This is Day One of my Year of Letting Go. It actually began last November when I decided to step down as chair of the Knox Co. Democratic Party. I define “letting go” loosely, as it should be. The goal is to free my life of guilt, stress, anger, all those things that hold me down. My plan was to blog every day about letting go of something. Let’s just say that I was letting go of lofty expectations for the last four months. Hah.
Today, I am letting go of my conflict over The Help. I didn’t see the movie, although I’m sure the acting was fine, maybe even spectacular given what must have been a tortuous script. No, I read the book over a year ago at the suggestion of a friend. She loved it and thought I would too. I was curious, maybe even hopeful that I would find bits of my own life in between the lines.
I was born in 1960. Both my parents worked and, as the fifth child, I was probably the tipping point for my mother’s patience and time. I don’t know when they hired Mary Lou. In my mind, she was always there. I have vague memories of holding onto her legs as she stood next to the ironing board, the radio tuned to WVKO AM, the soul/R&B station that shaped my musical tastes for the rest of my life. I remember her teaching me how to tie my shoes, me sitting on my parents’ bed, she kneeling, the lace goes around the rabbit and down the hole. She called me Meggie most of the time, but sometimes “baby girl.”
We always referred to her as “our housekeeper,” but that title never sat well with me. First, we weren’t wealthy—we barely managed to hold onto our house. Second, Mary Lou was always responsible, even if it was something she took on herself, for our well being as much as any parent would be. In addition to washing clothes, ironing, sweeping, grocery shopping, she brushed my hair, got me dressed, was there when I got home from school, asked me about my day, kept an eye on us all, often cooked dinner, and threatened “the switch”—she would rush out the back door and grab a twig off a tree– when any one of us got out of hand. (My brothers Peter and Gerry can fact-check me on these memories; they were older and remember more.)
My mother, who sadly became addicted to drugs of the suburban kind, was in another world entirely. I remember lying on the floor in the hallway, peering under the crack of her bedroom door, which was always closed. My parents divorced in 1969 and my dad gained custody of the five of us. Mary Lou, throughout it all, was accessible, grounded, taking charge, chastising, laughing, humming. She hummed to the radio a lot. She laughed even more.
I don’t know how much my family asked of her, how frequently she went without pay, how often she had to care for us at night or on weekends. We sometimes spent time in Mary Lou’s home with her son Willy Jr. Her house was on the east side, near the fairgrounds and down the street from a dump. It had a peculiar smell that I only recently identified (from firsthand experience) as the smell of cooking fried foods without an exhaust fan. She took us everywhere: To pick up her husband in the middle of the night where he worked at Westinghouse. To the state fair every August. To her family picnics, those huge gatherings of cousins and sisters and nephews and nieces. She took us to church with all those joyful Amen’s and Halleluiah’s and hand-clapping gospel music. All that testifying. All of this stood in contrast to our white world, the staid Catholic Church, the growing distance from extended family, the closed doors.
During and after reading The Help, I felt queasy. I have purposely avoided reading or listening to any critiques of the book because I wanted to figure out for myself the real cause of my discomfort. I’m guessing that critics found it simplistic, contrived, patronizing, and maybe self-aggrandizing for the white women who loved it. It could be all those things. But for me it is something more: it is simply not true. And that untruth is personal.
Mary Lou, I’m convinced, saved my life. I couldn’t pretend to know what she sacrificed, what slurs she endured, how much pain she faced in the plight of her own child’s misery (Willy became a drug addict, in and out of jail), how hard she worked just to get by. All I know is she made my world a bigger, better place. I hope someday someone writes that story.
When Mary Lou died, my sister Ann, my brother David, and I went to the funeral service. We were the only white people there and we meekly sat off to the side and a few pews back. Mary Lou’s sister Margie spied us before the service started and dragged us up to the front pew reserved for the closest family. I couldn’t help feeling we didn’t deserve such reverence—so many years had separated us from Mary Lou’s life—but Margie insisted. It was confirmation that I had not imagined a closeness that transcended all else, a closeness that only comes with family. I know that now. I would never find Mary Lou or our lives in the pages of The Help.