I recently read The Help by Kathryn Stockett as it was this month’s selection for the book club that I am a member of. I hope to also be able to see the movie before it leaves the area.
Especially in the African American community, the emotions with regard to both the movie and the book have run the gamut of emotions, from anger to a sense of pride.
For me personally, I definitely fall in the pride camp. Like so many others, when reading the book, my thoughts turned to “The Help” within my own family. I think it’s the genealogist in me.
Growing up, I heard many similar stories as those depicted in The Help, and I don’t have to travel very far along the ancestral path to encounter them, because at various points in their work lives, my mother and her sisters were The Help. Surprisingly, to the best of my knowledge, my grandmother was never “The Help.”
The following are remembrances from Aunt Marie’s and my Mother’s days as “The Help.”
The bulk of Mom’s time as “The Help” was during the summer months while she was home from college, which would be the mid 1940s and at times in her early work life, she would fill in for one of her sisters.
My mother had good and bad experiences from that era in her life as well as those that fall some where in between.
When one of the central characters, Aibileen, of The Help is accused of theft, I was reminded that my mother went through a similar situation. In one family that my mother worked for, the wife, Mrs. Cook, was an alcoholic. You can see where this is leading already, can’t you? Mrs. Cook would get so drunk that she would forget where she put her money. One day when she was in a drunken stupor, she, of course, accused my mother of taking her money and threatened to call the police. My mother, while somewhat shy and reserved, could and can also be a bit feisty and told her employer to go ahead and call the police because they wouldn’t find anything on her.
While Mrs. Cook didn’t call the police, she did call her husband, who came home, surveyed the situation, asked mom a few questions, and returned to work. Apparently, he didn’t believe his wife’s claim. Eventually, Mrs. Cook found her money but by then my mother had had enough and told her that she didn’t need the job and wouldn’t be back. And for as spirited and standing up for herself as my mother was, underneath she was trembling and terrified and she arrived back home in tears where my grandmother asked her “What’s wrong with you?” Through tear filled eyes, my mother told my grandmother what had happened.
The irony of all this is that Mrs. Cook called my mother, apologizing profusely, and begging mom to come back. Mom’s response was “No. I’m not coming back.”
On the opposite end of the spectrum was Mrs. Bruce. With Mrs. Bruce, mom and her sisters were baby sitters as mom likes to put it and from the way mom reflects on Mrs. Bruce, that term is probably the most accurate description of the work they did for her. Mrs. Bruce always wanted one of the Hosch girls and if she couldn’t get one of them, then she would just stay home that day and look after the children herself. The Bruces also paid the best.
Of all my aunts, four altogether, I think it’s the story of Aunt Marie the oldest of my aunts that can cause anger to well up inside me. Not so much for the system under which she toiled but for the mind set it created in her.
During her work life, Aunt Marie worked for some of the famous people from my hometown, the O. Max Gardner family from whence one of the governors of
As the socialites of my hometown, the North Carolina
did a lot of entertaining, which means they served alcoholic beverages. Being
deeply religious, Aunt Marie didn’t feel comfortable serving the alcoholic
concoctions and would always ask her coworker if she would take care of this
Aunt Marie toiled as “The Help” all of her working days, which extended well into the 1970s, even after other opportunities opened up. Her younger sisters were always trying to get her to no longer be “The Help” but I don’t think Aunt Marie was ever able to envision herself as anything else. That being said, at the end of her days as “The Help” and when it was well past time for her to retire, she finally said no more. You see at the end of her work life, Aunt Marie no longer had her own transportation as her car had been totaled in a wreck. By this point in time, her last employer was only using her one day a week anyway. So her employer calls and wanted her to come out but wasn’t willing to provide transportation, so Aunt Marie would have had to pay someone to get there. Whatever the pay was at this point, it wasn’t worth all the trouble, so Aunt Marie told her she wasn’t coming out. Truth is Aunt Marie was just probably tired and worn out.
After reading “The Help” and once again reflecting on the era and times of those who came before, I can say I’m thankful that my mother didn’t meet a worse fate from the accusations leveled against her. I’m thankful that while Aunt Marie never envisioned herself as being anything other than “The Help” that she was still able to hang on to bits and pieces of herself by refusing to serve alcohol. I’m thankful that my mother and all my aunts, even Aunt Marie, knew that this wouldn’t always be the way, if not for themselves, then most certainly their children or grandchildren would know a different life.