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THE CLEANING LADY WHO DIDN’T CLEAN(originally published in a different form in The Buffalo News)


I read THE HELP. I saw THE HELP. Now it’s regularly on Showtime. The female characters resonate with me. Scenes with our household help in the 1950s when I was a little girl roam freelythrough my mind.

One very short cleaning woman, Geraldine, stands out.

Geraldine was an incessant talker, smoker, and bra-strap adjuster. Not only were her bra straps never where they should be and falling on her arms, but she had buttons missing from her blue stained uniforms, which she fastened with safety pins.

She moved upstairs and downstairs with a lit Camel in her mouth. Her ashes fell all over our rugs. She carried a mop and detergents. I don’t remember seeing her use them. She coughed and talked to me.

She told me my mother gave her too much work. My mother complained, not to her face but to anyone who would listen that Geraldine was a slob.

Although I already thought my mother was wrong about most things, I thought she might be right about Geraldine. No matter. I adored her. I needed her.

Unlike my mother and older sister, she did not shut me out. When we talked, we looked into each other’s eyes. If Geraldine were in my class at school, she would have stood one ahead of me in the size-place girl’s line.

“Are you related to Mary?” I asked one afternoon.

“Who’s Mary?” Geraldine said.

“The lady who used to work here.”

“Was Mary colored too?”

I nodded.

“You think we’re all related?” Geraldine asked.

I did. The only black people I came across were women who worked for whites. “Not ‘cuz of that.” I sensed I hurt Geraldine’s feelings. “Mary came by bus, too.”

“Just ‘cuz we’re colored, ride buses, and clean houses, don’t mean we’re related.” Geraldine headed upstairs.

I followed. “I’m sorry.” Sorry I upset the only girl in the house who liked me. Sorrier that she and other colored women had to clean white people’s dirt.

Another day, after I learned that an aunt killed herself, I ran down to the basement, bursting to tell Geraldine. She already knew.

“This world’s too much for some folks.” Coughing, she folded a towel.

I took the lit Camel from her mouth.

“You can’t smoke that, child. Your mama’ll shoot me.”

I put the cigarette under the faucet. “Smoking’s bad for you.” My father had just quit. “My mother wouldn’t care if I smoked. She doesn’t care about anything.”

“Part of your mama’s problems is that she sits around with nothin’ to do.”

My face got hot “She does a lot. She shops and cooks dinner.”

Geraldine looked into my eyes. “She doesn’t have to lift a finger. That’s how come she’s unhappy.”

I ran upstairs. Now Geraldine upset me. I could say what I wanted about my family. An outsider could not. And Geraldine saw and spoke the truth. My mother had problems. Problems too big to hide.

A short time later, Geraldine stopped showing up. She never called. She had not spoken of quitting, finding another job, or having had enough of me. No one fired her. That was what my father said. He thought she was sick, moved to warmer Alabama to live with her son, and did not want us, particularly me, to know.

Unlike Skeeter in THE HELP, who learned why Constantine disappeared, I had no clue why Geraldine left.

Soon after her disappearance, my mother disappeared further inside herself.I did not think Geraldine’s absence caused Mom’s nervous breakdown. I thought I did.

A new cleaning woman, recommended by relatives, came to work. And cleaned. She wore freshly pressed white uniforms, scrubbed our floors, and made our house sparkle, saying “Yes ma’am” to my mother and very little to me. I missed Geraldine.

The new help, Mom, and I moved from room to room, doing what was expected of us. Like blacks and whites, then and now, we had too much or not much to do.

The End


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