Saturday, August 20, 2011
Tonight we went to see the movie, "The Help." To say I was moved by the story would be an understatement. Next to my parents, the person who had the most influence on me than any other person on earth was a lady that would be called "The Help." As I look back, I can tell you she was not the help.
She was God's gift.
Below is an excerpt from my book, "View From a Hearse."
As were most southern towns in the early sixties, Reynolds was very segregated. Not only did the blacks and whites go to different schools and different churches, but they also went to different restrooms. I vividly remember seeing signs on restroom doors plainly stating “Whites Only.” Crooks Restaurant, which was a typical southern family restaurant, changed its name to “Crooks Private Dining Club” when the desegregation laws came into existence. When you got to the front door, Mr. Crook would look to see who you were and he would hit a buzzer that would unlock the door to let you in. There were two waiting rooms at the hospital. The front room was for the whites. The blacks had to come through the alley to a back waiting room. The main wing of the hospital was for white patients. The back wing was for the black patients. The blacks lived in two different sections of town called “bottoms.” The section across the railroad tracks was called the “Big Bottom.” On the south side of town there was a settlement called “Goddard’s Bottom.” My great-grandfather owned that land at one time. Many of the white families had maids. It was not unusual to see a white housewife driving through town with her maid sitting in the back seat by herself on the way to work. The maids cooked, washed, cleaned, and kept the kids. When the family sat down to eat a meal, the maid would eat by herself after the family had finished, and many times they would drink out of a mason jar instead of using the regular glasses. Many younger readers will have a hard time believing all that, but trust me, it is the truth.
Now you need to understand, as bad as all that may seem, there was an upside for the black community. Many of these ladies were uneducated and untrained and had no way of making a living except for working as domestic workers in these homes. The black men who did not have a job would work in the “white folks,” yards. They would usually be fed on a picnic table outside, and they would drink out of mason jars too.
We had a maid who worked at our house. Her name was Jessie Mae King. She waited on us hand and foot as long as I can remember. She cooked the best fried chicken and hoe-cake cornbread I have ever eaten, and her beef stew could cause a fight at the table.
Jessie lived in a literal shack in Goddard’s Bottom. Her husband died at a young age, and Jessie was left to raise four children alone. They had no running water, and their bathroom was an outhouse located in the yard. Their only heat came from the wood they burned in their stove. Their house consisted of two rooms. One room is where they all slept, and the other room was a little kitchen. There were no monthly welfare checks in those days. Their only income was whatever Jessie earned working at our house. The clothes they wore were hand-me-downs that we gave them. Most of their meals came from leftovers at our house.
The interesting thing is that her children all became very productive members of society. Her oldest son had a career in the military. The two girls moved to California and became very successful. Her youngest son, Billy, married and stayed in Reynolds to look after his mom.
Daddy was determined to help get Jessie and Billy out of that shack. In the early seventies his determination paid off. Jessie and Billy and his family moved into a brand new three-bedroom house, complete with running water, restrooms, and central heat and air. If anyone ever deserved a new house, it was Jessie Mae King.
Jessie was always a very important part of our family. She had full authority to discipline us and all the other kids that were in and out of our house. And she did. She would break a branch off a tree in the back yard, and make a switch, and she would wear us out with it when we disobeyed her.
Every time there was thunder and lightning, Jessie would make us all sit still and be quiet. She would always say, “The Lord is talking – we better listen.” Whenever we got sick, Jessie would be right there tending to us and making sure we got better. And she would always pray for us.
I always believed Jessie had a direct line to God. She had a child-like faith, and I kind of think God smiled on that. If any of us had a real need, we would always get Jessie to pray. She did not have much education, but she had more wisdom than any person I have ever known.
I never saw Jessie get angry. I never heard her say an unkind word about anyone. I never saw her lose her patience, and she was never rude. Jessie kept no record of wrongs and never tried to get her way. She found no delight in evil, but always rejoiced in the truth.
Jessie will never receive accolades from this world for what she accomplished in life. She does not have a place on her wall where she hangs her diplomas and certificates of achievement. She never had any money in the bank and never even drove an automobile.
The truth is she spent her life on earth serving our family.
I have a strong feeling our family will spend an eternity serving her in heaven.
(From View From a Hearse, 2005)