Distance often gives us better perspective on the events of our lives. You can also see things more clearly through the eyes of another. I recall the feeling I had when we met to discuss the bestseller, The Help in book club. I remember the mystified looks and utter disbelief of some members who had not grown up in the South, that this material was, in fact, true. To some, the title of the book held no meaning whatsoever, but to me, it was as familiar as my own name.
I grew up in the proud South, born three months before JFK was assassinated. During my youth our country was in great turmoil. Between the Civil Rights movement and the Vietnam War it seemed there was no peace to be had – especially in the South. Thoughts and mindsets, traditions, and social codes were being disrupted and overturned. Being as deeply rooted and instilled as they were, great force was required. I now realize that to a large degree, that force was Love.
“The help” in my home was a calm, steady, rounded, brown face named Margaret. Over a period of ten years or more, Margaret worked several days a week helping my mother raise three quarrelsome and challenging little girls. Margaret was solid; tempered and strengthened by her own hardships and suffering. She was steady, never rushing anywhere, but calmly moving forward through life. She had the wisdom that only years of living life can bring. Margaret cleaned for us, but her favorite place to be was in the kitchen. Margaret was famous for her chocolate cake which she continued to bake for our family for many Christmases after she left her post. Most of all, Margaret was for me, a calm and safe place.
The tumult in the world was mirrored in my own home growing up, for different reasons of course, but nevertheless, it was there. For me, Margaret represented peace. She came into our home and brought a steadiness, a calm, and a love that was more presence than proclamation. I still have a deep connection with her kind mahogany hands that served, shared, and sheltered.
Yes, there was still great prejudice and separation between “the races” when I was young. There was fear and lack of understanding, there was judgement and a sense of superiority. And yes, it was very wrong. Looking back as a child who knew “the help,” I can tell you that it was Love that, brick by brick, dismantled the hideous wall of separation between us. Truth was spoken. Pride was confronted. Change began, and Love was working behind the scenes all the while. It took both the courage to confront and the power of love, hand in hand to do the job, but let me remind you that there is no greater power than Truth and Love working together.
All across the South there were strong black women, who despite being seen as less and treated unfairly, kept on loving the children. Margaret was loved and respected in our home, but she was still “the help.” She and many others offered their wisdom and strength to white families – giving unselfishly to a race that had historically oppressed and belittled them.
My love and respect for black people, especially black women, is all rooted in the soft hands of our maid Margaret. Her love and presence in my life showed me that the nurturing warmth of peace and security comes from the heart of a person, and that no one should be judged by their color or race, but by their heart.
I just saw the movie version of The Help, which I highly recommend. The characters, homes, flavors, sights and sounds seemed very familiar to me and brought back many memories. It would often happen that when Margaret would miss the bus, my mother would drive her home and I would ride along. She would take her to a small neighborhood where “the help” lived. I always marveled at Margaret’s tiny white house in comparison to our large brick four story on a spacious sculpted lot. While it was small, you could feel the sense of community which my neighborhood lacked. I always thought of this neighborhood as Margaret’s. Today I live a few blocks from Margaret’s old house. I drive by there sometimes just to remember her. Till the day I die, I will be thankful for Margaret and all that she taught me. I wish so much for one last chance to tell her.
A “Good” Idea:
We highly recommend the book and movie The Help by Kathryn Stockett. Go see the film or read the book and think about people who have influenced your life. Who has stood by you, loved you, challenged you, changed you? Make sure you let them know it mattered.