Saturday, August 20, 2011


‘The Help’ a movie and best selling book, tells a story about black maids during the 60's in Mississippi. It brought back memories of my own childhood born and raised in Brooklyn New York, not down south.

Both my parents worked in a middle class neighborhood. It was a time in 40’s when people were moving away to the suburbs, men and women  were returning home from the war, while others were migrating to America from Europe for a better life.

Hardworking, my parents had little time to give me the attention I craved, although I was loved very much. They hired maids at different times to clean, cook and take care of me. As a young child about less than seven years old, I resented their presence around me. Their skin was different than mine and I was taught not to touch them because they were dirty, and carried diseases. It was as though they were an alien race.

So, if they were unclean, why would my parents allow them to take care of me? Why would they allow them to touch our food, wash our dishes, and give me baths? All these questions bothered me till this day. It just seemed stupid, ignorant and hypocritical.

Looking poor with raggedy clothes, I remember the cleaning women carrying shopping bags and wearing kerchiefs over their hair. They were poor indeed. Most were uneducated and could not obtain decent jobs.

Watching the movie “The Help” I could not get over how a white family built a separate bathroom for their help because they feared catching diseases from them. Yet they were not diseased enough to touch and clean their own white children and household. Those prejudices never made any sense to me. Although I get unsatisfying answers such as “it was just a way of life back then”

When I grew up and had my own children, I too had a business that took me away from my home and children most of the day. I had little choice but to hire help, a young black girl from Alabama. She must have been around sixteen years old, although the agency said she was much older. Mona had a strong southern accent and was very eager to learn how tend chores. She had her own room on the same floor as ours. We insisted she ate with us and we made her feel like part of our family.

Our boys were about three and five years old  when Mona came to live with us. My father was just recuperating from a recent heart attack and was staying with us.. Mona and our family were supposed to take care of him, watching his food intake to make sure salt was eliminated from his diet.

One day Mona asked me to take her to a beauty parlor that knew how to treat her hair. She had a scalp problem that needed attention. I was to pick her up later that day. While there, Mona was approached by black church going ladies. As they were befriending her, they asked her questions about where she was from, and what she was doing. When they heard she was a maid, they became outraged. It took many years for the black community to rise above slavery, rise above lower class, to become prosperous people in the community. In the 60’s, unlike the south, Mona was among those of her color, who were educated, owned homes and were helpful in the church going community. It was a very sensitive time for the black community They gathered around her and took her under their wing. They instigated her into leaving our household at once. When I picked Mona up from the beauty parlor she did not say much except to say the ladies were surprised a young girl her age was a maid. It was a way of life down south though.   I suggested she go to night school and that I would help her.

The following day, I had an appointment in the city leaving Mona in charge of the household and my father. I came home later that evening to find Mona gone. My father was ill and had not eaten. My young children were running around the neighborhood unattended. Mona was gone. I drove through the neighborhood to find her and went to her beauty parlor but she was not there.

Days went by as I was trying to find another sleep in maid. It was difficult to run my business without help and I could not abandon my father and my children. My husband was an officer of a public company at that time and kept long hours at the office.

After one month, I received a call from Mona, asking to come back. I refused, telling her she left her responsibilities without notice and it was not acceptable. I refused to forgive her.

A week later I got a call from her lady friends asking me to forgive her. I refused. Then they came over to my house, nicely dressed in their church clothes. I could not give her another chance. A week later, her Reverend called to ask me to forgive her. I apologized to the Reverend and stood my ground. There was no forgiveness leaving a sick elderly man with two small children unattended all day. Besides, Mona was too young to be a maid and agreed the ladies were right,  Mona needed to go back to school

It seemed that those very nice ladies were right in their thinking. They really wanted to help this young lady. However they did not teach her about responsibility and giving notice to leave employment. They did not teach her that it was wrong to just walk out leaving young children unattended.

They were stuck with her. She was uneducated, they had to feed her, cloth her and provide for her and pay for her medical needs . She became a liability to them. However, they refused to send her out to be a maid again.

Still thinking of her at times, I feel assured  Mona had a tremendous support system in her new community at that time, and decided to go back to school.    I sincerely hope  she  completed her education, acquired a good job and has a nice life with a loving husband and a family of her own.

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