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A Panegyric, by Judyth A. Willis

by Judyth A. Willis
 

At nineteen, I achieved all my goals. By marrying a pilot in the United States Air Force and moving into a beach-front apartment in South Carolina—I had achieved status. My marriage also gained my admittance to the world of cocktail parties, luncheons, and teas. But the crowning achievement was as an officer's wife, it was expected that I would have a maid. I had arrived.

Her name was Beatrice, pronounced Bee-At-Triss. I paid her thirty-five cents an hour plus lunch. Thirty-five cents an hour was what I made at age twelve babysitting for my neighbor's children. Beatrice had eight children. She had to get up at dawn, ride a rickety bus for an hour before getting to my house. She mopped and waxed the floors, cleaned the bathroom and kitchen, dusted the furniture and did the ironing. Beatrice hardly ever talked and never laughed. Six hours after she arrived, I paid her two dollars and ten cents, at which time she left to go back to her own home and take care of her family. The gap between our lives was never bridged.

I knew what her house looked like, though. Moving from the Midwest to South Carolina introduced me to a new kind of architecture: tiny villages of less than a dozen gray houses huddled on the edge of the highway. The locals called them "shotgun cabins." You could shoot straight through the open hall that separated the two rooms and not hit a thing. The village usually had a store with gas pumps out front, and a cooler advertising Nehi orange drink hunkered squarely beside the entrance. Driving toward the coast, in and out of the shade cast by the turpentine pines, I thought the houses looked cozy: small, weathered and worn. I didn't see the poverty. I didn't stop to wonder where the schools were or what chance the children had to succeed. Eventually, Beatrice quit coming to work.

It was when I found Lily Mae that my consciousness felt a twitch. The first day she arrived, six feet, two-inches and two-hundred pounds of pure goodness came to do my housework and babysit. One night when my husband and I came home late from a party to find her sitting on the hassock reading her Bible, I asked her why in the world she chose to sit up instead of going to sleep on the sofa. She explained that if she sat on the hassock and fell asleep, she would fall off, wake herself up and then she could continue studying her Bible. My husband came back from taking her home that night to tell me that when they went out to the car, she tried to get into the backseat. He had to insist that she sit up front with him. She wasn't comfortable. She never did, to my knowledge, sleep in my house, and a more traditional Southern friend had to tell me why.

Lily Mae never shared what her life was like when she wasn't working, except to say she went to church. She lived in a separate section of town. The streets were not paved, street lights non-existent, no fire hydrants, no city water and no trash collection, but she had a painted house of concrete blocks that her husband built. She often drove her own car to work. Her biggest fear was that desegregation would come to South Carolina and spoil life as she knew it. In her eyes, it was ruining everything in Montgomery.

In the meantime, she helped raise my babies. When I gave birth to my second son, she told me that even though he had been a smaller baby, he would be bigger than his older brother. She said he was holding all the bigness inside. She was right. She potty-trained my oldest with ease; rescuing him from futility by having to sit down to pee. She held a fruit jar to him, let him watch the miracle of making water and the training was done.

Lily Mae's answer to all of life's ills was to say, "Miss, you need to eat something." She played with my children, and watching her, I felt sorry that she had no children of her own. What would she have been like if she had been the mother of eight like Beatrice?

By the time my boys entered school, my husband received orders and we left for an exchange assignment with the British Royal Air Force in Devon, England. Before I had my kitchen in order Molly arrived at my door to work. I appreciated her spirit. She was in her late forties, an exact replica of Flo, Andy's long-suffering wife in the comic strip Andy Capp. Unlike Andy and Flo's disagreements over his philanderings and drinking at the local pub, Molly's life wasn't suited for the funnies. Before her second husband abandoned her and her oldest daughter, he left Molly with a permanently stiff knee. He also left her with two of his children to support on her own. A tough and honest woman, she brooked no nonsense from my boys and kept them safe, clean and fueled with her shepherd's pie.

