Thursday, July 1, 2010

serving us

When my granddaughter was here we went over to my sister's house so Jade could visit with her great aunt. My sister and I started talking about the books we are/have been reading when she said she had finished The Help by Kathryn Stockett. This book is about black maids in the South and their relationships with the white families they worked for in Mississippi in the 60s. Her daughter had given it to her saying that she thought her mother would like it seeing as how she (we) had grown up with maids. My sister didn't especially care for the book because she thought the author wrote the black characters' speech in that particular uneducated vernacular that is typical of a racist white person's view of the way black people speak. She felt like the author was portraying these women as uneducated when they were not. Also, though we did indeed grow up with black maids, south east Texas is more West than it is South. And so it got us to talking and remembering our own growing up and the maids that our mother employed.

The first maid I remember was Mattie. She worked for my parents when I was little, up to about 7 or 8 or so. Mattie was mean, at least that's how we remember her. Once she had cleaned the house, she wouldn't let us come inside to play, always running us out. I remember especially Saturday mornings. If you had to get up and go to the bathroom early, before you were ready to get up you had to be sneaky because if she heard you get up, she would make the bed real quick and then wouldn't let you get back in again. My parents built a house and we moved across town and Mattie quit because she didn't want to have to travel that far to work. My mother's maids also had to cook and so there followed a short series of maids that didn't work out for one reason or another until she hired Leila.

I guess I was about 11 or 12 (that would be 1961/62) when Leila came to work for us. I'm fuzzy on the actual timing of a lot of my life. It was a long time ago and since both my parents have died, I have only my own memory (and that of my sister and brother) to rely on. I'm pretty sure though that it was before my parents' personal life fell apart and that was when I was around 13 or 14. She worked for us until the early 70s, somewhere between 1971 (my first marriage) and 1974 (my divorce). During that time my parents sold the house on Briar Hollow that I had grown up in and built a new house farther out. My sister doesn't think Leila moved with them, that she retired when they moved but I seem to have a picture in my head of her standing in the kitchen on Broad Oaks so perhaps she did for a year or so. Regardless, by 1974 or '75, she had died of cancer.

She worked five days a week, having Thursdays and Sundays off. She got to workaround 9 or 10 I think and stayed through dinner so she could clean up afterwards. She had a ride to work in the mornings but evenings one of my parents would drive her to the bus stop. This was usually pretty late in the evening because my father didn't get home til about 7 PM. It wasn't enough for Leila to cook our dinner and have it ready to be put on the table when my father was ready to eat, for us to pass the dishes around and serve ourselves. Leila didn't just cook our dinner, she served us our dinner as well. Starting at my father she carried each dish around to us clockwise. As I got older, this little ritual came to bother me, even embarrass me.

I think my parents treated her well. I don't recall they ever talked down to her, she got regular raises, they paid her social security and I believe they helped her out in some personal situations now and then. Towards the end, they gave her my sister's car to drive when she went off to college. My mother never let us treat her as a personal servant. On Saturdays and during the summers, we were to get our own lunches and clean up after ourselves in the kitchen as well. We were supposed to tidy up our own rooms so Leila could vacuum and dust, change the sheets.  We were never to take her for granted, expected to thank her each night for our dinner.

When I think back on my life between those ages when Leila worked for us, she is the one I remember. She was the one who was there when I got home from school, she is the one I talked to, she is the one I played my little prank on. She always wore a half apron and I loved to sneak up behind her and untie it so that it would fall to the floor, sometimes making her laugh and sometimes irritating her if she wasn't in a playful mood. She is the one I learned most of what I knew about domestic stuff from, she was the constant reliable in my life. When I got home from school, my mother was always in her room taking her nap that lasted til shortly before my father got home.

I don't ever remember feeling any resentment from her but that could be because I was clueless so I was a little surprised when my sister said that now, when she thinks back, she doesn't think Leila liked us kids very much. When I asked her why she thought that, she said it was because after she got married (at 19), she called Leila a few times for advice on how to do or cook one thing or another and she said Leila brushed her off every time without giving the asked for help and after that she quit asking. So maybe so. I mean, really, there was no reason for her to have any kind of emotional attachment to us, her employer's kids. We grew up, went away to college, got married and made our own lives and Leila drifted out of our consciousness.

