The Treading Water Blog turns one this month. My sincere thanks to all of you who have stayed with the blog as I sought a more steady stroke. While I work on new posts, and to celebrate this anniversary, I am reposting the first Treading Water post, The Help.
I grew up in the least diverse section of Philadelphia and I was raised by an African-American nanny. But this is no rich, privileged girl story.
Frances was a part of my childhood almost since I was born. Three days a week, she arrived at our house early in the morning and stayed until my mother returned from work. She cleaned the house, ironed my father’s shirts, and cooked better than anything my mother could do on an entire Sunday. Don’t ask about the other two days. A revolving disappointment, if you asked my mother.
I’d come home from school and the kitchen would be filled with the aroma of fried chicken and the creamiest macaroni and cheese you ever tasted. Her meatloaf had a hard-boiled egg buried in the middle that we three kids fought over like the Cracker Jack prize. And her iced tea—a cup of sugar to a pitcher, she said, and we drank it by the gallon. She loved the daytime stories and the numbers and often came to work with her dream book, giddy with her winnings. She was a window into another world and I was enthralled.
Frances’ people came from down Virginia, as she said it, with a mother that taught her what she needed to know. Like washing your face with your own urine stopped pimples. Every summer she and her husband would drive south to see her aunts and uncles and the next generation. I always liked the way she said aunt, rhyming it with font and not pulling back her teeth like a horse accepting a bridle, like how we say it in Philly. If she had religion, she kept it to herself. Whether out of respect for our differences or because she’d seen too much to believe, I never knew. But she described not being able to have children as just the way it was and didn’t bother blaming it on the Lord.
Her husband, James, was a good foot taller than she, a gentle man with an easy laugh who, if truth be told, scared me a little as a child. I saw him rarely but knew how much Frances loved him. She believed men were in charge of their women, at least to a point, and when he said he didn’t like her morning breath—Frances’ love of Salem cigarettes the likely culprit—she took to tucking a mint beneath her tongue every night until her teeth rotted out. I was long out of the house before she finally got a set of dentures.
For as long as I could remember, Frances drove a Cadillac. Said she saved her money and could spend it on what she wanted and she wanted a Cadillac and so every few years, she’d pull up in a newer version of a used one. It wasn’t long before my mother thought that was a very good idea and traded her Chevy for a used Caddy also. The two of them, women of little means, special in their automobiles.
My father took ill when I was four, my brother six, and my sister a newborn and he didn’t work for two years. Frances still came three days a week to care for us, without pay, while my mother managed a toy store making god knows what, but clearly not enough to support three kids and a husband. We were barely holding onto middle class back then and Frances’ generosity got us through an impossible situation.
Frances was the one I whined to about friends’ disappointments and enduring loneliness. She was the one who taught me about loving myself. My mother’s advice was that I should always be able to take care of myself. Note the difference.
Frances and James had no children but she was a wonderful aunt to her nieces and nephews. She raised one of her nieces and put her through college. When that beloved niece was in her early twenties, a boyfriend murdered her. I was in college at the time, worried it would take the life out of Frances too. “Bad things happen. What can you do?” was all she said when I phoned her. “What can you do?”
I remember one time Frances and my brother had a heated argument. My brother was a bit of a troublemaker in the family and it distressed her to see my parents so worried about him. Their words grew ugly until he threw the n-word at her and she replied with something about him being a dirty Jew and they both cracked up and laughed hysterically, that not being a part of either of them. I don’t think they ever had a sore word between them again.
I was a young mother when she passed away. My parents and I and my mother’s best friend for whom she also worked, hired a car and an African-American driver to take us to her viewing in a part of the city that Mom was uncomfortable parking the Caddy in. Even I can see the irony in that.
Frances’ was the first dead body I’d ever seen. She was smaller than I remembered, with the waxy face of the artificially molded and her mouth stuck out more than it should from those damned dentures. We sat on one side of the room, dabbing at our tears while James and the family sat at the other. Frances had never called my parents by their first names, not in thirty years. This never sat well with me, starting with my teenage years when I tore through The Autobiography of Malcolm X and Black Like Me.
James greeted us with a nod and accepted our hugs, not using any of our names. Even deep in his grief, he was gracious to us and listened to our words about her importance in our lives. I wondered how James felt about his wife working for no pay for two years and that child rearing and housekeeping didn’t exactly come with a pension, but none of that probably mattered at that moment.
Yes, Frances was the help. She helped me grow into a confident woman. Helped me learn that people just do the best they can, even if it doesn’t always meet your standards or expectations. That bad things happen to people you love and that doesn’t stop life from going on.
I saw the 2011 movie, The Help. Like many, I was appalled at the racism and exploitation. But the movie resonated with me on another level. I recognized the love between Emma Stone’s character and the woman she thought of as her other mother.
I had that privilege.
The older I get, the more difficulty I have in recognizing myself. After all, I am looking from the inside out and what I see is through the distortion of the mirror, or the camera lens, or wishes and criticisms.
