THE HELP is an amazing new novel by KATHRYN STOCKETT, that draws on her experience growing up in the south. It’s a must-read, that reveals the complicated relationships whites and blacks developed as black women worked in the homes of whites, often literally raising white children. My story is about Anna, a black woman who cleaned for us for many years. She did not raise me, but she taught me a very important lesson–each one of us has to come out of the security of our own separate life in order to understand what it means to experience real living in this world.
Last night I was in the house at 10055 South Wood Street. I was sitting on the old green couch in the living room and talking to Anna, our cleaning woman, as she carefully wiped the small panes in the leaded glass windows. But I was married and living in that house with my children, bathing them in the claw-footed tub in the upstairs bathroom. I was dreaming.
I had once again entered into a world my conscious mind knows little about—a dark, mysterious world where I dwell when I’m sleeping, living at 10055 South Wood Street, the home my father was raised in and moved back to with my mother, the home I was born in and lived in for twenty-three years until I was married.
Grey frame, large front porch, scraggly lawn, bridal wreath bushes out of control, western windows catching the sunlight—a place full of moments of living: cut knees and birthday parties, fights with my brothers and my first kiss; Chopin sonatas and the Beatles; and my father’s death—a heart attack which killed him as he rested in a red, fabric-covered chair that was worn but still in our living room as I grew up. All these moments, buried in the wood and plaster, mingling with the slope of the ceilings, the creak of floors, the very air of that space.
Though I’ve had my own homes which I could dream about, nothing replaces the home of my childhood. Nothing burns away the memories. Not even fire. Years ago faulty wiring sparked flames that swept through the entire first floor changing it forever. The current owners had to remodel the kitchen and replace the leaded paned windows that melted away from the heat. But after that when I dreamed, I was not walking through charred hallways. Instead the house was the same, peaceful and full of the details of our living. The fire didn’t destroy anything for my family and me—it sparked creation. We began to talk of deeply buried moments that were now, strangely, unearthed and set free.
My memory was about Anna and another fire. I was eight years old, but even then I somehow knew that things in Anna’s world were different from mine, that I was safer, for some reason, than she was.
Anna cleaned for us every Friday. She came early in the morning, walking six blocks from the bus, clumping up the back steps in shoes that never fit her. I didn’t wonder about this, it was just Anna—her clothes hung on her, and she had three black plastic bracelets that clicked together along her thin brown arm. She changed out of her coat down in our basement. She always wore an old stocking over her hair, and her face was wrinkled and warm, her brown eyes always full of something, like a secret she couldn’t tell us. She moved furniture and swept stairs and burned the trash out in the backyard in a wire basket. Her body always bowed to her work so that year after year she seemed to shrink from my gaze as I grew.
Mother worked in the dining room typing insurance policies. We came in from school and she’d stop to ask us what we wanted for a snack or to see our school papers. Eating a banana or cookies, we watched Anna come into the kitchen. There were newspapers spread around the grey tile floor that she had washed. She dumped a bucket of dirty water into the sink and shuffled around us. She talked to us, told us what good children we were. On rare occasions we heard stories about her own children, her face opening to us as she spoke. She often brought us Chuckles, five pieces of sugar coated gummy candy in flavors we called red, green, yellow, black and orange. We didn’t always remember to thank her for this gift she surely could not afford. And as we grew, the borders and boundaries of the real world, the sorrow of living, became know to us. My father was dead and my mother typed in the dining room. But Anna was black. Anna was poor. We began to see that.
There were few dangers for us in those days. Mother even let us burn the leaves in the driveway turnaround under a spreading apple tree. There were fire engines parked somewhere in Morgan Park, not very close to our house. There were fire hydrants down the block. Once we made fire helmets out of newspaper and ran around the yard with the hose. And there was a little door on the furnace, and I could go down into the damp basement and watch the gas flame leap around and hear the motor humming heat slowly up through the registers into my safe, warm home.
The phone rang one Friday by my mother’s typing table. I heard her say “fire.” I always listened to my mother talk on the phone, getting the conversation from hearing her responses. And I was wondering if I would see this fire. My mother was saying: “Are the fire trucks there, is everyone out?” And then she was telling me to go and find Anna.
