Friday, August 26, 2011

Grandma Was Just That Way

Sometime in the late1920's, my grandmother and grandfather moved North from Tennessee looking for work. My grandfather found work at GM. He died before I was born. When I was a youngster in Detroit, I remember my grandmother working at Crowley's Department Store decorating cakes for a living. After she had a stroke on a downtown street after work one day, she was left paralyzed on her right side, so she moved to Arkansas and was attended to by a black woman who was every bit as old as she was.

My brother and I spent several summers on "vacations" with our parents visiting my grandmother in Elaine, Arkansas, in the early sixties. The film, The Help, reminded me of seeing the colored cafes and white-only drinking fountains in the small town.The one movie theater in Elaine had a separate entrance for blacks which led to the balcony. The white kids went through the front door and sat on the ground floor. These things do not exist anymore, but it wasn't that long ago when they did. I can bear witness to it.

Back to my grandmother: she lived in a rickety, clapboard house with wall paper, peeling from the humidity off the nearby Mississippi River. The house was across the street from the area's cotton gin and storage silos, where Uncle Ivo worked as the manager of the operation by day. Throughout the daylight hours, Miss Elizabeth, a black woman in her sixties, waited on my grandmother's beck and call. She was my grandmother's constant companion and attendant, until Uncle Ivo got home from the cotton gin later in the day.

"Just ask Miss Elizabeth for anything you want," my grandmother would say. "She'll make you a sandwich or a milk shake. Whatever you're partial to."

Miss Elizabeth didn't say much, but she smiled a lot. Between taking care of my grandma's personal hygiene needs, and feeding four extra people in the household, she sat quietly off to the side, or in the kitchen, gently rocking while cross stitching samplers or mending old clothes.

Having us there wasn't a bother for her. My mother cooked us dinners while we were there, and Miss Elizabeth could go home early on most days when we were there. She would grab her bag of stuff and trek almost a mile down the road to another house that looked more like a shack, with a houseful of family sitting around, and she was glad to be home. Her only day off was Sunday, which she spent at church with her family and friends.

"I don't know what I'd do without Miss Elizabeth," I remember Grandma saying. "I can't go to church anymore, so she reads the good book to me, and it soothes me."

Reading the Bible was the least of the services Miss Elizabeth performed for her in the course of a long day.

My mother couldn't help but ask. "How much do you pay her?"

"Forty dollars cash a month, under the table, and she's glad to get it."

"That's very reasonable considering everything she does for you, Mother."

"It's a good thing I'm a God fearing Christian woman. Who else would hire an old nigger woman like that?"

What ingratitude! I thought. Even as a kid, I was struck by her matter-of-fact, racist attitude.

But by the standards of her community, in her day, she believed she was being charitable. Sad but true. Well, those days are mostly over, thank goodness.

Not since the novel and the film, The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman, has this ugly reality been depicted with such humanity and humility than in The Help. I urge everyone to see this film while it's still in theaters. It has Oscar written all over it.