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Crystal in the Enid Mansion

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Posted: Wednesday, April 20, 2011 3:02 pm

I started reading "The Help" over the weekend and haven't gotten very far into it yet. But the premise is intriguing and the writing exceptional so I know it will be a good read.

So far, the story is dealing with the relationship between a black housekeeper working in the home of a white wannabe socialite in 1960s Mississippi. I have a long way to go in the book but what I read so far reminds me of my own family in a small way. My brother and I were joking about it yesterday, but it brought back early memories of that very relationship between black housekeepers and two of my aunts.

My Aunt Ginger was a relatively refined and genteel southern woman who married young and stood by her husband as he built a very comfortable life for them. She was more like a grandmother since she was my mother's aunt who raised her for a portion of her life. I used to be completely captivated by her and her daintiness and girliness. I loved watching her unpack her suitcases when they'd visit because she had fine and fancy things that smelled good and made me feel like a lady. My mother was intelligent and funny, but not real girlie. Add two brothers to the mix and you get the picture.

So she'd visit and I'd follow her around like a puppy until I got older and realized that she was refined and genteel - and a racist. I learned of this on an extended visit when I was around 12 years old. It was just me and my great aunt and great uncle in their big house in Oklahoma. I had my own room and bathroom and felt like a princess. The house was beautiful and spotless. Mostly because of their housekeeper Crystal. And that was my introduction to the relationship between the lady of the house and the 'help.' They don't intermingle. They don't have friendly conversations. She may as well have been a ghost ... who cleaned things. I was intrigued by this relationship and asked my aunt one day about Crystal. I don't remember the entire response, but the words that got stuck in my head were: "Oh, she's our colored girl."

I'd never heard this phrase to describe a vocation and I was stumped for a response. She didn't call her their housekeeper, cleaning lady, maid - any of the terms that I'd heard for what she did. She said it so clearly, and without a second thought. That's who Crystal was . . . their 'color girl.'

Holy moley. Really? Is that what she put on her income tax forms? Occupation: Color Girl?

I wasn't raised that way and it seems odd that someone who had a pretty big effect on my mother (not much of it good, I found out later) would have that mindset. But there it was.

Side note: I also couldn't figure out why a woman with no children, no job outside the home - other than appearances at the Country Club and the First United Methodist Church of Enid, Oklahoma (Say Hallelujah) would need 'help.' But that might just be my bitterness talking - I mop my own floors.

Another aunt, this one on my Dad's side of the family, also had a housekeeper. But the dynamic was much different. My Aunt Lila was down-to-earth and very funny. She scared me a little when I was small because I think she much preferred the company of adults than children. But that's okay because when I got older we got along just fine. She married a surgeon, had three children, and a busy life - so she had a housekeeper named Lee who came in once or twice a week to help out. But Lila and Lee had a relationship. They respected each other, talked to each other like friends, and it never seemed like an employer/employee relationship. In fact, one night Lila spilled something on the floor and quickly got the mop and cleaned it up saying "Gotta clean up this mess before Lee comes tomorrow or she'll have my hide!" I loved that.

I know there are vast cultural differences between blue bloods and us mere mortals. I also know there are vast cultural differences between the South and ... most of the rest of the world. None of this is new, but picking up this book brought up the memories.

These memories are important though. No one told me to be appalled at Ginger's little display of racism, but I was. I still am. Wealth and influence don't erase racial ignorance. Which is too bad because it's still everywhere you look.

But not in my (slightly dusty) house.