I’m thirteen and sprawled on the couch at my friend Mary Ellen’s house, watching TV. A black woman in a white uniform passes me a slice of cheesecake and a fork. I reach for the plate without looking at her. Maybe I say thank you, but I doubt it.
Oh, man, it’s Jello no-bake cheesecake. The best kind. I wonder if I can help myself to seconds or if I have to summon the maid, whose hovering presence makes me uncomfortable.
Growing up in Jackson, Mississippi in the 1970s, many of my friends had maids, even those who lacked other symbols of elevated social status such as membership to the River Hills Club and a mother in the Junior League. Some families had live-in maids who ran the house and helped raise the children. More common were maids who cleaned the house in the morning and took the bus home in the afternoon.
Even Chevy Nova-driving families like mine had a maid who came from time to time to restore order to our disheveled houses. For many kids, including me, our maid was the only black person we knew. We did not play with black children. Our schools, pools and churches were rigidly segregated. At Girl Scout camp, my friends and I were once assigned a black tent-mate. As soon as our counselor realized the error, she assigned the girl to a tent with black girls.
What we knew about black people we learned from our maids, and the odd dichotomy taught us it was okay to like a black person, even trust her with your children and consider her family. But you placed her in a separate category of friendship, the special role of beloved maid so dear you sometimes forgot she was black.
Kathryn Stockett, my former classmate at First Presbyterian Day School, mines the complex relationship between maids and the families whose toilets they cleaned in her novel, “The Help,” an irresistible New York Times bestseller. In the epilogue, Kathryn says her childhood maid, Demetrie, inspired the story.
The Stocketts loved Demetrie. She worked for them for eons. Kathryn crawled into Demetrie’s lap for comfort and to hear her stories about picking cotton and okra in rural Mississippi. But she wasn’t allowed to sit at the kitchen table while Demetrie was eating. It just wasn’t done.
My exposure to black women through the domestic workforce was more distant. They folded my clothes and scrubbed the tub where I bathed, yet I barely said hello. The sight of a black woman in my home was infrequent, and I never felt at ease.
The first woman I remember cleaning our ranch house was Chris, the maid at the church where my mother was a secretary. A soft woman with dimpled arms, she made my bed way better than my mom did, pulling the sheets taut and arranging my stuffed animals on top.
One day, I watched my mom make grilled cheese sandwiches and heat up canned soup while Chris sat at our kitchen table. Seeing my mother serve Chris, I perceived a shocking breach of social mores. My mother and Chris were sharing stories and laughing, just like two white women.
Later, my mother employed her friend Sam’s longtime maid. Her face was hard and displeased to make our acquaintance. Her forte was ironing, which she did while watching soap operas, just like I did when I had to iron my own clothes. We admired her speed and technique, but she did not fit our image of the genial maid. When she ducked into our laundry closet for what was probably a snuff break, I stared at her profile, wondering what no-good she was up to and planning to tell my mother all about it.
After she left one day, my mother commented on her severe limp, wondering how she walked at least a mile each way from our house to the bus stop. Sam didn’t know what my mother was talking about. What limp?
Fast forward ten years, and I’m living in a diversity-obsessed city and working at my first real job in a diversity-obsessed newsroom. And yet, relating to African-American colleagues does not come easily. I blame the awkwardness on them. Why so sensitive about everything? And why all the cheering after the O.J. verdict?
Another fourteen years pass, and now I’m in awe of how far both races have come in terms of living and working together, given those many years in separate and unequal worlds. Not that there isn’t a long way left to go, but black and white children playing together in the sandbox is no longer a jarring sight. (Is it?)
For me, changing times have allowed my black friends to become just my friends. They still marvel at the things white people say to them, such as, “Your son is going off to college? You must be so proud! Is he the first in your family to graduate from high school?”
I laugh, but I’m tempted to encourage forgiveness toward the clueless white person. Given what we learned as children, is it surprising we can be such foolish adults? I’m not excusing ignorance, I’m just saying how it was. At least, that’s how I remember it.