once, and I keep my tiny pieces of jewelry in it to keep them safe. It is amazing it has survived the years, and that I didn’t break it, my kids didn’t break it, and it has remained a lovely reminder of this sweet woman for so long. Sadly I can find no photos of Mary and the features of her face have faded from my memory. I do, though, remember the warmth of her incredible smile, and her hugs.

 At some point I overheard my parents say that she was married to a man named Joseph, who I never met or saw, and I found humor in the “Mary and Joseph” thing but kept my mouth shut. I never knew whether she had children, never knew where she lived, how she felt on any given day, whether her life was good or bad, or what she thought about being a black woman in the 60’s in Montgomery, Alabama. I was oblivious to this information as a preschooler, to me Mary came and Mary went. It never occurred to me that she had a life after leaving our house every day. It was later, as I got a bit older, that I began to notice the oddities of this arrangement, and the whole white folks and black folks thing around the segregation but, especially the separation. Mary did what she was told, cleaned the house, took care of us when we were sick when mom was at a meeting or playing golf, led me on numerous picnics to the ditch behind Bear school where black berries grew, and always showed me a genuine love. And yet, I sensed this strange relationship was not balanced but it seemed wrong to question the status quo. I  did ask her once why she ate her lunch alone in the kitchen instead of at the table with me and my brothers, and got a downcast mumble of some sort about her not wanting to disturb us. I quickly got the idea that this was one of those questions that I was not supposed to ask, and I was embarrassed for having asked, and for having embarrassed her.   

There were other “colored” people who came to the house to work; there was Dave who had one arm, soft chewing gum always stuck behind his ear, and who somehow pushed the lawn mower and trimmed the shrubs despite his odds, after Mary there was Martha, a younger black woman who lacked the compassion yet of Mary, but who amused me on ballet day by picking me up and bouncing me into my pink tights, and Dave Barlow the go to guy who got projects done for dad that were beyond yard guy things and who grew the largest tomatoes I have ever seen. His secret for his giants went with him to his grave which is a real tragedy. I never saw Dave Barlow not wearing his faded overalls and his dapper straw hat. Dave was a craftsman in his younger years and when he became an elderly man he delegated his son well on the projects dad would assign.

Later dad picked up the uses of Horace and Albert, mix masters and master bartenders for my
parents’ parties and numerous trips to Tuscaloosa for football games. I didn’t know until later that these men both held several jobs to make their lives work, again it didn’t occur to me to ask, and I had learned way back not to ask some types of questions. Both of them worked at the Country Club in the bar or waiting tables, so I saw them there, but I was surprised to find out that Albert taught high school English full time instead of just being a black man in a uniform. Both of these men were quick with a smile and deadly quick with refills. I miss them both.

And then there was Francis. Francis was the one who raised me from the time I was in third grade until very late in my high school years. She taught me how to drive, how to behave, how to cook southern stuff, and was there at the house when my parents took long trips. When we moved to the lake for the summer months, she moved with us and stayed in a very tiny house that had washing machine, dryer, and a bed pushed up against the wall. I do know that she had a husband named James and a daughter named Martha though I rarely saw them. James left Francis one day quite to her surprise, left to go to Detroit to make them some money. After he left she moved to the projects, where her car was regularly vandalized and her safety was always in question. Francis was devastated by his leaving her and figured never to see him again, but about fifteen years after he left, he did return and with a good sum of money. Soon after that, he died, and Francis bought a small house and retired on the money he had left her.


I have had the good fortune to have been raised and helped and loved by some very good people. The situation of their being employees of my mom or dad has not diminished the value of their friendships, love, and tutelage to me. If these folks whose lives have run concurrently with mine had not been hired by my parents, we probably never would have met and it would have been my loss. Growing up as a white girl in the South it has been complicated to learn the questions not to ask, and then wonder silently, why not ask? The boundaries, the not spoken taboos, what we call each other, what water fountain can one drink from or not, and yet, these relationships I had were real and dear to me. There a lot of questions that should have been asked and more are still out there. From back in my days with Mary, things have gone through great changes in the south and in this country, and yet with this new era of hate and violence I am saddened and confused at how such a gulf can occur when we have come so far  and wonder where will it end and how. But it must.