Monday, August 22, 2011

More Than Just "The Help"

It’s not often a novel effects me emotionally, but after reading Kathryn Stockett’s beautifully written debut novel The Help,
(now a perfectly adapted major motion picture starring Emma Stone and Viola Davis) I couldn’t stop thinking about one person inparticuliar.

Growing up in a middle class section of Queens, New York during the 1970’s, my neighborhood was exclusively white. The only black people I had exposure to either worked at the local warehouse or appeared on TV, and the only maid I ever knew was Florence on The Jeffersons. But after my grandmother, my father’s mother, suffered a stroke and became paralyzed, she needed a nurse to help care for her - enter Mrs. Green.

I was four years old when I met Mrs. Green. She was the first black person I intimately knew and instantly took a liking to her. Mrs. Green was always perfectly put together in her crisp, clean, starched white nursing uniform. She spoke in a soft velvety voice, always presented an engaging smile and thanks to an endless supply of Vaseline Intensive Care hand lotion, had hands as soft as silk. Hands that I became far too familiar with, because whenever I visited my grandmother, Mrs. Green would greet me by squeezing my cheeks and calling me Smiley.

My grandmother passed away when I was eight years old, and just like that Mrs. Green was gone as well. I didn’t see her again until several years later at another family members’ funeral.

As soon as my father informed me of Mrs. Green’s arrival, I swiftly made my way through the throngs of relatives at the funeral home to say hello. She recognized me instantly, and once again greeted me by squeezing my now thirteen year old cheeks as she joyfully declared, “Smiley.” Her welcome felt like an old favorite sweater; warm and comfortable. Instantly, I wrapped my arms around her and engulfed her with a great big hug and kiss.

As I said goodbye, one of my cousins grabbed me and in a rather derogatory tone asked me why I would kiss a black woman. Perplexed, I quickly explained, “That was Mrs. Green.” But still, I was met with disapproving eyes. I was absolutely stunned and in hindsight, now realize that was the moment I first experienced the ignorance and horror of racism.

Mrs. Green had cared for my grandmother for four years, five days a week, providing a much needed service that no family member was capable of or skilled to carry out. She was dedicated, respectful, kind and generous. She ate meals with my family, became a part of our conversations, and was always present during my weekly visits with my grandmother.

I’m not sure if Mrs. Green knew it, and honestly, until becoming enthralled in the pages of The Help, I never gave it much thought myself, but it was Mrs. Green who taught me one of life’s most valuable lessons. Thanks to Kathryn Stocketts’ thought provoking novel, I realized it was Mrs. Green who taught me to see beyond the color of a person’s skin and to accept everyone as equal.

I have no clue where Mrs. Green is today or if she’s even still alive, but I would be terribly remiss if I didn’t thank her for demonstrating that powerful lesson to me. So wherever you are Mrs. Green, I want you to know that I will forever remember your kindness, your affection and your incredibly soft hands with much adoration and always with a smile.