Like so many people last year, I read the book The Help. I had heard about it and was reluctant to pick it up, fearful, I guess, that it would misrepresent the southern world in which I grew up. But after all the buzz, I finally checked out the book, which had enjoyed a healthy life as it passed from one reader to another on the library’s waiting list, and I began to read.
While I am familiar with some of the negative criticism the author faced after publication, I thought the subject matter – the lives of privileged, white southerners and that of their African-American counterparts – was handled well, neither patronizing the lives depicted of the “help” nor overly romanticizing the world inhabited by so many women in the 1960s and 70s. The south was a unique part of America, a place that clung to its institutions and traditions despite the rapid changes happening all over the country.
I grew up in this climate, this milieu of change and confusion about the societal rules of males and females, the budding rights of all women, the power and voice of African-Americans in our democracy. The Help, via a compelling and personal story of a young and awkward would-be writer, focuses on the odd world of Mississippi (and Alabama, Georgia, Tennessee) where many middle-class white children were raised by black women. These women, sometimes seen only as domestic help and at other times viewed as “family”members, shouldered a heavy load, often raising two families and dealing with the oppressive racism that still existed in our country. I think I enjoyed this book so much because the content was so familiar. My family relied on help and it came in the form of a strong, black woman who rode the bus across the mountain each day to take care of our house and especially me. For my family was no different from other middle-class families on Virginia Road in Birmingham. Almost everyone had a housekeeper.
Her name was Elizabeth Bradley, Lizzie, and so many of my childhood memories are bound to her. I spent the bulk of my young life in her care and I loved her fiercely. She bathed me, fed me, made my lunch after kindergarten and held my hand on long walks around our neighborhood. I had no understanding of race or proper social protocol of the times. All I knew is Lizzie loved me and was a constant in my world. She was generous, patient and probably spent more time with me when I was little than anyone else. It was not until I was much older that I learned she had her own children, not much older than me, and her own home to run. I still wonder how she managed it all since she gave so much of her time, energy and love to my family. While reading The Help, I thought about Lizzie a lot and wished she were still alive so I could talk to her again.
The other day, home from work and puttering about, I had the television on and was half watching it when the afternoon soaps began. One drama, One Life to Live, was airing and the characters were saying good-bye to each other, to their loyal fans. I stopped to listen and I learned that several soap operas, some that had been on the air for forty plus years, were signing off, having been cancelled by their network due to sagging ratings. Shocked, I watched and realized that this piece of cultural history was dissolving. It saddened me as I realized it was one more link with the past, and with my time spent with Lizzie, that would be gone.
I grew up watching some of those stories because Lizzie loved them. After our lunch, she would take the bags of laundry from the refrigerator, where my father’s 100% cotton shirts had been sitting damp and starched, and we’d move downstairs where the ironing board was set up. There, satiated with PB & J, I’d watch the dramas of Port Charles and Llanview unfold while my Lizzie, who knew all the characters and their stories, would methodically run a hot iron over and back on articles of clothing for two hours. She would iron and watch, talking at the TV and to me, totally immersed in the worlds unfolding on the television in our basement. Watching these shows was a practice she continued the entire time she worked for us. And from seeing her ability to throw herself into the fictitious world of the soaps, where men were romantic rogues and children could go from pre-school to high school in only one season, I learned the value of a good story told over time. At the end of each daily episode, there was always some small cliff-hanger, something to compell you to “tune in tomorrow”.
The networks say that soap operas are no longer relevant, that younger audiences are not interested in these plots nor in watching programming that is continuous with no “ending” in sight. The viewership had become largely women in their fifties and sixties, and this populace was shrinking, thus making it financially unsound for the networks to continue. Now, instead of love triangles and catty female protagonists, the networks offer us yet another talk show, another reality “bite” where viewers can learn to make soup or decorate on a budget. To them, the era of extended story telling is over, and everyone knows a live talk show is far cheaper to produce than a narrative that needs writers, actors and sets.
I wonder what Lizzie would say to this shift. I wonder how many hours we spent together watching…me not fully understanding the shows but feeling good just to be in the presence of Lizzie as she worked and watched. My joy was gleaned from her joy, a few hours respite in the day when she could escape the regular world and delve into an alternate universe of glamour, intrigue and excitement. I think that like me, she would be saddened by this turn of events, to learn that soap opera stories might be a thing of the past.
I am ashamed to say that I cannot even remember when Lizzie stopped coming to our house. I was older, maybe in junior high. We had moved farther out, so the trip for her would have been much longer. The buses in Birmingham had limited routes. And my parents divorced so my mother was on a budget and there were no more starched shirts to iron. I do recall that sometimes, when mom really needed some help, Lizzie’s oldest daughter, Johnnie Mae, would come to spend a day or two. Always kind and gracious, I wonder what she really thought of us, the family that both provided care for her family financially but also took away her care, too, as her mother spent so much time raising us. What a complex world that must have been. What a strange dynamic to have so many little white kids educated, loved and raised by so many black women. My mother swears that Lizzie was a part of our family, well-respected and loved, well paid…I wonder though if it was ever enough. I wish I could thank her personally for making my childhood so special. I hope that she knows she was a mother to me and that I am profoundly sorry if I did not express my gratitude and love for her adequately. I am grateful for a book like The Help and shows like soap operas as they remind me of my childhood, of the good and the bad of southern suburbia in the late 1960s, and of the very special women my family employed to work at our home, a woman who may never have known the impact she had on me.