Wednesday, August 17, 2011

HELP us one and all

I watched a movie with my heart, not just my eyes, and I took away a profound message...separate but wrong!

The Help took me back to 1954, Walnut Park, a middle class white, melting pot neighborhood. My German grandmother, tall and thin, lived in a four room frame house on Plover; we lived in a smaller house in back. One day I fussed at my parents because I did not want to go to the store with them. They said, "FINE, stay here. Go to Grandma's if you need anything until we get back...." They called my bluff, and I called theirs.

"COME ON! Get in the truck, we won't even be gone five minutes," my dad barked.

"NO!" said I, a wisened kindergartener who had been given a choice.

Vrooom, away they peeled down the alley. I could not believe that my parents would actually leave me in a cloud of dust. I watched them turn right instead of left. They drove around the block. I sat on our steps and just KNEW they would come back and demand I go with them.

They drove on. I was no longer in control. I was all alone and I was scared. I heard a large truck coming down the alley. I peeked around the side of the house to see who it was, and two men, black as the darkest night, hopped off the garbage truck. Back then, households had small garbage cans for food items, and an ash pit where folks burned their solid trash.

I shall never forget that man's round face and white-white teeth. He hunched over and pretended he was going to chase me; he laughed and playfully said, "Boo!"

I thought my heart was going to thump out of my chest. It was bad enough that the old, white, By-Lye Man (rag collector) rode down the alley at noon each weekday on his wagon pulled by a horse. He would shout, "Bye-Ly-lye-lye, any rags today?" He was my equivalent of the boogie man. I could hear the horseshoes striking the pavement and the rickety wooden wagon before I could hear the rag picker's sing-song shout.

"Bye Lye man's coming, so you'd better take your nap," Mom would say.

That perceived threat was enough for me to hide my sweaty little body under the covers on a 100 degrees summer day, clench my eyes shut and pass out.

Imagine, my fear at seeing the garbage men up close. I had never been so near to a negro(the polite word my kindergarten teacher taught us to use, unlike family and neighbors who bandied another N word about). I was terrified that the stout one was coming to get me. I ran as fast as I could, my little legs pumping down the walkway to my grandma's. I ran up on her porch and pounded on her door. No answer! I lay face down, flat as I could make myself.

Then, out of the corner of my eye, as I was waiting for the garbage collectors to find my hiding place, I saw HER. For the first time in my life, I looked right into the face of an African-American woman walking down the street. She was wearing a black and white uniform and apron. She was on the corner two houses away, on the same side of the street. I crouched, trembling in a corner, trying to hide behind the wooden porch slats with two inch gaps. I had never seen a black woman, but I knew for a fact she had seen me, because I had seen the whites of her eyes. As she approached, I knew my fate would be the same as Hansel's and Gretel's. Terror like I have never felt before or since clutched me. The HELP,(maid) casually walked past and on down the street without acknowledging me.

I bang-bang-banged on the door over and over. Grandma flung the door open, looked over her glasses at me and wiped her hands on her house dress. She wanted to know why I was on the front porch by myself.

"I was knockin' and knockin'." I said breathlessly.

"I've been down in the basement putting clothes through the wringers of my Maytag. Come on inside."

I was completely wrung out. Grandma gave me a devil's food cake cookie and a glass of milk. She turned on the Muntz TV; as the picture tube warmed up, the dark screen lightened, Howdy Doody came into focus and the black faces faded. However,I have always carried them with me like a negative of a long ago photograph ... if only someone had taught me.

That evening, my parents tuned our wooden, floor model, Philco radio to The Jack Benny Show. I didn't understand the humor, but we all laughed, especially at gravelly-voiced Rochester.

Life was different back then. We are enlightened now ... or are we?
Love one another ... if only everyone practiced everyday of the week what they preached and learned on Sundays.

The Help is one of the best movies I have seen in years. I cried, laughed, awed, ooohed, uuhhhhed, my emotions ran the gamut. If you've seen The Help, or read the book, please share your thoughts.


Val Thevictorian said...

I read the book this summer. I was looking forward to seeing The Help. I made special plans, only to be told when I got there that the distributor had pulled the film from our theater. My aunt called the next week, and was told that The Help will not be playing there. She drove to the city to see it. So...I guess I'll catch it on DVD in a few months.

Linda Austin said...

My mom told me this story: When I was a little girl (lo-o-o-ng ago) I saw my first black person in line at the grocery store. I stared, then tugged at my mother's sleeve and said in a too-loud voice, "Look, Mommy. All dirty!" What was I thinking? I, myself, was a nut-brown, half-Asian girl in a lily-white world. I loved The Help, both book and movie. They have, however, incited controversy.

June Freaking Cleaver said...

I loved the book, and look forward to seeing the film.

There were very few blacks in the town I grew up in. I had never met one in person until we were on a Greyhound bus, bound for my oldest brother's wedding. I was five. The only seat available on the bus was the wide bench seat across the back. I fell asleep on that seat, and (my mother told me later) a black woman gently lifted my head and put it in her lap.

