Friday was my birthday. Mid-summer, any way you slice it, prone to the lingering 4th hangover and hot and gluey the hemisphere around. In Atlanta, my home town, July 8th often dawns drowsy and nondescript, a day when traffic is strangely light and folks wind up sipping icy beverages by the pool or streaming baseball in front of an AC vent. I mean, think about it … has anything of true significance ever happened on July 8th? I looked it up, and not much. In 1835, the Liberty Bell cracked, though reports vary. It might have been the 12th. In 1907, whoop-dee-doo, Ziegfield opened his first follies in New York City. 1918: Hemingway was wounded on the Austro-Italian front but macho-man that he was, survived to pen his oeuvre. 1947: a UFO crashed down in New Mexico (or not), and in 1949, Wolfgang Puck was born, followed by Kevin Bacon in ’58. Hmmm.
To be honest, I used to feel a little sorry for myself for having my special day during this time of scatter, a summer limbo void of classroom cupcakes and pinatas. When I was a wee thing, my birthday parties tended to be poorly attended at best, fleshed out with persons (see photo) my mother rounded up to stand in for my wider circle of friends, who were off at camp or beach-combing with their families. Nowadays, I often vamoose on July 8th myself, and really, as the calendar turns, what could be better than to flit out of town and have one’s birthday forgotten altogether?
But this July, 2016, I’m home in the city. My birth-week went haywire from the start. On Tuesday the 5th, Alton Sterling was shot by police in Baton Rouge, another possible case of color-coded fear having led to the panicked and deadly misuse of power. Ditto on the 6th, when a routine traffic stop in suburban St. Paul ended with Philando Castile, an African American man, dead. Yet sadly, if not for what happened next, on my birthday eve, these events might have become little more than tragic footnotes in the on-line version of “On This Day in History.”
As yet unaware, I woke on the 8th to the joy of family texts and emails sent at the crack of dawn and a birthday poster lovingly drawn by my youngest son (see left, an old Payne tradition). But before I could pour my first cup of Joe, I found myself longing for the dull birthday anonymity I used to lament. On the kitchen television, an endless loop of chaos and gunfire on the streets of Dallas during an otherwise peaceful protest, a dozen policemen sniper-shot, five dead.
Mass shooting number 150 or so on the year, and we’re hardly halfway home. I don’t know how many of these were racially motivated, but I’d bet a silver dollar they were all rooted in hate, the kind of hate that when kindled by emotional instability is likely to fester in the heart of the dispossessed, the kind of hate that so often meets with an ironic end, where one desperate individual lashes out against others equally marginalized, but for different reasons, the kind of hate I believe is at its core self-hate, and in the end bound to turn on itself, but only after havoc has been wreaked. Consider the deeply troubled and alienated white drug addict who guns down African Americans in a place of worship historically vital to the Civil Rights movement; the pathologically angry Muslim American, isolated within the country of his birth, who opens fire on his gay neighbors; the mentally disturbed black war vet who ambushes white police officers as they monitor citizens of varied races seeking to prevent future incidents of policing gone sour.
I’m over-simplifying, and even so, my head spins. The line between villain and victim grows more muddied every day as hot-button issues like gun legislation, immigration, mental health care, police brutality become so multi-layered and complicated it’s impossible to discuss them without simplifying. But enough. I don’t write today to enter a particular dialogue (though I have opinions! I sign petitions!). I write because as a white woman born and raised and still living in the American South, my bones ache with a helpless sorrow I can’t well reckon with. I write in the hope that putting words to paper will help me lasso emotions I can’t otherwise make sense of. And already I’ve erred. Sorrow isn’t the right word. What I feel is closer to despair. That we as Americans, no matter the shade of our skin, continue to wrestle with the violent manifestations of the same brand of hate, the same demons that have threatened our nation since its inception, is unthinkable.
