[Note: I hope to grow this piece as we get closer to the release of Stephen Spielberg's silver screen travesty based on Katheryn Stockett's atrocity, "The Help," the latest in a too long line of completely fabricated, studiedly oblivious, and teeth-clenchingly familiar paeans to The-Black-Woman-Whut-Raised-Me genre that white (mostly) Southerners just can't seem to let die. I might not be able to bury the genre, but I can damn sure write a hole through it. Right now, this is all I've got time for. But I'll be back.]
A white girl, all grown up, zooms through cyberspace and finds me at my desk in 2006. It seems she has a wedding dress encased in glass hanging on her wall and she thinks the framed frock has something to do with me. Mama is the link to this white woman’s object of iconic revelry. Fact is I’m not feeling very friendly towards my caller. It’s not her fault, and yet…
When my caller was very young, my mother, Odessa Singley, was her Grandmommy’s maid. On this nostalgic call, though, my Mama comes out of the caller’s mouth as “Odessa” just like it did back when she was seven and Mama was forty-seven. Mama—“Odessa”—was her “best friend,” she says; her anchor in a storm of sequential parents, relocations, and other family mayhem. “Odessa” was her harbinger of summers that began with packed bags and eagerly awaited trips to Grandmommy’s.
And, forty years ago, “Odessa” made the wedding dress hanging on the caller’s wall. Instantly, my caller becomes “the Wedding Princess” even though she never really was a bride because at seven, she was qualified only for the wedding getup, not for the wedding man. “I loved Odessa and she loved me,” she declares, whipping me back to the present. Her declaration of my mother’s affection for her stops me cold.
Call me crazy, but I’m thinking the maid might’ve been several steps removed from thoughts of love so busy was she slinging suds, pushing a mop, vacuuming the drapes, ironing and starching load after load of laundry. Plus, I know what Mama told us when she, my sister, and I reported on our day over dinner each night and not once did Mama’s love for the Wedding Princess find its way into that conversation: She cleaned up behind, but she did not love those white children.
But here I am: the phone pressed against my ear and the disembodied voice of the grown up Wedding Princess on the other end. I make a mental note: This is how being white, female, Southern, and 1960 can frame a conversation. Instead of pinning myself to the wall of Princess’ lovely memory, I gear up to pin Princess to the truth. In our imminent war of dueling narratives, mine is bout to kick some princess ass.
It’s so unfair, possibly cruel, this verbal beat down I’m preparing for Wedding Princess. I mean she didn’t do anything to deserve this. Mama wasn’t her washerwoman after all. Still, I’m seized with a desire to unroll Princess like I would a sleeping bag packed away damp in the attic and left there to ripen season after season. I’ll hold my nose with one hand and give her a thorough shaking with the other, maybe hang her out to dry before sending her back to the attic.
While I’m plotting my revenge, Wedding Princess has already waded deep into her revelries of the day “Odessa” presented her with the Wedding Dress.
It was exquisite. She was such a perfectionist with her sewing, you know. The finished seams, the hemming tape. It fit me perfectly because she had measured me for it, but then I realized didn’t have the right shoes to wear with it, so she took me shopping. It was the happiest day of my life! Me and my best friend. Grandmommy had to practically peel it off of me. I never wanted to take it off. That’s why it’s hanging on my wall. Every time I look at it, I think of Odessa and that day.
I throw my first punch.
“Have you ever thought about the fact that the woman you call ‘Odessa’ was the same woman my friends called ‘Mrs. Singley’? That she supported a family on the six dollars and bus fare (fifty cents round trip) your Grandmommy was paying her? That the woman you call your ‘best friend’ was forty years your senior and had another whole life of dignity, hopes, and dreams that had nothing to do with being in service to you and Grandmommy? That maybe “Odessa” didn’t like you as much as felt sorry for you because you were the baby of the family, the one your brother and sister slapped around, the one they were always leaving behind? You ever thought of that?”
Wedding Princess is silent, so I continue.
“I’m not trying to be mean. I’m just telling the truth. I could let your pretty story stand about who ‘Odessa’ was to you, but you called me”—which, by the way, was a very brave thing for her to do. So, I felt like she deserved to know my story.
“And as for Grandmommy whose home was such a wonderful respite for you every summer, since we’re sharing stories, let me tell you exactly who Grandmommy was to me.”
I was fourteen when Congress was debating what they would pass the next year as the Civil Rights Act of 1964. I was sure what they were talking about had something specifically and personally to do with me because we were discussing the same thing in school, too. So, our black segregated classroom conversation became the nail on which I hung the one thing that I knew definitely had to do—very specifically and very personally—with me. I was fed up with Grandmommy and the shitty way she treated Mama, most especially the six dollars and car fare slave wage (pardon the oxymoron) Grandmommy dispensed for an entire day of work she was too sorry to do for her own damn self much less her own family.