I don’t remember where I found her—arranging my mother’s perfume bottles on a mirrored tray, leaning into the tub to cleanse it, wandering back from the trash burner, not seeing the hunks of my mother’s carbon paper sailing around the yard like curling black birds.
I didn’t tell Anna her apartment was on fire. I said she had a phone call and then ran ahead of her. I could only hover at the edge of her life, watch her take the phone from my mother there in the dining room where dusk had pulled away all the light. Her small head shook as she talked awkwardly into the phone. She had to sit down right away when she hung up. My mother brought her a glass of water, touched her shoulder. Everything in the room was transformed. Anna’s head sunk lower and lower. I could see her things burning up, things she had told us were in her house—the picture of Abraham Lincoln, a quilt my mother had given her, dresses and linens and dishes—things we didn’t use any more. Anna always accepted what we no longer needed.
A man was coming to pick Anna up. She thought she knew this man. He lived in the neighborhood and he would come and get her. We stood around the dining room table while Anna trembled and we waited. It got dark against the dining room windows. My brothers ran to the front door when the bell sounded. Anna had to push her hand on the table top to get out of that chair.
Two white men stood on the front porch. I could see behind them a long white Cadillac gleaming in the grey twilight. I watched them take Anna down the front walk and open that car door for her, swinging it into the street. The car swallowed her and they drove away.
Then I was glad they were gone. I was the one to slam the front door against the cold air. I was worried about my mother. She had argued with the men about Anna, raised her voice while Anna stood frail and alone on our porch. The men had said something like “everything is under control.” But nothing felt right. Anna was so small between those two white men in their heavy winter coats. While mother talked I cowered behind her, thinking those two might come into our house and stay. But they were gone. I didn’t have to watch Anna sitting at the table, not moving about like she always did. I must have thought Anna liked to be always shuffling around our house. I didn’t yet know the strong desire to sit after working all day. I didn’t understand about long walks to a bus carrying other people’s things and yearning for your own four walls.
We were in the kitchen fifteen minutes later making dinner, pulling the shades and holding the light inside for just the four of us. And then the doorbell rang. Again. There was a man on our porch, a black man, saying that he had come for Anna. He had a little blue truck parked in our driveway.
I don’t think any of us ate much that night. Anna signed some paper in that white car and lost even more money than she lost in the fire. At least that’s what my mother told me, and I think she knew what really happened.
Anna came back to work a week or two later. She looked the same. She probably brought us Chuckles. We asked her about the fire but she just shook her head, smiled that secret smile and said nothing. It was like her. We always asked her how old she was and she didn’t answer, except once when she told us old enough to have parents who had been slaves. We asked her why she always carried a knife in her purse and she said we didn’t need to know the reason. And then we just forgot, forgot it all. We moved back into our child-world, unable to see what Anna could show us—what it really meant to survive, to live—even beyond endurance.
Anna worked for us because she had worked for my grandmother. She cared for us and we for her in a pattern that was structured by the times we lived in. Now I see that we should have driven Anna home that night. We should have done so much more to help her. We were frozen, held behind those stupid cultural boundaries and borders. Then I didn’t understand about other neighborhoods, but I did know I was safe in my own home and instinctively I wanted to keep it that way. I had no father, but a mother whose strength and love allowed me and my brothers to live a childhood that no danger ever penetrated. Because my mother was with us we feared nothing in that time of innocence and freedom. And when harsh reality stepped into our vision, I know I did everything I could to blot it out. I didn’t want anything to touch me, because I had lost one parent and would not lose again. In the end I was wrong.
Anna came to us for many years, even when she really could not do a proper job. My mother continued to give her work and thus dignity. And then Anna faded from our lives.
We grew up and learned to take risks, no longer needing to hold on so tightly to a certain way of life. We saw that there was room in living for sorrow as well as for joy. Anna could have taught us such an important lesson if we had been able to see it so long ago.
Gradually we let go of those hot summer nights when my brothers and I ran through the dry grass and argued about whose peanut butter jar held the most fireflies. And the winters, when dressed against the cold, we warmed our faces in the heat of the fire and watched a six-foot evergreen, now dry and brittle, signal the brilliant end of our full and joyous Christmas.