During the last long hours of a recent trans-Atlantic flight, I flipped through Air France’s film library and settled on The Help. I’d seen it before, and found it on both occasions more moving, more true-to-life than I expected (I boycotted the book, perhaps unfairly, having heard it was sappy and overdone). What I’d forgotten was the uncomfortable blend of warm recognition and biting shame the film dredged up in me. In some ways, I am Mae Mobley Leefolt, the little white girl loved and cared for by the family’s black maid, Aibileen Clark. Mae Mobley was born, fictionally speaking, in August, 1960, in Jackson, Mississippi. I was born in July, 1960, in Atlanta. Mae Mobley had Aibileen. I had Mary Darian, the young woman who worked at our house not every day but often enough I thought of her as family. When in the final scene Mae Mobley calls out to Aibileen, “You’re my real mother!” (yep, pretty sappy), my heart leaps in spite of itself. Though my mother wasn’t negligent like Mae Mobley’s, Mary was sort of her co-mother, an energetic, funny, hands-on, more hip role model than Mom, forty-one when I came along, was capable of being.
And Mary was black. And far too smart, too gifted, for her position. She had small children of her own someone else cared for while she raised us, no doubt earning less than she deserved. Yet she changed my diapers and sang me to sleep. She picked me up from school and brought my dog along to greet me. She fried a chicken for us on Friday afternoons. Later, she wrote me at camp when I was homesick, sharing details about what my brothers were up to (“Tommy and I cleaned out his closet. He hates making decisions”), complimenting my mother’s sewing projects or cracking a little joke, usually at her own expense. Sometimes she signed off, tongue-in-cheek, “The Maid.” My favorite letter (from Mom’s Attic, of course) is written on two sheets of construction paper torn crookedly across the top and quadri-folded to fit the envelope. After dating the letter, Mary wrote “cheap paper” in parentheses and a few lines later elaborated: “This paper is slightly uneven–like the writer.”
Like Mae Mobley, I was Mary’s “last white baby.” She left us when I began junior high, taking a job at the hospital where I was born. Mary made a career there, earned a few promotions and stayed until she reached retirement age. We kept in touch, a phone call now and then, quick visits during family weddings, funerals. Then, a long gap of time passed with little contact until the day of my mother’s funeral. As I walked out on my brother’s arm, I caught sight of Mary at the end of a pew. White-haired, a little stooped, she somehow wept and smiled at once. I stopped, and we hugged each other’s necks and cried together. She told me how much she’d loved my mother, her friend, how she misses me, and all the Mattinglys.
Since, and especially during weeks filled with race-inspired violence like this last, I think about Mary, now eighty, and feel that same warmth tempered by shame movies like The Help can rustle up. I like to think our bond was unusual, deeper than most of its type. Mary was my friend and yet, history says what we and thousands of other black-white, maid-child duos of the fifties and sixties shared was tainted. History says that if not for the evils of slavery, these bonds wouldn’t exist, that perhaps they shouldn’t have existed. I can’t deny the truth in this, but then, what do we do with the warmth, the love, that remain?
It occurs to me that other than what I share here, I don’t know Mary Darian’s story. I don’t know how she, eighteen when my parents hired her, managed to break the cycle of domestic service. I knew nothing, as her white baby of the 1960s, about the sit-ins and marches, the tear-gas and beatings, that were happening across town, maybe in her neighborhood. I don’t know who or what she might have lost to the long slog of the Civil Rights struggle. My parents, like Mary herself, were careful to shield me from these seminal, sometimes violent events that would shape our lives. In this, my ignorance of Mary’s story, lies a valid basis for guilt and shame. I can’t change history. I can’t make amends for actions taken by my forebears, though I regret and renounce them. I can’t go back and rearrange the circumstances of my relationship with Mary, but I can at least do what another one of Kathryn Stockett’s characters, Skeeter, does. I can learn Mary’s story. I owe her, and myself, that much.
On Friday, after I switched off the reports coming in from Dallas, I gave Mary a call. She knew my voice immediately and as she spoke, I pictured through the line the tall, confident, young woman who used to drive me to McDonald’s for a Big Mac after school. She told me she’d had a fall, but that her daughter, Lou, had taken such good care of her she was back on her feet. With held breath, I asked after her three sons. They’re well, she reported, all working and living in the metro area. I smiled. Mary’s sons, middle-aged black males in a Southern city, are thriving. They’ve beat the odds, so far. I caught Mary up on my own family and asked if I could come by to see her. “Why sure, anytime!” she said, then paused. “Well, anytime other than Wednesday. I still get out for my Bible study on Wednesdays.”
So we’ll have a visit on Tuesday morning. A late birthday present. I can hardly wait to hear what she has to say.