I just finished reading The Help, by Kathryn Stockett. The book has brought back a flood of memories for me and not all of them pleasant in hindsight. I grew up being raised by a black housekeeper that I adored and she adored me. But, I know that life was hard for her and as much as we cared for Lulu and loved her, it pains me to think that maybe she just hated us as some white folks she worked for. I think that’s what has me torn up about reading that book. The good memories it brought back of my time with Lulu seems tainted. A lot of folks don’t understand that my parents were raised by black women and even wet nursed as babies by them. Black women were a part of our families as far as we were concerned, but yes, there was a “them” and yes there was subtle (and not so subtle racism) in those days and arrangements that was widespread.
Lulu was my “black mama,” at least that’s what she told everyone. My earliest memories are of me, the youngest, in the house alone with Lulu all day. While she cleaned I would follow her around and she would make up stories that I absolutely believed. She told me those “Do Not Remove” tags on pillows were love letters written between my parents every night before they went to sleep. Lulu talked to herself like nobody’s business. She would get flustered when I would interrupt and ask who she was talking to and reply, “I ain’t talkin’ to nobody but now you done messed me up” in her raspy voice that sounded like velvet to me. It got to be a game that I would start replying to her when I’d hear her onto something and laugh at how flustered she would get.
Lulu would always be dressed up, she loved the color red and nothing could beat a shiny pair of earrings or a new handbag in her eyes. My mom and her would play in mom’s jewelry box trying on different things and when Lulu liked something, my Mom would insist she take it home. I always loved how my mom and Lulu would laugh together. Lulu smelled like sweet cinnamon and cigarettes. I used to love to hug her and just breathe deeply.
When I was about 12 Lulu stopped coming every day and I didn’t go over to her house as much as we did when were little. I remember when Minnie started coming to help Lulu out. Lulu did not like Minnie. Minnie’s job was laundry and ironing and Lulu said she never did it right. Since Lulu didn’t like Minnie, I didn’t either.
I weave the stories of Lulu’s life in with those of my family because they are so familiar to me and they fit right in with the eccentric and very Southern childhood I experienced. Lulu shot a man one time and my Dad went down to the police station and told the Chief to let her go. My Dad told us the story when we got older that some man was trying to come in her house and “get in her business” and she warned him not to step up on her porch or she’d shoot him. He did and she did. But in our Alabama town, my dad went down to the police station and just said “Let her out” and that was that.
When I got older and went home only for the holidays I would go pick up Lulu and we’d go shopping. At the mall she told everybody I was her white baby. Even when I was in my 20’s I was still her baby. I remember one Christmas we were shopping and she kept sneaking her finger up to my neck to tickle me. I would howl in laughter because I’m very ticklish and then we’d laugh at how everybody in the jewelry store must have thought we were a sight to behold. Even in the 90’s in Alabama people would look as we walked arm in arm through the mall and I would call her mama. It was never a slight to my mom, I was just unbelievably lucky to have two is how we saw it.
In those last years of her life, Lulu and my mom remained very close. At Christmas and Thanksgiving Lulu would come over to help cook and sit in the dining room with us. A lot had changed over the years, divorce, change in fortune and estranged family but when I looked across the table at Lulu I remembered that in spite of all that had happened to our family, Lulu was still there…still a part of our family.
When mom called to tell me Lulu was in the hospital and was very sick, I rushed home to Alabama. As I walked down the hospital corridors every nurse and doctor I’d gone to school with said, “Your black mama’s been calling for you.” When I entered her room her eyes met mine and she gave me a smile. I sat with her and put my head on her chest, breathing deep and remembering that smell of childhood.
My mom was the beneficiary of Lulu’s will and the executor of her small estate. It was then that I realized how truly close they had been.
Some will say awful things about the white people in The Help and some of them were awful people. But, it was a different time and a different place. Lulu was a big part of my life and she gave me the lessons that helped make me who I am just as much as my parents and grandmothers did. She was just as proud of me as she was her own daughter. My family took care of Lulu in her old age just as we cared for our family members and just as she had cared for us. Taint it through the eyes of 2011 and all that has come since and you miss the point that being raised by a black woman gave me insight from a young age of the struggle, the hate and the differences poor black people faced in the Deep South. It gave me a burning hate for ignorance and a deep and abiding love for family and taking care of each other.