10 October 2011

Hired Help

My mother called the help “hired help.” The hired help were negro women. The hired help began in Connecticut, maybe 1956. I’d’ve been 5 years old. Hired help wore a uniform. The uniform was a Pantone Cool-Grey 4, accented with white ‘camp-shirt’ pointed lapel collars, buttoned white cuffs on sleeve, and an apron, bow tied at the back waist, and in the front coming to a middle point. The uniform and apron were ironed and starched.

The hired help washed, pressed, and starched all laundry in all my birth family homes; there were three. In my early birth family Connecticut house I recall the hired help in the basement. The basement was divided, finished and unfinished. Unfinished was the laundry area. It was darkish, lit by daylight from windows and bare bulb. It was furnished with iron and ironing board, sprinkling bottles, an Ironite Mangle Iron, maybe model #85, brushes of various types, old-timey wooden stocking hangers, deep sinks, washboard, and little wire soap cages with handles made for by-hand scrubbings in the deep sinks. I don’t recall washer and dryer.

In the Connecticut summerhouse, to which we decamped, the hired help lived in a back room. It was her room, with sink, commode, and shower. We were rarely permitted in the hired help’s room. A back porch and its grey floor was screened, with a screen door to the backyard, and connected and separated the house from the back room. There were two 12-pane glass doors, one to living room, one to kitchen, and a door to garage.

The hired help had Sunday off. I recall her leaving by the back porch screen door. Floral print dress, straw hat, black handbag, white gloves, and sensible black laced shoes with slight heels. Where was she going? To church. How did she go? She walks; it seemed a long way. She returned in late evening coming in by the back porch screen door.

In the Ohio house the entire basement was finished. The laundry room was bright and light. A laundry chute dumped laundry to it. The Ironite iron made its way too. It was a nifty machine. I’d stand by the help as she fed crumpled bed sheets into it. I’d watch them roll out as pressed starched cloth ribbons. I don’t recall conversations.

I recall the help serving guests at cocktail parties. A black women’s krewe, in their cool-grey-4 uniforms in the pink kitchen, serving guests in the dining and living rooms. The krewe was alive with conviviality in the kitchen. Somehow I was permitted in their company. It was exceptional. My mother did not care for my being in company with the help. The help never baby-sat me. The help never cooked for my family or me.
I think the help’s most challenging work was managing my mother, maybe my mother and my father.

There was a steady stream of black women who came and went. At some point help stopped in our house. I recall TV and seeing more black people than I’d ever seen. I recall dogs and police, fire hoses, marches, and speeches. Later on I attended the 1964 Newport Folk Festival; I was 13! Bob Dylan, Pete Seeger, Muddy Waters, and Odetta entered my consciousness, then Koerner, Glover, and Ray, and B.B. King.

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