Molly knew how to clean the old-fashioned way. She smoothed paste wax on the old red linoleum and buffed it by hand. Her ritual was to put the wax down, fold the buffing cloth, and just like Flo, tuck a Player cigarette firmly into the corner of her mouth, light up and begin the circular rubbing, crawling backwards down the hall. I could hear her puffing around the dead cigarette by the time she was finished. Straightening up, taking the filter from her mouth very carefully so as not to disturb the long gray ash that had grown as she buffed, the ash was dropped into her hand and carefully emptied into her apron pocket. By that time, she was ready for the next chore.

She scrubbed the stone entryway with a bucket and a hand brush, and she taught me how to lay a fire in the peculiar Adams fireplace of our two-hundred-year-old farmhouse. From the stories she shared as we worked together every Tuesday and Thursday morning, I understood that she had worked this hard all her life. Her father was a sailor and a garrulously mean man.

Once, as a girl, when she thought she had scrubbed the kitchen floor, he came in and said he would show her how to clean a floor and threw the bucket of scrub-water down the length of the room. She scrubbed it again.

She told me how her first husband came back from the war a broken man and finally coughed himself to death. Her story sounded like many of the novels I had read about families that survived World War II. She remembered having to fool her children by cooking parsnips, putting in drops of banana oil purchased at the chemists, sprinkling a few grains of sugar over the top and telling them it was bananas.

Many times Molly babysat five nights out of seven, and when I had a dinner party, she helped me serve and clean the kitchen. I paid her two and six an hour (about fifty cents) and it was made immediately clear to me that my main responsibility was to make sure there was always a supply of tea in the pantry so she could take a break and have a "cuppa." An evening spent watching the telly with a cuppa, a cigarette or two and her knitting wasn't work to Molly.

We both knew we were lucky. I found Molly to be honest and hard-working, and she knew that Americans paid well. Two and six was more than Molly could get working in a house in the village and she could work more hours for us. At the same time, I felt like I had the starring role in an epic movie. Often I felt like Scarlet O'Hara, and like Scarlet, I had a wardrobe of white gloves: short daytime gloves for luncheons, elbow-length gloves for cocktail parties, and shoulder-length gloves for formal soirees. I spent my days and nights going from glove to glove, helping my husband in his quest for a star.

I don't despise the years of my blind innocence, because while I frittered away my life playing out a dream, there was at least time to read. Authors as disparate as E. M. Forester and Ayn Rand clicked on a light. Then feminist writers of the seventies turned the wattage up. Finally, earning a college degree and being on my own in the eighties ended my denial to the issue of inequality. I came to realize my debt to those heroic, underpaid women who worked for me. In traveling my own journey I have at last recognized them as women of character. Did I never think that they noticed how unfair the world was? Did I never think I was going to have to pay the dues needed to enter the sisterhood of brave and conscious women?

Understanding has come late in my life but it has come: I am a member of the working class making seventy-five cents to the dollar that the more privileged worker makes. I employ much less grace than those women did when as single mothers they worked for minimal wages. In my past, I paid token wages to women of wisdom. They did their work, and didn't complain.

Now that I have taken the gloves off, I realize that their wisdom was there for me. I can choose to grow from that wisdom and carve out an authentic life, no matter the amount of wages I make. I admit, though, that a pair of white, shoulder-length gloves survive and they lay instate in my cedar chest, a reminder of the halcyon days of denial. Those gloves know I have forgotten all the women I met at the New Years formals and at the cocktail parties and the luncheons and teas. But my memories of Molly the survivor, and Beatrice the silent sufferer, and Lilly Mae the most Christian woman I have ever known, and Aki-san who survived the Battle of Okinawa, and Mama-san our gardener who could make pure dirt sprout roots and grow, and all of my wise godmothers—of them my memories are vivid and alive. I talk to them, write imaginary letters that say knowing them has made me a better person. I want them to know that I have learned their worth.

  

Judyth A. Willis is an ex-Midwesterner, an ex-Air Force wife, and yearns for the day when she will be an ex-high school English teacher. Like the Chinese proverb advises, her third career will be planting and tending a garden.
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