Now, as I sit here trying to think of what I knew about her, her life, about her as a person, not just our maid and the answer is...not much really. I know she had a daughter, Juanita, and I know she didn't have a husband. I don't know for certain if she never had a husband or if she did and he ran off. For some reason, I think he abandoned her or perhaps she kicked him out. I know that Juanita got pregnant when she wasn't married. I know she went to church. These are little bits and pieces I picked up because while she confided some to my parents she never talked about her life to me. Why should she? I was just a kid and Leila definitely had her notions about was proper and what not. The question I have and can't really answer is, did I ever ask her about her life? Probably not. I don't even know for certain how old she was. She seemed ageless to me.

When Leila became ill and was dying of cancer, my mother called me and told me I needed to go see her and say goodby. I don't know if that was how she put it exactly but that was exactly what it was. I was in my early 20s, older than 21, younger than 25. I made my way to her neighborhood in a black part of town, found her house. It was the first time I had ever been to her house, to her neighborhood, to any black part of town, an experience all in itself. My sister remarked on this, that the only time we had ever been to her house was when she was dying, but really, why would we ever have been before. Would you really expect your servant to invite you as a guest into their home? Anyway, she was bedridden by then. I visited with her. I don't remember what we said, how long I stayed. Not long. Probably I didn't tell her what was in my heart. Her daughter was there tending to her and I felt waves of hostility coming off her. Could have been my imagination, probably was, probably she was just grieving her mother's imminent death.

We went to the funeral. It was the first time I had ever been in a black church. She was laid out in front. Not just an open casket but one with sides that folded down. There she was, laying out in full sight. We sat fairly close to the front, the only white people in a sea of black. Black funerals are very different from white funerals. After the pastor gave his eulogy, he asked if anyone else had a few words to say. People stood up one by one and spoke about Leila. Finally it seemed as if everyone had had their say and the pastor asked if any of us, her employers, would like to say a few words. My parents sat there silent and stone faced, clearly uncomfortable at being singled out. I fully expected that one of them would stand and say something. I was shocked and embarrassed when I realized neither of them was going to say a thing. So I stood up.

I stood up and spoke about how much she meant to me, that she had been the one there for me, that she had practically raised me and how much I would miss her. I was crying so hard that I'm surprised anyone could understand what I was saying. I sat down. My parents never said anything to me about my unseemly display, the words I said. I wonder, now, what all those people must have thought about this young white girl, standing up in their church, crying about the passing of her black maid.

Back home while we were making cookies, after visiting my sister, my granddaughter asked me something about Leila, about what my sister had said about her not really liking us. We talked, I told her what I remembered and when I got to the part about the funeral, I choked up. I had to stop talking until it passed. Surprised me that that emotion welled up after all these years, decades.

Maybe Leila didn't have any attachment to us, to me. I will never know. But I think I can truthfully say that I loved her.


  1. A beautiful tale, Ellen. I have little doubt that if Leila could evoke such deep emotion in you, that she loved you too.

  2. That was a wonderful, beautiful story of your experience with Leila. Thank you so much for sharing such a personal piece of your life. I would imagine that Leila had a great fondness for you. Everyone we love leaves an imprint of something of themselves on us. She touched you and now you have touched us with your story. Really lovely.

  3. A wonderful tale told from the heart.

    Maybe she seems removed because it was not "proper" to care for the ones you served.

    I believe she cared, it shows in your story.

  4. This is a lovely story Ellen. I grew up in Hong Kong and we always had an "amah". Later as an adult I lived there and always had one - and when we moved to Africa we did. My daughters boyfriend said recently that he thought it terrible that people should be allowed to have servants - I truthfully believe that its ok to employ someone who would otherwise be unemployed but NEVER think because you do you are better than them - my grandmother (my favourite lady in the world) was a maid and she was a true lady!

