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Article: Memories of Ollie, the ‘help’

September 29, 2011

Not me! A picture from the movie "The Help"

My brother, two sisters and I would never have described Ollie as a “nanny-maid.” Ollie was just Ollie, the woman who cleaned house, cooked and “watched the children” weekdays at our house. She was on duty in the house, which was upstairs, while Mom ran the Culligan office, which was downstairs. We knew we weren’t rich enough to have a real maid; it was just less expensive to have “help” upstairs than it was to have a paid office manager downstairs.

Memories of Ollie came flooding back to me when I read the novel The Help about the maids in Jackson, Mississippi, in the early 1960s and their racist employers who thought of them as less than human even though they entrusted their child care to them. I thought the book was excellent. I’ve known Southern women—Black and white—like those in the book. And the book made me wonder: What did Ollie think about us and her job? Did we kids help fill a void for Ollie, who was a divorcee and had no children? Who would I be if there hadn’t been an Ollie in my life?

For now, I’ll just relate some memories and leave the philosophizing for later.

Ollie was “with us” four or five days a week from the time I was two until she died from a stroke when I was seven. I think she earned four dollars a day, the going rate at the time for housekeepers.

Ollie appeared like clockwork every morning right after we had breakfast (Mom always cooked eggs, sausage or bacon, and toast) and just before Dad drove the school kids in the family to school on his way to the post office to pick up the business mail. Ollie was bigger than Dad, who was a pretty big guy. She was maybe almost 6 feet tall and 250 pounds (or is that just in my memory?) and wore a cotton house dress and a big white apron every day. She was milk chocolate brown and had a big smile and a big frown, and wore lots of little braids pinned to her head.

Ollie had a routine for her day and a routine for her week. She cleaned, washed and dried dishes and clothes, ironed and fixed a nice big noon meal (for Mom, herself and any kids at home) with enough leftovers for the family supper. She dressed and bathed kids. After my sister was born, she diapered and gave bottles and rocked. She refereed kid fights, wiped noses and kissed skinned knees.  Like Mom, she expected us kids to make our beds and do some chores. She checked on us kids when we were playing outside in the sand box and riding our vehicles up and down the sidewalk. She kept an eye on my older sister, who was mentally and physically handicapped, and seemed to know what Ginny Sue could and could not be expected to understand. And she took breaks on the upstairs porch, smoking a quick cigarette, which she learned to shred, by the way, after she caught me finishing her smokes when I was four. She did not drive; Mom did all the shopping and errands.

Ollie’s house was down the street and literally across the railroad tracks in a little neighborhood of “colored people” who worked for the white people further away. We and maybe one other home in the neighborhood had “help.”

I don’t think any of the Black families had a car. They walked or maybe caught rides and took taxis. There were no city buses. All their white wood frame homes were tiny with chairs on the front porches,  black screen doors and small yards with flowers. Ollie’s house was dark inside and she had knick knacks on little shelves, which fascinated me because our mother wasn’t into decorating or sentiment.

Ollie introduced us just a little to the “colored folks.” A few times she put Mary Ann and me in the wagon and took us down to Miss Lily and Mr. Jim’s house. On the way we’d stop and pick violets, which sparked my love of wild flowers. Mr. Jim was the retired superintendent of the “colored school,” which was up the hill from our white school and got our cast off textbooks. He’d limp past our house pushing his wheelbarrow many days, and all the neighbor kids would call hello to him. Miss Lily was his wife. I recall my parents talking about what a nice, intelligent man he was and wondering why he had to work so hard as an old man. This was perhaps my first awakening to the unfairness of the Black lot in life.

I don’t recall Ollie ever “playing” with us, although she would interact with us while she did her housework. Of course, adults didn’t play with kids in those days. They expected kids to entertain themselves. I think she sometimes pulled us on the sheets when she changed beds once a week.  And she called me Popeye because I loved spinach.

Ollie gave us big fleshy hugs and occasionally swats or spankings. She wasn’t supposed to slap us on the face, but she occasionally did, saying tightly: “Don’t you back talk me.” To this day I can’t stand to see people hit children on the head; it’s so demeaning. She gave two or three of us girls a bath in the tub and toweled us off with a vigorous towel rub that I still use today. She taught me to tie my shoes when I was four. I can still see her big dark hands over my little white hands tying and tying as we sat on the porch. She was as delighted as I was when I could tie my shoes.

