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More Than Help

August 17, 2011

I saw the film “The Help” with 4 friends last week. None of them were Southern and discussing with them how things used to be is a whole other blog. The week before that, I read the book in a 2-day marathon as the story was so compelling that I couldn’t put it down.  Very few works of fiction have held my attention in that way. For me, I think that the book was a real page-turner because (1) first and foremost, I am Southern – a true G.R.I.T. (girl raised in the South) (2) I lived in Mississippi off and on during my childhood and (3) my family had “help” during one of those times living in Mississippi.  Her name was Bessie Mae – and she was my best friend the summer of 1964.

Unlike the ladies of Jackson in “The Help” my mother worked – something very unusual at that time. So, Bessie Mae wasn’t a luxury – she was a necessity.  One of the things that I remember about her is that she was an amazing cook.  And she, along with my maternal grandmother and paternal grandfather illustrated to my young, impressionable mind the importance of food to strengthening bonds between people. How did she do this?  By seeming to enjoy being in the kitchen as she prepared something yummy for my family to enjoy.  She’d sing, allow my sister and me to be her sous chefs, joke, laugh – you get the picture.  Kitchen time with Bessie Mae was joy time.

The other thing that is a sweet memory is her effectiveness as a teacher – only I wasn’t aware that was what she was doing and she probably wasn’t as well. It was Bessie Mae who helped me learn and remember the different states of the Union as we’d sit on the wall on our property that faced Beach Boulevard in Long Beach, Mississippi.  We’d play a game where the first one to see a car with out of state plates would punch – lightly, of course – the one who didn’t. Good times.

But, the thing I remember and miss the most about her is the way she opened her heart.  I felt loved, cared about, important and safe with her. Her hugs were sincere and transmitted the depths of her being.  Small children like that.

I only saw her once after that summer and early fall of 1964 as my family moved to Birmingham, Alabama in October of that year. She had taken a job at the local Best Western Motel café and when she saw me, I felt as if I’d “come home.” Her reaction to seeing me after several years had passed was one of elation.  I once again felt so loved, cared about and important in her presence and hold her reaction to the surprise of my presence and existence as a very dear, cherished memory in my heart.  She may have been “the help,” but the services she provided to me, in particular, were none that money could ever buy. Thank you, Bessie Mae – you are remembered with great love, affection and gratitude.

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