I grew up in the least diverse section of Philadelphia and I was raised by a 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 in our house early in the morning and stayed until my mother got home 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 didn’t see him often, 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 probably didn’t help—she took to tucking a mint beneath her tongue every night until her teeth rotted out. I was long out of the house when 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 pulled 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 told 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.