Ponderings on "The Help" by Kathryn Stockett

Saturday, February 20, 2010

We called her LaLa because that's how her name came out when son, Mark began talking. She came to work for me in 1977, the year Mark was born. I was thirty years old and had zero experience with household help. I didn't even know other people who had household help. And I certainly didn't know protocol or rules applicable to white people having colored help. Recently, having read "The Help" by Kathryn Stockett, I chuckled about how LaLa and I broke down the rules over the next twenty-five years and formed a friendship that continues across miles and years. Without doubt, she knew the rules that I didn't and probably wanted to teach them to me, so as to be more comfortable. But we forged a new brand of relationship instead.

The name LaLa stuck. Not much else did. In 1977, she arrived at work in her street clothes and changed into a white uniform. In 2003, she still arrived in good clothes and changed but she changed into her sweat pants and t-shirt so as not to ruin her good clothes. If she ate at our house, she waited until I was gone and sat in the kitchen. This pattern crumbled with great resistance, but in the end, we could sit at the table and have a sandwich together and chat. In the beginning, I knew little of her home life. In the end, I knew her family, knew her sorrows and she could even ask me to take her to the hospital for a test because all her family was working.

During the early years, LaLa also worked for the Shraders across the street. Because that was the only place Mark and Sims saw her other than at our house, they thought that's where she lived and that Mrs. Shrader was LaLa's mother. As children they did not see black and white skin color as a deterrent to being family.

Through four husbands, LaLa held her tongue and her opinions about men and dating. I wish she had not. She arrived one morning when I had just begun to admit that Bart, Husband Number Two, was going to die. I flew into her arms and sobbed. She consoled and listened, then went about her work. It was the first of many times we would cry over what life dishes out. She did, however, pout about the hat I chose to wear at Bart's funeral. I refused to be solemn and wanted to think of the service as a celebration of his life. The vivid purple suit and gray hat with the veil struck just the right chord in my mind. She mumbled for days about it being inappropriate. She also started bringing me a second cup of coffee as I put my make-up on each morning because that's what Bart used to do.

LaLa attended three of my weddings and we have shared more funerals than we care to count. I know the small African-American church in her little town of Keene and have been welcomed there as family for her husband's funeral and her granddaughter's wedding. We share life events and the joy or sorrow that accompanies them.

As I moved through six residences, LaLa moved with me. She even continued to care for us during the short time I lived in David, Husband Number Four's house that was smaller than her own home. She and I both enjoyed the years when I lived alone in my small condo in downtown Lexington. During that period, she loved hearing the news of my friends and my seminary experiences and enjoyed meeting the guys I dated and possibly rolling her eyes but little else in response.  

Miss Celia, the poor white trash character in "The Help," comes closest to who I was when LaLa and I met. While college educated and, hopefully, possessing better taste in clothes than Miss Celia, I had more in common with the help than with the ladies in my Women's Club. And LaLa surely had more knowledge about managing a home, entertaining guests and being middle class than I did. She taught me gently about laundry and polishing silver and despaired that I was incapable of learning to organize a kitchen.

Over the years, she loved checking my outfit before I went out the door and became more than comfortable expressing her opinion. She cared for my clothes in loving ways, even washing my stockings by hand. I know how to handle an iron but my skills were no match for the artful ironing LaLa gave to a man's shirt or the most delicate silk blouse. There were, however, a couple of occasions when she put a dollar bill on the counter and said, "Mz. B, take that shirt to the cleaners. It is just too hard to iron." I took that shirt to the cleaners and left that dollar bill on the counter. She still calls me, Mz. B even though I am now officially, Mz. P.

On the anniversary of her twentieth year of working for me, Mark and I created a money tree commemorating our time together and giving her a bonus. We cried together over it and shared memories---like the time the clothes dryer caught on fire when drying a heavy rug. It was during those early years, I came home and found LaLa in tears for fear we would expect her to pay for the dryer. Then there was the period in which we both called ourselves The Poop Ladies because Mark's diapers had to be change so constantly due to lactose intolerance. When my lesbian stepdaughter and her partner came to stay for two months, LaLa adjusted and called them Those Girls but never once implied judgment with that moniker.

LaLa's call or card on the anniversary of Mark's death is one I can always count on. She grieves the loss along with me. Mark would come in the door and yell, "LaLa, give me some sugar" and throw his arms around her. She always called him Mark Robert and called Sims, Sim-bones. She spoiled them by cleaning their rooms when I asked her not to do so, but she loved them and contributed to the color-blindness we taught in our home.    

Every spring, I miss the bouquet of peonies that LaLa would bring to me from her back yard. I love cut flowers in the house and LaLa knew that was something she could give that brought me great joy. The greatest joy, however, comes from the lessons learned, the love shared and the continuing relationship.

updated: 7 years ago

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Mickie GSunday, October 25th 2009 5:27PM

I forgot to mention that I put a link on my webpage to yours.

Thanks for the link, Mickie. So glad you had the memories to share!

Mickie GSunday, October 25th 2009 5:25PM

The novel The Help brought back oh so many memories of my upbringing in the South. Like you I wrote an experience of mine on my own webpage, "The Help: A Novel by Kathryn Stockett", on Squidoo.

NacSaturday, October 24th 2009 8:11PM

Absolutely beautiful, we had Leota when I lived above the bakery. A kind American Indian who volunteered to be our help as we could not permit such luxery. She taught me to prepare the first dish I learned to cook Chickn and Dumplings. Your memories reminded me of mine from the corners of my mind. Thank you.

It's quite amazing how this book is stirring up all sorts of memories about those who have cared for us, loved us and have played significant roles in our lives. So glad you had this memory to share.

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