Since I finished reading The Help, by Kathryn Stockett, a few days ago, I have been filled with all kinds of thoughts and feelings about my own life. It took awhile for me to read the book in the first place – I was ambivalent and suspect that it would be too stereotyped for me to stomach. I found myself thoroughly engrossed and deeply moved.
Since I adopted my black son as an infant in 1971, I have lived my life through a multiracial lens. Everything changed in an instant. I had made a decision that ‘crossed the line’, as they say in the book. In that way I identified with the author’s white narrator, Skeeter, because I was brought up in a world not as far removed from 1962 Jackson, Mississippi, as you might think.
My maternal grandparents were from Kentucky, and I had heard stories about the grand house my grandmother grew up in all throughtout my childhood. The twist in my grandmother’s story was that she lost her mother at age two and was parceled out to her “Auntie” to be raised. She was the youngest of five siblings; the older children remained on the farm with their father and his “help”. Her aunt had no children and lived with her husband in a lovely Italianate villa on the edge of town in Louisville. She loved and was loved by her aunt, but was raised primarily by Mary, the cook and maid of the house. She spent most of her time in the kitchen and learned about cooking and housekeeping from her beloved Mary. In my mind, my grandmother must have been a lot like Mae Mobley, and how my she developed as an adult is how I imagine Mae Mobley would have become.
My grandparents escaped the segregated south in 1922, early in the 20th century, and settled in Southern California. They were well educated and quite wealthy and established a gracious and hard working lifestyle. My grandfather hated Kentucky, and swore he would never return, and he didn’t. My grandmother would take my mother and her brother on the train to visit Louisville. My mother remembers a glorious Christmas, the house decorated to the nines, when she was 13, and she got to wear her first long dress to the festivities.
A sidebar to this story is that my husband and I took my mother back to see the house when she was 86 years old. It has become a Community Center of sorts, restored to its old beauty and providing space inside for formal events such as weddings and parties and outside offering the neighborhood summer concerts and apparently a fantastic 4th of July celebration every year. The foundation that owns the property opened their arms to my mother and we were toured and dined at the house by the Louisville Historical Society, who interviewed my mother for the local paper and Society newsletter. It was a secret pleasure of mine, and an irony for sure, that we took my 15-year-old black granddaughter, my son’s daughter, with us on this trip. I am still not sure how the ‘Hysterical Society’ felt about the arrival of this important family.
But I digress – I wanted to tell about my grandmother’s reaction when she met my infant son for the first time. I was visiting my parents in Southern California with my son and his older sister, my biological daughter. It was the spring of 1972. We were in the process of relocating from NYC to Berkeley, California. We had chosen Berkeley very consciously because we were an interracial family. As my mother and I drove down the coast to the assisted living facility where my grandmother was living, she said that she did not know how my grandmother was going to respond to my son. My response was, “Well I guess we will find out, won’t we.” After the usual greetings and maneuverings that accompany traveling anywhere with an infant and a toddler, I, with my son in my arms, approached my grandmother sitting in her chair and introduced her to her new great-grandson. Through the dementia that had already progressed quite far, she reached out to take my son, and in some primal fashion, raised him up in the air above her head and then brought him down onto her lap. She looked at me and her face grew full of light as she said, “It’s about time, Honey; it’s about time!” She couldn’t say any more, and I have been left to fill in the huge space that produced that response.
I can only go back to the book and how Aibeleen treated Mae Mobley, and the secret stories they shared. I know that my grandmother’s “Mary” must have been a lot like Aibeleen. And since I am her namesake and feel like I have much of her inside of me, I now understand better what drove me over that line into a world so different, but not. There were all these innuendoes in my psyche, looking for a place to find their way out and into the light. My decision to change the complexion of my family forever was that expression.
I am grateful to Kathryn Stockett and The Help for this insight. I came away from the book, having laughed, cried, been outraged, and surprisingly validated.