Buckhead Tales: The Help

Dear Reader, I don’t know how to write this story. I’ve been trying for 2 months but I just start and stop, start and stop. Just can’t seem to get my head around it all. As soon as I get a paragraph down on my paper it seems so clueless. I guess that’s really it, I’m just clueless about all of this. Don’t really know what I’m talking about since I’m so close to it. I’ve decided to just throw it all out there and hope I’m not judged too harshly for my fragmented thoughts from a throne of privilege. This is a ragged story and I don’t know how to clean it up. I just don’t know how. Can’t tell the whole story, but I can tell some of it. Here goes.

My dad died 4 years ago. He was driving a golf cart through the retirement community where he lived in Mt. Pleasant, South Carolina. I’m pretty sure he got the brake pedal mixed up with the accelerator and before you could blink an eye he had crashed into a wooden fence. He told me he was swerving to avoid a child but I’m pretty sure that wasn’t true. All kinds of bruises and a broken leg put him in the hospital. He was gone to the Great Beyond within a week. My mom cursed that golf cart every day until she died a year later. I was there with her the last few days. She told me not to cry, that we would see each other again. That made me cry even harder. I don’t believe in a “life after,” but I sure hope it turns out to be true. I would like to be with her again. I miss her.

After what my dad used to call “the Second Death” I ended up with boxes of scrapbooks and assorted documents they had saved over the years. It was a full year before I could bring myself to open those crates and start sorting through things. There were marriage certificates, college diplomas, elementary school transcripts, notes, letters, newspaper clippings and really just about everything they thought was worth saving over 70 years of marriage. I would pick up each item and try to decide whether to keep it or throw it away. Some of them brought up memories which would lead to a weird sadness and sometimes tears. I was looking at the flotsam of their life, which was my life also. The 1950s, the ‘60s, the ‘70s. 15 trips to England. There were cassette tapes, scribbled inquiries, and notes for their innumerable visits to psychics here and abroad. I’ll get into all my mom’s psychic life in another chapter.

I would usually bog down after 2 or 3 hours of deep diving into the past, emotionally drained. It might be another 3 or 4 weeks before I would venture again into that dark well of the past. During one of the sessions, I spied a folded program, like the kind they hand out at weddings and funerals. I pulled it out, turned it over, and saw the picture of Cora Duncan. It was from her memorial service.

From the time of my birth and for the next 20 years I only knew a small handful of people that weren’t white. Anyone that wasn’t white was The Other. From kindergarten through 7th grade at Sarah Rawson Smith Elementary and then on to Dykes High I was never in a classroom that was not 100% white. Lily White was the term used back then. Wieuca Road Baptist Church, which we attended three times a week, was also 100% white. I asked my dad, a deacon, about it once and he tried to explain it to me. “They probably wouldn’t feel comfortable” was his explanation. Dad was a good man, you might call even call him a straight arrow. Pretty much all the people at my church and my school were good people. But our bubble was only rarely pierced by Those People. We heard stories about Them but didn’t know any. Nobody was burning crosses on lawns and the Klan was no longer riding free in Atlanta in the ‘60s. They had moved out to the rural areas by then, but the unspoken rules were clearly understood by everyone. You of different pigment just don’t fit in with church or our school. You would probably feel better if you kept with your own kind.

I never thought too much about it, I just accepted the way things were. It had always been that way for a long long time. Mind you, from 1963–1968 I was in high school while the country was being rocked by the great upheaval of the Civil Rights Movement. Freedom Riders, dead children in a Birmingham church, Malcolm X slain, Edmund Pettus Bridge, Martin Luther King dead, sit-ins, fire hoses, attack dogs, riots, murders, shallow graves, the Klan. None of this affected my day to day life. It was just something I saw on the news. Now I wonder what my parents thought. They certainly believed in equality but when it got right down to it that didn’t help too much. Equality was one thing, equity was quite another.

OK, let’s cut to the chase and get back to Cora Duncan. She was our maid and must have been in her 50s. She came to our house every Friday for over 10 years. I don’t really know where she lived, only that it was on the other side of downtown Atlanta. We lived out in Buckhead so there is no telling how early she had to get up to catch the bus. My mom would pick her up at 8:30 in the morning at the Big Apple supermarket at the corner of Powers Ferry and Roswell Road.

When they got to our house Cora would change clothes, putting on a gray work dress she asked mom to buy for her. I don’t know her cleaning routine but when I got home from school at 3:30 she was down to the ironing. The ironing board would be set up in the TV room and she would iron my dad’s shirts while she watched her soap operas. She could handle that iron like it was a magic wand. Sometimes I would sit there just to hear the hiss of the steam coming off that hot metal. We called her “Cora,” never “Mrs. Duncan.” White women were called Mrs. This or Ms. That. Cora, and I bet all the others who came to work on our side of town, were always referred to by their first names only. I guess that was one of those unwritten rules.

Cora worked for 3 or 4 white families in North Atlanta every week. She told us we were the nicest family she worked for. That made us feel really good about ourselves. We prided ourselves about being one of the good families that treated our help so well. I guess she might have told that to all her employers, if I were her I sure would have. No telling what cultural backflips she had to do to skate through the White World. Dad always said my mom and Cora had a “special relationship.” Not so sure how special it was for Cora. For decades I clung to the solace that they had been able to transcend race. All that talk of specialness in the midst of what was actually going down seems a little self-serving now. It did make us feel better about the situation so you can add that to the list of privileges we enjoyed. The privilege of not having to feel guilty or responsible.

I had a passing knowledge of all the help that populated my friends’ houses. There was Ellie Mae, Trudy, and Grace. We never knew any of their male family members, but I know they had husbands, brothers, and sons. My buddy Mark had a lady who came to his mom’s house three times a week. She had a son in prison and Mark would give her old Fish & Stream magazines to take to him in the pokey. I remember her acting all appreciative and thankful. We felt pretty good about ourselves for being such good boys. The male membership of Those People did not even get first names. It was nicknames only; Snowball, Shug, Peanut, Rat. I never met them, but we knew what to call them.

I have no idea what Cora’s life was like, but she knew all about mine. Never saw her house, never met her children. I knew nothing of where she was born or raised. I do know she was a devout member of her church. She was dignified in a way I had never seen before. I’m sure she knew things that no one else in my life knew.

These days I have more life regret not about things I did but rather what I didn’t do. If I could climb into a time machine I would go back to a Friday afternoon in 1967. I would walk in the back door at my parent’s house on Millbrook Drive and listen for that iron hissing in the TV room. Rounding the corner, she would be standing there, Mrs. Duncan. I would sit my little white butt on that Corinthian leather couch, shut up, and maybe learn something.

Jim Tate
Author, Buckhead Tales

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