  5. She was part of your family. Of course you still choke up.

    What a beautiful post, Ellen. Thank you for this.

  6. Wow, what a beautiful story, Ellen. It took me back to another era, another time in America. We never had maids, but it must have been nice to have her there when you needed her. Maybe you had the special relationship with her that your sister didn't.

  7. Wow! This was owerful. We may not really know how we feel about things and people, untill something makes us explore our feelings. I think you should be proud of yourself, being able to tell people about them - in public as you did.

  8. A very honest account, ellen. If there is anything to be read between the lines, every reader will do so by themselves.

    I am glad you stood up and spoke at Leila's funeral, seemly or not. There is little I can add, the world you speak of is alien to me, maids, possible racism, children being brought up by the standards and way of life your parents had, none of that feels at all recognisable to me.

    But then I don't suppose my world would strike a chord with you. So, isn't it wonderful that we bloggers can tell each other and thereby learn from each other?

  9. That's a very enlightening recollection which reminds me how we all have to grow and evolve into more sensitive people on our journey through life. I like that we have reached a point in this country that we can look at work as something to be respected rather than a distinction of a class system. Work is honorable, no matter the job. I'm hearing a lot about a new book called The Help by Kathryn Stockett on the same subject. I haven't read it yet, but it sounds interesting.

  10. A wonderful story Ellen! How sweet that you stood up at her funeral to say how you felt about her. And that it still causes you to get misty-eyed tells of your great care for her. She brought a stability to your life and that is a real blessing. Thanks so much for sharing this special memory!

  11. I appreciated this recollection very much. I can't imagine that Leila didn't have feelings for you and your sister as you were growing up, though doubtless there were some mixed feelings involved. Perhaps her unwillingness to be the counselor of your sister as a young bride was in part a sense that your sister needed to learn to be independent at that stage of her life. I imagine the church-goers appreciated your tears. They obviously came from the heart - which cuts through all human-constructed boundaries of social positioning.

  12. Wow, that is such a different life than I can imagine! It amazes me how many stories we all have. This was was so interesting. Very different from my CA childhood :).

  13. It always astonishes me how true feeling can slash a claw right through time and rend it as though it was nothing. Those feelings are always worth paying attention to. Could be just loss of childhood; could be something else.

  14. Stopping by from Hilary's POTW-- Congrats and you can sure tell a wonderful story. Thank you,

  15. Congrats on your POTW!!! Hugging you

  16. I imagine many of the people in that church were thinking how genuine and brave you were
    and how we are all so much more the same than we are different

    beautiful story Ellen
    deserving of POTW

  17. That was a beautifully told story, Ellen, and one well worth reading. Congratulations on your post of the week mention over at Hilary's blog.

    You know, I think you're quite right, and your sister is right, she likely did not have much emotional attachment to you, or your sister. I'm not saying that to be unkind, I just think it is likely the facts of the matter.

    There was as inequality, and a disparity in your lives, and your relationship to one another that was dictated by the position she held in your house.

    But I think the thing I'm taking away from this is that that likely truth for her, has no impact on your feelings. On her worth within your life.

    The story about dinner really got to me, by the way.

    This was such a touching post, but one of the things that I like most about it is that times are different. That a person's race or religion doesn't dictate the opportunities in a life.

    Maybe Leila did not like you, or your sister much, or you family but I can understand that, and it sounds like you can too. Our world is still troubled, but there are more choices available to everyone now.

    I'm just sitting here pondering the likely fact that Leila's affection, or lack thereof for you wasn't really about you, but rather about the life available to her.

  18. A wonderful post from start to finish Ellen. We didn't have maids in Ireland but I do - @ least my in-laws have - here in India and I am very familiar with the love/like/resentment relationship that this is. She was an employee but very much a part of your personal life. Your encounters with Mattie made me smile. Having a maid is supposed to make your life easier, not harder! You've inspired me. I'll be doing something on the same lines soon xxx


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