HELPING “THE HELP”
HONORING THE DOMESTIC WORKERS ON LABOR DAY
My father died when I was two. My mother had difficulty relating to me, but I had the extreme good fortune to have that fact balanced by the presence of Pearl, an elder African-American woman who looked after me. I walked and talked very early, and definitely carried Monkey Medicine. My older sister, one of those pristine ballerina types, couldn’t bear to take me out in my pram, because of the embarrassment I caused her with my travelling circus. I demanded a sack of peanuts, my dolls heads, my coin stash from my father, which I tossed out by tiny fistfuls to people in Central Park, and if I cried, only bouncing the pram up and down with great effort and humming with rhythmic fervor would silence me. The last straw was the day that she came home from the store with me and Pearl started pulling yards of swag lamp chain out of the carriage, asking her if my mother wanted her to buy it. Seems that I had taken a liking to it and had hidden it away. My sister refused to take it back to the store with an explanation and said she would NEVER take me out again. Pearl, however, was always on my side. One day, when I was a year and a half, my mother opened the door to the kitchen and I was hanging from a light fixture. I had put a chair up against the counter, climbed on the counter and then grabbed it and was dangling happily, as I enjoyed being up high. My mother began shouting at me. Pearl came into the kitchen, calmly got a small step ladder out, climbed it and took me down. My mother started her chapter and verse about what a terror I was and how impossible to care for. “Mrs. Diamond,” Pearl said, as she held me close, “This child is an old soul.” “Pearl, just what do you mean?” “She’s been born before.” “How can you tell?” my mother said.” “Oh, by the eyes, we tell it by the eyes.” My entire childhood I asked how I could send Pearl a thank you letter, and my mother always answered that she was probably dead, and stopped the discussion. So, I spoke to her at night before I went to sleep. She was always in my prayers. Many years later, on a rare occasion when my mother was on speaking terms with me, she told me that Pearl had lied about her age to get the job, that she was really much older than she said, or my mother would not have given her the job, because I was so active. She also told me that the first thing she did after my father died was let Pearl go. He died of a heart attack away at a business conference, he was thirty-seven. I don’t know if Pearl was given severance pay, or if my mother, pregnant, and in shock, helped to find her a job. I’m sure Pearl had children of her own, and probably grandchildren. Her financial contribution to the family was likely crucial, for her well-being and for the well-being of others too. There are so many things about her I don’t know, and such important things I DO know. That no matter how many children or grandchildren she had, she truly cared for me, she saw who I was, and that even though she must have suffered physically running around after monkey me, she always gave me love, Such tangible love, she gave, I can feel it now.
When I was around ten years old, I had a “friend” who came every summer from El Paso, Texas to stay at her grandmother’s home in my neighborhood. Her parents brought their maids with them. They spoke no English and didn’t drive (we lived in a private gated community not near town). This would have been 1964, The Civil Rights Movement was happening, and I hadn’t been saying the Pledge of Allegiance during the flag salute at school, because I thought the words, “with liberty, and justice for all.” weren’t true. I told the teachers, “As soon as those words are true, I will salute the flag.”
I often went over to Susannah’s house to play, so I could shadow the maids. I liked exchanging Spanish words for English ones with them. My grandiose long-term plan was that they would learn English, ESCAPE from the Texans, and do what most of the neighborhood maids did — learn English, get a car, get out and get a better job.
One day, Susannah and I were down in the basement, not many houses in Southern California have basements, but this one did, and it was your archetypical basement, dark, dank, musty and unpleasant. The maids spent a lot of time down there, washing and ironing clothes. “La mesa,” they said, and I touched the table and said, “table.” “La puerta,” they said when I touched the window. “Window,” I said. It was a good day, I was on a roll, and so were they, we were laughing and having a good time. We started going faster and faster, and then Mrs. Madsen screamed out from the shadows, “Susannah! Susanannah!” She had managed to sneak up on us, and had clearly been standing there for sometime.
Susannah’s body just seized up, and her eyes were stuck in the full on open position. I admit, I was scared, but a cinematic plan was unfolding in my mind: I would lead the maids upstairs, we’d run for safety and figure the rest out later.
"Girls! Get upstairs. I will not have you down here disturbing the maids."
The maids looked down. I looked past Mrs. Madsen. Susannah crept past her mother. She was shaking. I followed her up to the living room. Mrs. Madsen ascended the stairs stomping her high heels hard on every one. She turned away, threw open the front door and gave me a look that could’ve stunted my growth or at the very least, made all my hair fall out. I met her gaze and proudly walked out.
So, I was banned from playing with Susannah, and never got to see the maids again, except for a glimpse of one in the distance, when she came to the park to pick up Susannah’s younger sister. The images of the maids trapped in the basement haunted me, it was part of so many things about my neighbors that felt dark and wrong, which seemed impossible to change on my own, though I did keep trying.
Anyway, the good news is that I’m a grownup, and you might be too — it’s 2011, today is Labor Day and we really need to support the California Domestic Workers Bill of Rights. Read the rights here: http://www.lacolectivasf.org/billofrights/
UPDATE - AUGUST 28, 2012 - Please sign the petition here:
Truth Out article March, 2012 “Domestic Workers Look to Extend Gains”
Lily L. Diamond