I read "The Help." I saw "The Help." The female characters resonated with me. Scenes with our household help in the 1950s, when I was a little girl, roam freely through my mind. One very short cleaning woman, Geraldine, stands out.
Geraldine was an incessant talker, smoker and bra-strap adjuster. Not only were her bra straps never where they should be and falling on her arms, but she had buttons missing from her blue stained uniforms, which she fastened with safety pins.
She moved upstairs and downstairs with a lit Camel in her mouth. She carried a mop and detergents. I don't remember seeing her use them.
She coughed and talked to me. She told me my mother gave her too much work. My mother complained -- not to her face, but to anyone who would listen -- that Geraldine was sloppy.
Although I already thought my mother was wrong about most things, I thought she might be right about Geraldine. No matter. I adored her. I needed her. Unlike my mother and older sister, she did not shut me out. When we talked, we looked into each other's eyes. If Geraldine were in my class at school, she would have stood one ahead of me in the size-place girl's line.
"Are you related to Mary?" I asked one afternoon.
"Who's Mary?" Geraldine said.
"The lady who used to work here."
"Was Mary colored, too?"
I nodded. Part of Scary Mary's job had been to feed me. She put a plate or bowl of food in front of me and with a spoon or fork, she shoveled it into my mouth without playing "open the tunnel" or other games. My mother passed through the kitchen to check on us, or stood at the sink doing something else -- anything else -- saying, "Nancy's a good eater" or "Nancy'll pack it in." Terrified and obedient, I opened the tunnel and packed it in.
"You think we're all related?" Geraldine asked.
I did. The only black people I came across were women who worked for whites. "Not 'cuz of that," I said, sensing I had hurt Geraldine's feelings. "Mary came by bus, too."
"Just 'cuz we're colored, ride buses and clean houses, don't mean we're related." Geraldine headed upstairs.
I followed. "I'm sorry." Sorry I had upset the only girl in the house who liked me. Sorrier that she and other colored women had to clean white people's dirt.
Another day, after I learned that a cousin on my mother's side had killed herself, I ran down to the basement, bursting to tell Geraldine. She already knew.
"This world's too much for some folks." Coughing, she folded a towel.
I took the lit Camel from her mouth.
"You can't smoke that, child. Your mama'll shoot me."
I put the cigarette under the faucet. "Smoking's bad for you," I said. My father had just quit. "My mother wouldn't care if I smoked. She doesn't care about anything."
"Part of your mama's problems is that she sits around with nothin' to do."
My face got hot. "She does a lot. She shops and cooks dinner."
Geraldine looked into my eyes. "She doesn't have to lift a finger. That's how come she's unhappy."
I ran upstairs. Now Geraldine had upset me. I could say what I wanted about my family. An outsider could not. And Geraldine saw and spoke the truth. My mother had problems. Problems too big to hide.
A short time later, Geraldine stopped showing up. She never called. She had not spoken of quitting, finding another job or having had enough of me. No one fired her. That was what my father said. He thought she was sick, had moved to warmer Alabama to live with her son and did not want us, particularly me, to know. Unlike Skeeter in "The Help," who learned why Constantine disappeared, I had no clue why Geraldine left.
Soon after her disappearance, my mother disappeared further inside herself and was institutionalized for two months. I did not think Geraldine's absence caused Mom's nervous breakdown. I thought I did.
A new cleaning woman, recommended by relatives, came to work. And cleaned. She wore freshly pressed white uniforms, scrubbed our floors and made our house sparkle, saying, "Yes ma'am" to my mother and very little to me. I missed Geraldine.
The new help, Mom and I moved from room to room, alone in our private cells, doing what was expected of us. Like blacks and whites, then and now, we had too much or not much to do.
Nancy Davidoff Kelton, who grew up in Buffalo, is the author of six books and is working on a memoir. She teaches at the New School and at New York University.