Tuesday, August 16, 2011

The Real Women of "The Help"

In Virginia and Baltimore everyone had a cleaning person. Or a maid. Or a cook. Or an Annie. Or a Belle. Or a Polly. All my friends had black "Help." I would go to their homes and Annie would make us sandwiches and mysteriously disappear in the evenings and then come back early the next day. That was in Baltimore. In Virginia my father was raised by Addie. I wrote about her in Tobacco Sticks and she was the mother of my character in more ways than once. She was the classic Gone With The Wind Mammy who was large and drank a lot and swore even more. But that was who raised my dad. His mother was any of the woman of The Help playing bridge and drinking highballs.

For me in Baltimore we had Belle. She was large too and more updated than the Virginia Help that actually wore uniforms. I remember looking through a fan vent once and seeing our neighbors the Helfers maid doing laundry. She saw me and waved and I ducked back down. It was standard to assume everyone had Help and they were all black. That is until we moved up to Chicago. Suddenly there were no black people in the suburbs. I wondered where they all went. They were in the city and everyone had Polish cleaning woman. My mother found Polly then; the last black maid in Chicago.

Polly carried a gun for the bus rides in Chicago. I think it was a thirty eight and I saw the silver handle sticking out her purse. She said it was a Saturday Night Special. She said she had been bothered more than once and stuck it in the face of one man and said you want to live NI&^%$? He did and never messed with her again. Polly stayed with my mother even after the divorce and then she just disappeared and hard times along with the end of something, maybe an era, did away with any type of HELP after that.

When my wife and I had cleaning people they were always Polish. I never even wondered if they would be black. They charged so much we stopped and haven't had any help for years. We are the Help now. But when I read THE HELP, I knew those women very well.  In a way, I grew up with them.

Books by William Hazelgrove