A recent trip to the movie theater landed me in a center seat with a view of a movie titled “The Help.” A good story touches a nerve, the heart or intellect. Sometimes it hits all three. For many of us in Jackson, Mississippi there is a different side to this story. Some of us grew up in South Jackson. The Help is based on what was happening in some places in North Jackson. It is safe to say everyone in North Jackson wasn’t rich. However, if you were raised in South Jackson odds are both of your parents worked, and this is the reason they hired a maid.
After I was born, my mother was one of those women who went to work. The lady who came to clean house and care for me and my brothers was named Annie Mae. It’s been so long ago, I’m not sure if her name was spelled May or Mae. Of course I was a preschooler, so that was beyond my scope. What wasn’t beyond me was the love this woman gave. Unlike the movie, we lived in a home with one restroom. There wasn’t a guest restroom, let alone a separate one for “the help” to use. Also, I never recall Annie Mae being referred to as “the help.” She did wear a white uniform and white shoes and socks to match. I can remember her smelling like starch and tobacco. She ate dry starch, I guess maybe because her diet lacked it. My dad smoked a pipe, and he kept his favorite tobacco on his dresser. When people gave him the kind he didn’t smoke, he saved it for when he ran out of the tobacco he liked. My dad is a gentle man, and he never made a scene about it, but he still laughs about opening his spare tobacco, only to find it was gone. Annie Mae liked her tobacco!
My days with Annie Mae are memories engraved more on my heart than in my mind. She and I were often left alone because my brothers were in school. Some days we’d gather plums, her from the tree and me from the ground. She’d say, “Oh not that one, it’s not good.” The following weekend my mom would make plum jelly from the gatherings. Other days, Annie Mae and I’d sit on the front porch, and I’d make a request of her to sing Jingle Bells. In the heat of a Mississippi Summer she’d start with, “Dashing through the snow…” I’d stop her and say, “No, not that, I mean Jingle Bells.” She’d laugh and start to sing the refrain. That was the only part I could remember. Sometimes, I’d ask to go see a friend and she’d say no. I always jumped out of her lap and told her I was running away. I’d run to the end of our driveway, then I’d turn and run back into her arms. I loved her, and that short trip down the drive made me realize how much.
It never occurred to me that Annie Mae would have children other than me! The first time I saw them, I was a bit jealous. I don’t know how she got to work, but I know there were times when my mom or dad would take her home. There were also times when mom took her clothes, for her children, we’d outgrown. It was a special trip to be able to go to her house, to see where my beloved Annie Mae lived.
When my brothers were around, Annie Mae was my protector. There was the time my oldest brother chased me with a can of starch. He said, “If I spray you with this, you’ll be frozen for life.” I believed him and ran for my life! Annie Mae didn’t look up from the dishes, but she said, “You leave that child alone.” That was enough to stop him and save me from becoming a statue.
Annie Mae thought everyone was on a party line. She’d run across the street and ask our neighbor to call my mom at work. Then she’d head back to our house thinking she could pick up on our phone and listen. And when mom asked why she didn’t dust mop under the bed, she’d say she opened the windows and a big wind blew the dust up under it. Annie Mae may not of had a formal education, but she was educated in what God finds to be most important. Her lack of schooling didn't matter in my world. What mattered was Annie Mae was mine. I don’t mean that in any ownership way. I mean it in a way, where time stood still and she and I shared a simple and wonder filled life. I guess it’s indescribable, but I belonged to her too. My dad has remarked over the years, he believes my laid back attitude comes from being around her. He could be right, because she was a sweet as sugar and my days were filled with her spirit.
The color of Annie Mae’s skin wasn’t something I pondered. My own skin was dark from playing in the sun. My dad’s parents were immigrants from Lebanon, and we three children took after him. Until some neighborhood kids got mad at me and called me the “N” word, I didn’t even realize others thought she was different. We weren’t allowed to say that word in our house. My dad, as a child, had faced prejudice and ugliness from others because he was different. To this day that word makes me uncomfortable, whether coming from blacks or whites.
I don’t know when it happened, but one day Annie Mae was gone from my life. It was because I’d started school, and she probably headed to another full time job. We had some part-time maids after that. I even remember one named Mary. She was young and liked to play my Cinderella board game My parents may have told me why Annie Mae left, but I don’t remember getting to say good bye. But in the world of childhood, things are often left this way. My mother says Annie Mae is long gone from this world, and many times over the years, I’ve thought about her. Every time, I cry, and today I cried all the way home from the movie. It should have been because of the injustices displayed on the screen. The truth is though, I cried because a little girl’s heart cannot forget one of the first loves of her life. And I’m hoping my precious Annie Mae knows how much I love her now, how much I loved her then and how she influenced my life in ways she probably never imagined. One day, I hope to see her again, to hear her call my name. While basking in the smell of dry starch and sweet tobacco, I’ll climb into her lap and tell her all the things a small child didn’t know how to say…from a heart that never really wanted to say goodbye.