I just finished reading The Help by Kathryn Stockett, and oh what a book! The emotion I felt, almost from the beginning, caught me by surprise. But it didn’t take long for me to understand those feelings, because I was a child of 1960s Mississippi — I lived that story. We had full time “help” in our home…I was one of the children eating her cooking, dirtying the house she cleaned, hearing her phone conversations. We weren’t wealthy at all, but living in small town Mississippi just south of Jackson made my mother feel the need to keep up with the neighbors, and having Help was what anyone who was anyone did.
I recently met a childhood friend for lunch, someone I hadn’t seen in about 40 years. We had a delightful time, catching up on life, reminiscing about our childhood in Mississippi. She lived there long after our family moved away (never to have full time help again – for us, it was just a Mississippi thing), and she experienced things that I still have a hard time believing truly happened, still happen, in today’s times. She enlightened me about some of the events that occurred during that 1960s-Civil Rights-Small-Town time in MS – some while we lived there, some in later years – and I realized for the first time just how insulated we were as children. I’m sure my parents knew about those things, things that often happened on the “other side of the tracks”; or as I learned through my friend, often happened on “our side”, because in many homes the Help weren’t welcome outside of working hours or their work environments.
Many years later, when my family – including my mom – was passing through our small Mississippi town, I wanted to call our “Help” and take her out to dinner. I hadn’t seen her in about 25 years, and I wanted her to meet my husband and children. As a child I loved Lou, not unlike Skeeter loved Constantine. So I looked through the phone book, randomly calling numbers that might help me find her. I eventually found an address and went to her house. What a great reunion! As she answered the door and saw me, she yelled, “Is that my baby??” Not that she recognized me…I’m sure someone gave her a heads up that I was looking for her. We visited an hour or more, but she wouldn’t let us take her out. My mom told me later that she didn’t go with us because “it just isn’t done here.” What were we doing that shouldn’t be done? Eating out in small town Mississippi with someone from the other side of the tracks.
I laughed and cried while reading The Help – and while visiting with my childhood friend. My memories of that time are warm and nostalgic. I loved Lou, not because she helped us with cleaning and cooking and ironing, but because her real help was with life, leading and teaching me to become a good person. She truly loved me, and all these years later she’s stayed in my heart. If she were here today, I’d invite her out for a meal. But if that didn’t work, I’d do all I could to be her help. I’m thankful that, unbeknownst to any of us at the time, we were learning a much deeper and greater lesson about life. I hope I can help pass that lesson on.