In case you’re wondering, I do not suffer from Prosopagnosia, aka facial blindness. In fact, I have very good facial recognition, annoying my husband with easy identification of child actors now grown, or long ago neighbors passed on the street.
But I’m quite certain that if you put my isolated features in a line-up, I would have difficulty selecting which ones belong to me. Are those my tiny eyes? My thin lips? Even a cluster of features in their rightful order don’t always coalesce into an understandable whole. Like looking up at the night sky and being able to see clearly only those stars at the periphery of your vision. The ones in direct view are invisible.
This week on the Treading Water blog, another post from Lanny Larcinese.
Lanny is a Philadelphia writer and active in the local writing community. “Enough Pot” is an excerpt from his forthcoming memoir, “Women: One Man’s Journey.”
Even as the manager, which meant I should have known my people, I was clueless that drugs were all around. I was so serious about career that I had no notion of how commonly cocaine, pharmaceuticals, pot, LSD, and other stuff were used—including by my staff. When one or the other was nodding and their co-workers said, “He (or she) isn’t feeling well and needs to go for a walk,” I thought they weren’t feeling well and needed to go for a walk. They were younger than me and wired into the drug culture; I was of the “reefer madness” generation, and still believed dope caused you to stare for hours at the sun while it baked your eyeballs.
Under the streetlamp where Willy Blue waited for the café lights to appear, he stamped his feet and pulled his jacket tighter for the hundredth time. He’d left his gloves in the car and as hard as he tried to nudge his sleeves over his fingers, he couldn’t hold the phone to his ear and warm his hands at the same time.
“Damn it, Marcie, I was a free man! In Paris…that thing with Carey. I am not to blame for what happened to us! You decided we were just going to be good friends, as if that could ever happen.”
He watched a black crow circle a trashcan, then spiral to the ground and shake its head at what remained of the moon at the window. Morning was a stripe of pink over a distant highway and it was slow getting to Willy.
It’s February and I’m looking for buds.
The purple blanket of creeping crocuses will explode on our neighbor’s lawn soon and it’s countdown mode for spring. Three weeks until the Philadelphia Flower Show, that nose-heavy, noisy meander through nature’s blessing, and I can’t wait. An opportunity to see what new plants will be popular. Time to consider if your property could, in any possible way, resemble a chateau in Paris.
I’m a middling gardener. Before my husband and I bought our current home, I wanted nothing to do with dirt. No back-twisting weed yanking. No entrenched dirt in my palms’ otherwise optimistic lifelines. No primping of colorful displays determined to self-extinguish despite my best efforts.
Then we accidently bought a house.
Every house has a collection of old keys. Silver Schlages. Brass Taylors. Each branded with a numerical, indecipherable code. You have little memory of how they came to be. No one confesses to collecting them. They’ve just appeared, gathering dust in an old Chinese bowl, precious the vessel is, connoting its contents have value. But do they?
Periodically you carry the bowl from room to room trying each key in every lock, not finding a match, yet it is a lock and by definition must have a corresponding key. Perhaps you missed it. Tried each one in the bowl but the right one. Nonetheless, you return them all to the bowl and vow to try again. They must match somewhere.
Happy New Year and welcome to new posts on the Treading Water blog! I’m trying like hell to put my serious face back on, but honestly, I’m not quite ready to turn my good mood over to the soul-crushing politicians for the next ten months. So here is my one and only appearance on television. Watch, if you will, 3:20 minutes of the August 20, 1999, episode of Design Basics, shown on HGTV.
It’s that easy! Thanks for watching.
Love for my family and the ever-widening circle of people that I worry about.
Joy at the incremental successes of hungry toddler minds.
Gratitude for the encouragement as I find writerly purchase beneath my pedaling feet.
Relief, every day, that my father is still alive.
Disdain for the lack of tolerance for those in desperate situations.
Fear for my children’s future as the Earth warms and politicians call each other ugly.
Shame at the impolite words that snuck out of my mouth.
Satisfaction in the many wonderful books read.
Sorrow at the loss, too soon, of loved ones.
Pride in raising my voice from a whisper to a declaration, “I am a writer.”
Hope, always, for the upcoming year.
Wishing you a wonderful holiday season. More stories from the Treading Water blog in January. Thank you for allowing me to share my thoughts these last few months.
I took motorcycle lessons at the age of 55. It began, as most bad ideas do, with my husband tossing the idea out to see if it had legs. “We’re going to Wyoming in August. Wouldn’t it be great to rent a couple of bikes and zoom down the highway?” You can imagine the sound effects he offered.
The State of Pennsylvania offers free motorcycle safety classes. Five hours in the classroom and then ten hours on an actual bike, supplied by the program. On the morning of our first classroom lesson, my husband and I stood around a windowless trailer with a dozen other hopefuls. It’s funny how the proximity of motorcycles brings a certain swagger to your walk.