So I decided to introduce myself in order to avoid imminent audience boredom and to allow myself to easily move right on to my talk. While attempting to figure out how to accomplish this initial task of telling my listeners who I am, I realized something wonderful. In addition to my 87-year-old mother, who has the dear charm and sweet spirit of a real Southern lady, my life, like the lives of many others, has been touched and shaped by an incredible group of women.
My daddy’s mother died a few days after he was born. Therefore, his relationship with his father was one of anger and bitterness. He ran away from home so many times my grandfather finally said good riddance and allowed Daddy’s Aunt Meta to finish raising him. My other grandmother died when my mother was 8. Since Aunt Meta did not have any children, she became a grandmother to me and my three brothers.
Aunt Meta lived in a compact duplex on Cohn Street in New Orleans with a wringer washing machine and a clothesline on the back porch. The tiny neighborhood grocery store, where she bought her groceries every day, was just across the street. Her husband died in a freak accident so Aunt Meta lived alone and supported herself.
A highly skilled seamstress by profession, Aunt Meta was also an excellent cook. When my parents took trips to New Orleans, I often stayed with her. One of those visits occurred near my birthday and she made me a strawberry birthday cake and prepared her family-famous steak with tomato gravy. Her home always yielded the faint, enticing tomato and onion aroma of that traditional Louisiana dish.
Even though I was only about 5, Aunt Meta treated me with a special level of dignity and respect as she tied one of her aprons around me and allowed me to be her kitchen assistant. She tolerantly tried to teach this clumsy left-hander how to use an old-fashioned can opener and helped me maneuver the hand-held mixer. Treating me as an equal in whatever project we pursued, Aunt Meta always had a way of making me feel strong and confident.
In 2009, Jackson, Miss. native Kathryn Stockett published her debut novel, “The Help.” Two years later, this well-written, bittersweet narrative continues to claim a spot in the top 10 on the New York Times Bestseller List for hardcover fiction. Stockett tells the story of Skeeter Phelan, who returns to her home in Jackson in 1962 after graduating from Ole Miss with her parents’ expectation that she will marry well, raise a family and certainly not rock the boat of existing social order.
However, Skeeter secretly partners with Aibileen and Minny, two African American maids, to work on a writing project that indeed rocks the very foundation of that order. Set right in the center of the tension and bloody violence-filled days of the Civil Rights Movement, this trio plans to publish a book of interviews with maids who candidly describe their jobs working for white families. While the story reveals and describes many difficult and complex issues of that era, its central core intricately explores the beautiful, loving relationships between the maids and the white children they help raise.
Aibileen, who has raised 17 children over the years, lovingly, consistently and carefully works to instill pride, kindness and a firm sense of self-worth in 2-year-old Mae Mobley, her current charge. Constantine, who took care of Skeeter until she went off to college, played a similar role in Skeeter’s life. Constantine’s efforts to encourage Skeeter to think for herself, to develop independence, and to accept herself for who and what she is, are realized as Skeeter takes the bold step to put the book together despite the harrowing and even dangerous consequences she and the others may face. In essence, Aibileen and Constantine become the permanent voices in their children’s heads that speak words of encouragement and continue to give the children a positive sense of themselves long after the women are gone from their lives.
I, like so many others, had a figure much like Aibileen and Constantine in my life. Lois worked for my family on and off for many years. My clearest memories are found in the kitchen where Lois might be rolling out yeast roll or sugar cookie dough while teasingly threatening to clobber the small hand that snitched. Or she might patiently be giving a cooking lesson for scrambled eggs or words of encouragement when this young baker put the peanut butter cookies in the oven without the peanut butter.
Lois’ goodness and gentleness taught many lessons as she adeptly managed four very different children with a nine year age range from youngest to oldest. With a firm hand and without raising her voice, Lois could restore peace and harmony. Her direct, personal smile spoke a million words without the utterance of one. In her, I had a comrade and a confidant who taught without judging and corrected without belittling.
I met my spouse when I was 17 years old. We have been married for almost 36 years. Thinking back now from my middle-aged adult perspective, I see and appreciate his mother’s role in my raising. Since I was a teenager, Pat Dabbs has provided an example of one who lives every day with a lovely spirit and a sincerely compassionate, selfless heart. Propelled by her never-ending intellectual curiosity, if she has a question, Pat reads and studies until she finds the answer.
Pat’s mother died when she was four. However, like me, she had an awesome team of women in her life. Both of her grandmothers were graduates of female academies, a rare accomplishment for women of their era. They were well-educated women who were curious about the world and relished learning. One of her grandmothers, while in her early 20s, rode a train alone from Maryland to Fort Apache, Ariz., to spend the winter with her sister who was married to Lt. Charles B. Gatewood, the chief negotiator in the surrender of Geronimo.
In addition to her strong, smart grandmothers, Pat’s raising was accomplished by a charming great aunt with a splendid sense of humor and two other aunts, one a nurturing teacher and the other a colorful, creative artist.
Pat’s own mother-in-law provided consistent support and crucial friendship to her as a young post-war bride from the East living in a close-knit, rural Southern family. Described in Pat’s words, “She was always as good a friend as I could ask for.”
We are like pieces of lumpy clay in the tender hands of the women who raised us. Over the years, they touch our lives and shape the clay by unselfishly and graciously sharing bits of themselves, ultimately giving us a larger world view as well as lifelong strength, courage, and self-confidence.