Last weekend I went to see The Help with my mom. If you have not read the book or seen the movie, you’ve got to!
Reading this book got me thinking about the 2 maids that have been a part of my life. My mother, born and raised in small town, Tennessee, grew up having an African-American maid named Callie. My grandmother ran a beauty shop in their home (I always wondered why there was a sink in the guest bedroom!), plus she had MS, so they really needed someone to help keep the house and mind the children!
My grandmother passed away when I was a baby, but Callie stayed on a few days a week to see to my grandfather – we called him Undaddy. She cooked and cleaned for him for the eight lonely years between wives. When I was eight, Undaddy remarried. Even then, Callie stayed. I guess at that point she was more or less part of the family and Undaddy couldn’t let her go. I can still see her bent over the stove in her white apron, her graying hair pulled tight into a bun, her big eyes peering out kindly at me from behind oversized brown glasses. Callie would cook a feast, and then she’d sit down with us and eat. It was wonderful! Afterwards, she’d get me a cookie – the store-bought kind- from the cookie jar, smiling at my excitement.
Not too long ago, my mom, my kids, and I drove out to see Callie. We took her out to cemetery to see my grandparents’ graves. A timeless moment, all the years hanging there, my children who only know their great-grandparents by marks on a tombstone. Me, longing to meet my grandmother. I thought: I’d like to sit down with Callie and get her to tell me all the stories.
In 1989, we moved to Thailand and upon arriving, were given a house complete with a live-in maid. Servants are common in that culture, and housecleaning takes a lot more time and energy because they lack some of our conveniences. Our first maid ran out on us, but we found a keeper with Pi Mai. Pi Mai’s presence allowed my mom to be able to have a ministry and not be stuck doing housework.
Pi Mai eventually brought her husband and young daughter to live with us. They had one enclosed room, one bathroom, and a semi-enclosed back porch. It really wasn’t fair when the four of us lived in a four-bedroom house, but that was just the way things were. I still remember one day when I accidentally squooshed a lizard (they crawled up walls and ceilings all the time) while closing my bedroom door. When I saw the lizard guts all over my door hinge, I could not make myself clean it up. I went to get Pi Mai. Poor thing took care of it for me. When I was older, I asked her to teach me Thai cooking. There were so many ingredients and directions, I was hopeless. Her food was so good, though.
Pi Mai went on to work for other English-speaking families after my parents left Thailand, and we heard that she had picked up a lot of English over the years and actually went to England with a family for a while to work for them over there! I am so proud of her for that. From rural Thailand to England! From a young, scared girl to a bilingual world traveler! Pretty amazing. I bet she could tell you a book’s worth of stories.
You know, I really didn’t pay that much attention to her growing up, but now I realize that I really did care for her. I wish I’d let her know that. She helped me learn Thai, she cooked all my birthday dinners, she ironed all my school uniforms. Isn’t it true that “the help” is often invisible and unappreciated? Maybe I’m really not all that different from Hilly Holbrook or Elizabeth Leefolt. I hope I am different. I really do.
Great write up! My mom and I were just talking about this today. It wasn’t my own maid that I remember but my Grandma’s maid P’ Nop. She was amazing, like a second grandma to me. And yet at the same time she was a second rate citizen. It’s crazy how easily we fall into that dynamic and how we just accept it because that’s the culture we lived in. It really makes you think.
It does . . . there was always a separation or divide between the help and us.
You are the second person in the week that recommends me that book and now movie. I hope I can read/see it soon!!
I liked your story!
It is good. You seem to know about American culture pretty well. The book really is what it was like in the 1950s and 1960s in the Southern states.
When we lived in Thailand, in the 70’s, had a maid for the first time in my life. It was amazing! She cleaned, cooked, took care of the kids when needed, did the laundry, shopped. All for 40 dollars a month! It was a year in paradise that ended all to soon.
Joan, I’d forgotten you lived in Thailand! It was nice to have a maid, but I also think at times it was hard for my mom. I know it would be hard for me to give up my kitchen to someone else! 🙂