Friday, September 16, 2011

We Have Maids Still

The big hoop-la about the movie and book The Help has created a hush-hush attitude about our hiring help for the home. True, all of the women in the book/film were wealthy and in some kind of need for a second hand --BUT they do not represent all of the Jackson and Mississippi women from the 1960's to present. I lived a few blocks from Brent's Drugs in an area we call Fondren and I had a maid. If the word those days had been "housekeeper" we would have used that word, but we had always called our help "maids".  My story is similar to many women who tried to understand and help the plight of the black maid.

I worked as well as  my husband and we had kids aged 7, 6 and 3. Edna was hired to take care of them, see the boys got to school and home safely, and take care of the youngest. She and the youngest were at home, so they ate lunch together, took walks and oftentimes waited at the school for the boys. She had her own two at home under the guidance of her sister. I think we paid her $25 a week then; that was just about what I made teaching school. We picked her up and took her home daily. She wore a uniform at her choice. She sat in the front seat with us when either of us drove her home. She used our bathroom.

When civil strife broke out we never thought to discuss it with her. Despite the Rabbi's home being bombed two blocks from us and despite the roaring headlines in the newspapers reviewing the actions of the previous day -- our lives with Edna went unspoiled. She didn't talk about the happenings nor did we. Mainly because we were only with her the 15 minutes' drive to her home.During those twice-travels we were either anxious to get to work or anxious to return home for supper. She had her weekends free.

One day shortly after she'd worked a few months, I asked Edna if she were on social security. She didn't know about it. I went to the SS office and picked up the papers, filled them out, explained to Edna what this was, and she signed the papers. 

Edna Gill was a huge woman, clean, and loveable. She was quiet and rarely conversed with us outside home matters. We respected her. We loved her and distressed to give her up after four years.We moved to another town and couldn't arrange transportation for her. I put an ad in the paper for" a good home for our maid." I interviewed three women who were looking for more than what Edna's responsibility had been with us. I balked and refused to give her up to them. A week or so after the ad had run its course, a woman called . She came to our home and we talked. She seemed genuine in understanding that she was to treat Edna fairly, provide her transportation, keep up her social security, and if for some reason she couldn't employ Edna in the future,  carefully select Edna's next boss. Edna worked for this woman about two years.

Several years later we visited Edna's house one weekend to see how she was doing, expecting her to still be working for our replacement. No, she stated, she was now working for the state. She was a caretaker for babies with health deficiencies, working nights. My replacement had found Edna a job with a retirement. We were overjoyed. She was "set for life".

One Christmas the family took holiday fixin's to Edna and her son, only to find Edna retired, living off her pension and social security. She was suffering from diabetes. In the course of conversation she thanked us and for her replacement. Together we had put her on the right track for retirement. She died five years later.

Our family is typical middle-class, among the many who hire a maid for various reasons. Right now in my subdivision I see maids picking up the mail, sweeping porches, and whatever they do inside is probably clean house. The few black women who advertise by handbills or advertisements now charge $50 an hour, some requiring at least two hours' work. These black maids now have competition from white women.  This has become a business, not a helter-skelter hiring and firing. We have 40% of our population black and many uneducated, disinterested in education (age, perhaps) and housecleaning is their only experience. I see maids driving older women to appointments, helping with grocery shopping, and many are hired by companies as companions to the elderly. Clearly we have plenty of black women who need work, unlike other sections of the country.

If you have difficulty understanding our use of help in the Deep South, think of the Latino or German or Swedish maids in your hotels and the myriad of workers in the restaurants where you eat, stores where you shop, parks that are kept clean --you'll find an equivalent of our black maids there, and then -- maybe, you'll understand.