The movie The Help is out. It concerns the complicated, intimate, unequal relationship between African-American domestic workers and the affluent white families who employ them. I haven’t seen the movie. Its reception calls to mind with surprising intensity two fuzzy memories from my early childhood.
Until I was six years old, we lived in Teaneck, NJ. For much of this time, a grandmotherly lady helped out some of my relatives. She would occasionally babysit for me. I hardly remember her, except that she was very nice.
I lost a lunch box one day. My mom asked this lady if she had seen it; she had not. A few days later, the lady announced that she had found it. I was delighted to have it back, especially since it was in such pristine condition. Of course, some time later we found the original lunch box in whatever crazy place I had left it. Apparently worried that my parents might believe she had taken it, this lady had purchased a replacement. At that point, my mother had known her for maybe twenty years.
Around that same time, our family was close to our neighbors. Their children were cared for by a young black woman whose name I’m embarrassed to say I’ve forgotten. She slept in their basement. My dad did a lot of work around the house, and happened to have some extra moveable partitions. He gave one to her, so that she could have some extra privacy.
That night, the neighbors stormed over. They informed my parents that if they had wanted her to have a partition, they would have bought her one, and that my father had made an inexcusable intrusion into their home. There were some harsh words. Our families maintained polite but frosty relations from that moment forward.
I find both these memories painful, even forty years on. I’m not sure I can exactly say why.
Postscript: A reader emailed asking if the woman in the first story was African-American. She was.