As a preschooler, I’d protest that I didn’t need a nap, but Ollie would set the stove timer and make me lie in bed and “rest yo bones.” So I’d walk my feet up and down the wall. And she’d ignore me. A few times she put four  barrettes in my hair in front, trying to keep the flyaway hair under control. Mom didn’t like that. Every morning on school days, I remember Ollie and Mom jerking our hats and coats and boots on us, trying to get us out the door to school.

Ollie always gave us Christmas presents despite her meager income. One year she said she was going to give me a box filled with Scotch tape because I was always using all the tape on projects. I actually believed her and was quite disappointed when my box did not contain tape.

Ollie told my sister: “The she bears in the attic’ll get you if you be bad.” So my sister was really good. Ollie always said thunder was God’s potatoes falling out of the wheelbarrow, and I still think it sounds like potatoes. And she called a stomach a bread basket and would maybe blow a raspberry on a bread basket when toweling us off.

Ollie was not a shy servant type. She loved for people to brag on her cooking and wasn’t above asking for compliments. She especially loved a minister named Archie because he bragged so much on her fried chicken. Come to think of it, I don’t know where Ollie ate. I suppose she ate in the kitchen as she cooked or after the family ate.

Mom was actually relieved when Ollie died because Ollie had become short tempered in her last months and Mom didn’t know how to handle her behavior. I imagine Ollie had high blood pressure that was untreated.  To me, when Ollie died, it was like a relative died. There was a big hole in my life.

I went to the “colored funeral home” with my dad and maybe my sister, feeling very small and white and quiet. I think I remember a dark interior, Black people crying and the sweet smell of flowers.  I don’t know why just two or three of us went. I imagine Mom didn’t think Ginny Sue could handle the emotion of the event. Black people were buried on the other side of the fence at the town’s cemetery. We never visited the grave–never thought about it. I don’t know if that is where she is buried or if there is even a marked grave.

I grew up hearing stories about the housekeepers before Ollie. There was Mary Bee, a tiny Black woman who brought her fishing pole to work so she could catch fish on the way home and who opened cans with a hatchet. (I was disappointed in recent years to find out she used a can opener at our house.) Our family (and now our extended family) has a saying that we picked up from Mary Bee. When somebody does something they should have done all along, we say: “I says it’s about time.” That’s what Mary Bee said about her daughter finally getting married after giving birth to a couple of children.  The last straw with Mary Bee was when Dad caught her wiping somebody’s nose with a dishrag; he let her go. There was a young white woman who took care of me as a baby and fed me only sweet foods. Mom let her go when my healthy baby food was found in the garbage can. After hearing these kinds of stories, I always felt safe with Ollie. Lucky to have her.

We had several housekeepers after Ollie, from the time I was seven until I was 11 and we moved to the farm, but none of them ever loved us the way she did. None knew where our toys or belongings went or how Mom liked the mop wrung out or what our favorite foods were or how to make the best fried chicken. None of them had “been with us” while we grew up. We never felt close to them. They were mostly just housekeepers.

There was only one Ollie.

(P.S. I wish I had written this while Mom was still alive so she could help me with more details.)

The photo, from the movie “The Help,” does remind me of Ollie’s house.

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6 Comments leave one →
  1. Greta permalink
    September 29, 2011 8:19 am

    Wonderful story Julie. I have those kinds of memories about my grandmothers. They filled in and helped a lot. Especially when I would go home with them for the summers and not want to leave…

  2. September 29, 2011 11:03 am

    This was great! I’ve never heard the whole story all together like that. More stories! 🙂

  3. October 4, 2011 1:17 pm

    I didn’t know you and MaryAnne had such an “exotic” childhood! Loved the story!

  4. October 7, 2011 12:10 am

    Loved reading this, Julie. I watched “The Help” with my daughter and we also picked up the book but I haven’t read it yet. Very good for the most part, I enjoyed the emphasis of strong nanny roles though I felt some of the white characters were too contrived/stereotyped but perhaps justly so. It’s a life that feels very foreign to me… interesting that you actually lived it!

    • October 16, 2011 5:40 pm

      Well, Amy, we weren’t at the income level of those people. And Mom was a businesswoman, not a high society woman like those in “The Help.” So I lived part of it. 😉 Thanks for posting!

  5. November 4, 2011 1:28 pm

    Fascinating memories, Julie! Thanks for sharing. I chuckle while picturing you finishing off the cigarettes 🙂

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