When My Parents Were Help to The Help

08/10/2011 05:38 pm ET | Updated Oct 10, 2011

We moved to the house on West Richie Parkway just before the assassination of JFK, which was one of my very first memories. (I was a year younger than Caroline, who was the age of my sister Sandra.). I remember my parents transfixed by the television, my mother in tears for three days. She cried less for what Kennedy represented for her as an American than what Jackie Kennedy represented for her a young widow. The country had lost a president, but Jackie had lost a husband and father to her children. My mother could easily project herself in the same position, and it made her shudder. (My father always wore a seat belt after that.)

For my part, I was fascinated by the boots in the stirrups on the riderless horse, which faced backwards. It's a military tradition in the funerals of illustrious commanders, symbolizing the fallen warrior who will never ride again, looking back at his troops. I couldn't get around the backwards part, not understanding the symbolism. I understood why there was no rider, but if there were, I kept pointing out, he would have to wear the boots backwards, and short of the most excruciating foot-binding, I could not see how this could be done.

Looking back at such a preoccupation, I think it evidence of my being both a smart and somewhat odd child, for other strange and inconsequential things bothered me inordinately as well. For example, how our cleaning ladies did their job. We had two of them, Mary and Nancy, a pair of sisters who alternated their weekly visits. As children often do, I felt it necessary to choose a favorite, and mine was Nancy. She had the same name as my favorite Aunt, and I thought Mary used too much Windex. When I pointed this out to her so she got irritated at being told how to do her job, and I took umbrage at her taking umbrage at me.

What I probably picked up on was that Mary spent an inordinate amount of time at the windows. My Mom later told me she noticed that Mary always seemed to be on the lookout for when the garbage was picked up, volunteering to take it down to the curb, but waiting until the last minute, so she could meet up and flirt with the men just as they pulled up with the truck. Maybe that's why Mary didn't want me hanging around when she did the windows.

Nancy was older than Mary. I think she liked working for a Frenchwoman, even if they had to strain to understand each other through their respective accents. My mother had none of the baggage around race that would have informed almost any other relationship Nancy had with a white employer raised near the Mason-Dixon Line. As a stranger in a strange land, my mother saw everyone as American first, and black or white second. (I would have a similar experience in France years later, finding myself quite unable to understand the prejudices the French had against Algerians.)

One day, Nancy came to work in tears, unable not to cry in front of my mother. "They gonna take Mary's kids away," she sobbed. My mother immediately called my father at the office. When my Dad came home, my Mom and he pieced together that the conditions at Mary's house were such the Department of Social Services was considering removing the children.

My father wasn't entirely surprised. Every time he drove Mary home, she'd asked him to drop her off at the end of the road, preferring that he did not see where she lived. Nancy, however, he took to the door of her small but respectable house. While Mary's problems were inextricably related to her socio-economic status, they also went beyond it. "Men" was the one-word explanation from Nancy.

Whatever Mary's responsibility for her woes, my mother knew what it was like to be an unmarried mother. My father had saved her from her status of "fallen woman" a mere decade before. The one thing she could not do was judge Mary. The important thing was that they were both mothers. She couldn't stand by and do nothing to prevent Mary's kids from being taken away. That weekend, my parents decided to try to make her house presentable for a home visit from the County.

What it must have been for Mary's neighbors to see this white couple descend on Mary's shack -- for that was the only word for it, according to my father -- armed with all manner of bucket and bleach to clean the house of their cleaning lady. Her children stared completely wide-eyed at these ghostly apparitions. This was definitely not like TV.

My parents found it hard to describe how horrific the conditions were at Mary's. My father spoke of seeing a copperhead snake under the house, my mother of excrement on the walls. They swept, mopped, scrubbed, folded, threw away -- as if a hundred band-aids could effectively patch a thousand cuts. It was a deep, scary poverty there.

By Sunday night, my parents were physically exhausted and emotionally drained, haunted by the sense of relief that came over them as they drove away, as if they'd just finished visiting a loved one in prison. You might say you'd switch places if you could, but you'd be lying.

After the social workers visited, my mother was contacted to testify in court. I bet the judge was no less astonished to hear of her efforts than Mary's neighbors were to see them, even if he later recounted that story over martinis in a big house in Glenora Hills, rather down at the neighborhood barber shop.

I remember my mother when she came home from court, because she had on an outfit she normally only wore to church, with a hat and everything. She was very somber, her eyes red from crying. She sat on the stairs and drew me close to her, and the tears started to flow again. Like most children, I found it alarming when my mother cried. I don't know how much she told me then and how much I learned in subsequent re-tellings. I do know, because I know my Mom, that she went over and over her testimony in her head, wondering if she could have or should have said anything different. There are ways to shade the truth.

When she told this story later, my mother always said: "The idea of losing a child was unimaginable to me," to explain why she intervened in Mary's behalf. But was that the right reason for Mary to keep her children, if the children were better off elsewhere? The willingness to help Mary was admirable, certainly, but also, on some level I think it was my mother's attempt to indemnify herself against the possibility of future loss. See God, I am doing all I can so that Mary keeps her kids, that means you can never take mine from me.

In fact, the idea of losing a child wasn't really unimaginable at all. My mother imagined it very well, for when it eventually happened, it turned out to be just like she imagined it would be.

Strangely enough, the part of this story my mother no longer remembers is whether or not Mary's kids were removed from her home . I take this hole in her memory as proof that they were. If they weren't, there would have been nothing she needed to forget.

I believe we have a boundless capacity for love, but not for pain. If we could keep feeling more pain, we'd never make it through life. We'd lie down in a corner and our hearts would simply burst from it. So maybe we displace some earlier hurts to make space for new ones. I would bet my mother forgot the outcome of Mary's story around the time my brother Luke died. She had to make a lot of room for all that new pain.

I wonder what Mary felt when Kennedy was assassinated. Were politics too far removed from the gritty day-to-day of her life? Could she identify with Jackie's grief, or did she resent the outpouring of support, the kind she'd never received when the fathers of her children had died or abandoned her? Mary had to make room for her pain too.

I wonder if we can ever assume to know what anyone else is feeling based on what we'd feel in the same situation. Perhaps, as my mother scrubbed her floors, Mary thought she was a fool. As if she didn't know how to clean a house.

Like that was the problem.