In my junior high class one day, we talked about how white folks insisted on being called “Mr. This” or “Mrs. That” while refusing to call black folks by anything except their first names. I brought that conversation home to our dinner table that night because that’s where we discussed the ways of white folks generally and specifically the ones whose houses Mama cleaned. Because, as she put it, they were constantly trying to find new ways to wipe their asses in her face.
One of the ways they accomplished such a scatological result was that they always got to be “Mr.” and “Mrs.” while Mama got to be “Odessa.”
That conversation had left me on low boil and rising because there was never any talk about how I could do something, how I could have a hand—or even just a little toe—in upsetting that balance of power. So by the time I got home, I had hatched a plan. I knew I was going to snatch my mama some of the respect that was long overdue from Grandmommy.
I had to call Mama at work every day as soon as I got home from school so she would know I had made it home safely and could be sure I hadn’t been hijacked by a dude in a ‘do rag holding his crotch while standing on the corner, tonguing a toothpick.
I dialed the number.
“May I speak with Mrs. Singley, please?”
“ Whooooo?!” Startled indignation dragged that one word out of Grandmommy’s mouth long enough for an owl to rotate his head 360 degrees. Silence spread out behind her hoot so long that, for a minute, Edith had me convinced that she really didn’t know who “Mrs. Singley” was even though she had been making out a check to ‘Odessa Singley’ twice a week for fourteen years.
Click. She hung up on me.
Seven or eight times more we repeated this routine, each call taking less time than the one before as Edith got quicker on the disconnect. (In the days before caller ID and answering machines, she had no choice but to keep answering in case I turned out to be somebody she actually wanted to talk to.) By my final try, I was the vanquished. Edith had cut me down to size and twisted my tongue back to its original position of supplication: “May I speak with Odessa, please?”
This is the story I spit out to the Wedding Princess about her revered and recently departed Grandmommy.
“But that’s the way things were with everybody back then. That’s just the way it was. That reminds me of…”
She stops, catching herself, suddenly self-conscious. But I’m not having it.
“No, that’s the story I want to hear,” I goad her. “That one right there, the one you just stopped in mid-sentence. Tell me that story.” She complies.
Seems she and Grandmommy were standing on the screened sun porch one day, a space I instantly recall because it starred in my fantasies of curling up with a book among the wicker rockers and chaise lounges with plump pillows covered in a summery floral print.
The Wedding Princess continues: “I don’t know why, but I had a quarter and I put it in my mouth. And Grandmommy became so short with me. She said, ‘Take that nasty thing out of your mouth right this minute! You have no idea where it’s been. For all you know, it could’ve been in some Negra woman’s bosom!”
“And you’re sure she said Negra?”
“Oh, yes! We never said that other word.”
“Uh huh. So, don’t you think that’s fascinating that the worse thing Grandmommy could think to say about that quarter was that it might’ve been ‘in some Negra woman’s bosom’? I mean, not in the gutter, not in the street, not passing through a thousand filthy hands, but in some Negra woman’s bosom.
“Mind you, that same bosom would’ve been attached to other body parts that made up a Negra woman who was cleaning Grandmommy’s house; wiping her invalid father’s shitty ass; and even cooking and serving Grandmommy her food. A Negra woman who had fed, burped, bathed, changed, and comforted Grandmommy’s babies. Yet and still, the…absolutely… worst… place for your quarter to have been was in some Negra woman’s bosom.”
Surprise! Seems Wedding Princess can take a punch because she’s still on the line. So I keep going.
“You know what? Thank you for sharing this story. Really. Because it reminds me of something I’ve wanted to tell you throughout this conversation, but I keep forgetting and that is this: I want you to know exactly who Grandmommy was to me.
“Remember how you said your grandfather Googled me and how he said wasn’t surprised at where I was or what I was doing because he always knew ‘that one was going to be somebody’?
“Well, I owe it all to Grandmommy. She’s the one I have lived my total life in opposition to. Without her, I probably would’ve never made it this far. Grandmommy is the one who put a face to what I was up against as a poor, black Southern girl determined to make it in the world.
“If it hadn’t been for your Grandmommy, a mother who made it clear how far she was willing to go to step in the face of a black child to show me exactly what I could never hope to be; if it hadn’t been for that day she used the phone to pound me into submission, to show me where she intended to keep me and my kind forever; I might have lost sight of what I had to do to finally put Grandmommy in her place.
“So, the next time you visit Grandmommy’s grave, give her a message for me: Tell her Dr. Singley said, ‘Thank you.’”