My mother, a horrible bigot, was afraid of what I would say when I woke up.

But I just opened my eyes and saw that kind lady, and sat right up.

It was on that trip that we saw the segregated lunch counters and water fountains.

Even at five, I knew it wasn't right.

Debora said...

I haven't read the book or seen the movie, but I plan to. Seems like now, the new 'help' are our hispanic neighbors. Will we ever learn?

jabblog said...

I read the book in almost one sitting a couple of years ago. I found it gripping, unbelievable, horrifying. I never could understand how people could treat other people so wrongly.

I remember my mother watching (on television) the first black children to enter a white school in Little Rock and she cried with anger as she saw how they were taunted.

I'd like to see the film.

Sioux said...

I would love to hear why Val's theater pulled the film. Is it 2011 or 1921?

I adored the book, and am looking forward to seeing the movie. And perhaps I'm wrong...Maybe Val's theater pulled the movie because they thought the crowds might be so large--wanting to see the movie--that they could not accomodate the audience. But something tells me that is not why it was pulled.

So if the rationale (except it's not rational thinking) is what I think it is, I guess we are not as enlightened as we'd like to think...

Sioux said...

Ooops. Sorry, Val. I just re-read your comment, and saw it was the distributor pulled it. I am sure that is because of a scheduling conflict? Right?

Sorry if I jumped...leaped...dived to the wrong conclusion.

Tammy said...

This was on my list to read. Now it's on my list of things to see. Was touched by the raw honesty of your story. It is important that people understand how things used to be so we don't make the same mistakes.

Chatty Crone said...

My daughter and I tried to see it last weekend and it was sold out - we'll try again this weekend.

Can tell you loved it!

Thisisme. said...

What a great story. I can imagine how scared you must have been though!! Unfortunately, I have not heard of the book or the film, but I will certainly look out for it now.

Patti said...

My sis-in-law just sent this book to me (just got it yesterday). Good thing too, since there are 199 holds on it at my library. She loved it, so she thought I would too. The day she mailed it to me, she and Mom went to see it at the theatre...loved it.

2 different friends have raved about it to me. I have heard nothing but good things from everyone...not a single negative word. Can't wait to read the book AND see the movie.


Lisa Ricard Claro said...

I'd like to read the book first and then see the movie. I've yet to talk to anyone who didn't love both.

Your story is fascinating. I was born in 1960 and remember a black boy in my first grade class. He's the only person I remember, except for the teacher. His name was Larry Whitehead, and I couldn't wait to hold his hand during games at recess because the color of his skin (a beautiful cocoa color) intrigued me so. I wanted to know if his skin felt different than mine, and I was too embarrassed to ask. When we finally held hands during Red Rover I realized two things: His skin felt just like anyone else's, and he was kind. He wanted to win, but he worried about hurting someone else while trying to break through the other team's barrier. I had the slightest crush on him after that, not because of his color, but because of his kindness. I wonder whatever happened to that gentle boy.

Val Thevictorian said...

I'm not sure why the distributor pulled it. I heard that in person, straight from the manager's mouth. Silly me, I assumed it would return a bit later, after the release died down. But my aunt was told it would not be playing there.

My intuition says they think it won't draw enough of an audience, and can make more money in a larger market. Kind of like they think we don't know how to read out here in the sticks, so nobody will want to see it. But still, why was it scheduled to begin with, and then pulled? Something fishy is going on.

Ha! My word verification was CURSE.

Pam said...

Some time after Kathryn Stockett wrote The Help, I ran to my library asking if they had the book I'd heard about in the NYTimes book Review. They said Yes, we have 96 copies and they are all out; it took me 2 weeks to get the book and 2 days to read it. It was refreshing to read a historical fiction written in the well-researched perspective of the Maids. I helped raise my grandson, while my son in law was in Afghanistan, and then he went away, back to his family far away from FL to CO. I related to the maids who raised children they had no right to claim although they invested their heart and time to their life...I LOVED the book so much I don't want to see the movie. I'm already positive it's an Oscar winner!

Katie Gates said...

Hi Linda, I saw the beginnings of this post earlier today, but wanted to wait and return, since I had plans to see the movie this evening. I did, and I loved it. Generally, I like to read a book first, but in this case, I'm kinda glad I didn't. I liked being surprised by the plotline, and the ensemble cast was absolutely the best I've ever witnessed. As for the story itself, I thought it was a brilliant way to depict a time in the history of our country. And, of course, history continues to play itself out, and racism continues to remain a strong undercurrent. One line in the film, uttered by that evil Hilly, really drove it home for me. She (an absolute racist) indicated that there were "bad" (or maybe she said "real") racists in town, and they were the ones to be feared. That thinking is faulty and therefore a big part of the problem. Racism is racism. It doesn't exist on some sort of scale. People just act on it in different ways. There are members of the KKK, who are murderous and blatant in expressing their feelings, and then there are Tea Partiers, who play politics with it. But in the end, it's racism, and it sucks that, in some ways, we're not much better than we were back in the early 60s.