Walking the Cat . . .

Because life's kinda like that . . .

A Little Autobiographical Biography . . .

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This post will be lengthy; moreso than usual.  It’s part biography, part autobiographical; a tribute, if you will, to my mother who passed away four years ago next month, so please bear with me.

I’m a “Boomer”, born in ’47 during the latter half of the first great post WW II population explosion.  My parents were, if not then, soon to be solidly middle class.  Dad worked for the Pennsylvania Railroad, where he advanced quickly from blue to white collar status.  His rise in the corporate world was due as much to his ready acceptance of transfers as to his organizational skills.  Mom was a housewife.  In those days it was possible, at least in postwar America, for a family to live comfortably on a single income.

There is a story; I suppose you could call it a legend (it certainly has attained “mythical” status within the family) concerning my mother’s attitude toward people of differing backgrounds and social status.  It also serves to explain, to some extent, her attitude toward civil rights in the 50s and beyond.

At some point after the birth of my brother, Bob, it was decided my mother needed some assistance on the home-front.  Raising two boys was no easy task and having a maid, even part-time, would allow my mother more time for her “wifely duties”; shopping, child rearing, attending various social functions with my father and various other civic responsibilities,  Dad was determined to climb the corporate ladder as far and as fast as possible.  To that end he “networked” tirelessly.  He joined the Rotary Club and played golf and softball.  Both my parents were regular churchgoers.  Mom was a member of the Confraternity of Christian Doctrine.  Dad co-authored the official history of Sacred Heart parish in Winchester, Va., a parish we belonged to at the time.  Hiring a maid was seen as a necessity.

I don’t know how long my mother enjoyed having a maid or if enjoyed is the proper term.  Truth be told, I’m not sure she relished having a “servant” at all.  In any case, the situation was short-lived.

The way Mom told the tale, at some point during one of the days the maid (I don’t know her name, Mom never mentioned it.  I’ll call her “Ellie”) was working there was a lull in the day’s activities.  Bob and I were down for a nap and there was a break between one of Ellie’s duties and the next.  This, Mom decided, was the perfect time for the two women to become better acquainted, to sit down, have coffee and chat.  I’m certain, in retrospect, my father’s frequent absences and the resulting loneliness were also mitigating influences.

I can only guess as to how the ensuing conversation unfolded.

“The boys are finally asleep,” Mom said, retrieving a cup from the kitchen cabinet and filling it with coffee from the pot on the stove.  “Ellie, why don’t you pour yourself a cup and join me?”, she added, settling onto a chair at the kitchen table.

“No thank you, ma’am,” Ellie replied, arranging a shirt on the ironboard.

“Oh, come on.  The ironing can wait for now,” Mom said.  “Let’s get to know one another.”  She sipped her coffee and watched Ellie.  The maid remained focused on her task, the iron in her hand gliding back and forth, smoothing the wrinkles from one of Dad’s shirts. 

“You pay me to do the washing and ironing and such, not to sit and drink coffee,” Ellie said, intent on the ironing.

“That doesn’t mean we can’t be friends.”

The iron stopped, momentarily, its steady glide across the fabric, then continued.  “Yes, ma’am, it does.”

“Excuse me,” Mom said, nonplussed.

“Miz Thomas, you are my employer.  I am your employee.  Only things you need to know about me is, do I come to work on time, do I do the work you want me to do the way you want me to do it and do I steal.”  Ellie hesitated a beat, then added,  “Which i don’t!  And the only thing I need to know about you is, will the check you give me every week bounce, or not.”

“I didn’t mean to offend you, Ellie,” Mom said.  “I just thought we could be friends.”

Ellie stopped ironing and placed the iron on its pad.  “Miz Thomas, you n’ me, we don’t ‘zactly move in the same circles.  What you think was gonna happen?  We go shoppin’ t’gether?  Maybe stop at the lunch counter down Woolworth’s?”

“I don’t know.  I hadn’t thought. . .”

“I know you didn’t,” Ellie cut in.  “But you’re white and I’m black.  And in case you hadn’t noticed, those two color don’t mix well, ‘specially in Virginia.”

“I . . .don’t understand,” Mom said and lapsed into silence.

“I know you don’t, Miz Thomas,” Ellie said, gently, “and maybe it’s best you don’t.  But please, try to forget the likes of you n’ me being friends.  It won’t bring either one of us nothing but grief.”  Ellie picked up the iron, moistened her finger, touched it to the iron’s surface and was rewarded with a reassuring hiss.  “Lord, look at the time,” she said, glancing at the clock on the wall.  “I best be getting this ironing done.”  She looked at my mother, a kind of half-smile on her face.  “You best go look after those boys of yours, Miz Thomas.  They be waking up soon.”

Mom remained seated for a few moments,studying the woman at the ironing board, the silence between the two women growing heavy and uncomfortable.  She started to say something, then thought better of it.  She heaved herself off the chair and went to attend to her children.

Later that same day, as Ellie was preparing to leave for the day, she said. “Miz Thomas, I believe this will be my last day.”  She shruuged into her coat and adjusted her hat, just so.

“Ellie,” Mom said, thunderstruck.  “You mean you’re quitting?”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“But why?”

“Don’t misunderstand, Miz Thomas.  Wasn’t nothing you done.  Fact is, ‘ceptin’ that talk we had earlier, it’s been right pleasant workin’ for you.”  Ellie picked up her purse and tucked it under one arm.  “I just figure you can be quite willful once you put your mind to it and you won’t give up tryin’ to make us friends.  And I just can’t work under those conditions.”

“Ellie, please.  I’ve enjoyed having you work here.  Won’t you at least think about stayin’?”

“I have thought about it.  Haven’t thought about much else since our talk.  ‘Fraid my mind’s made up.”  There was no animosity, no rancor in her tone.

“Well, if your mind’s made up, I guess there’s nothin’ left to say.”

“I guess not, ‘cept I would ‘preciate a good reference.”

“Of course, Ellie,” Mom replied.  “I will mention the fact you can be quite willful,” she added with a wan smile.

“Thank you, Miz Thomas.  Goodbye.”

“Goodbye, Ellie.”  And with that Ellie was gone.

I don’t know how the incident affected my mother.  I know she didn’t become, as a result, either a civil rights firebrand or a segregationist.  I know she did pay more than passing interest in the events of the civil rights movement, especially those involving Dr. King.  When the Civil Rights Act finally passed Congress and President Johnson signed it into law, Mom had only one comment.  “Its about time.  It’s about damn time!”

 

 

 

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Written by stevewthomas

January 14, 2013 at 7:51 pm

2 Responses

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  1. Wow! That was quiet something, I enjoyed reading this, your mom was a great woman, you should be proud of her!

    Seyi sandra

    January 14, 2013 at 8:08 pm

  2. A very nicely written tribute to your mother. Thanks for sharing it.

    indytony

    January 14, 2013 at 8:13 pm


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