Saturday, August 28, 2010

The Help

I swear to you, I was planning to blog about some knitting today but I just finished the book The Help and I am too consumed by it to think of anything else right now.

You see, when I was a very young child, my grandmother had "help". Her name was Inez and I called her Nezzie. And I worshiped her.

My grandmother was what would come to be known as "new money" and, I must add, it was very short term money. Which I actually admire about her. She spent her shekels on things that made her happy. She loved fast sports cars and she loved to move. I think that, in some ways, a new home was always a new beginning for her.

But this post isn't about her. It's about Nezzie.

Nezzie was the first black person I ever met. Actually, I never didn't know her. As a young child, she was always there--always a part of my life. She was my grandmother's housekeeper but to my sister and me, she was so much more. I can still hear her voice every time we pulled into Nanny's very long driveway in Pelham laughing and shouting "Lord, here come Bonnie and Clyde" (my sister and I were not criminals but we were certainly quite lively). Nezzie is one of my earliest memories and, at the most, I was just barely pushing three years old.

Most of my early memories are incidental. I remember the green rug in the study in Nanny and Poppy's house. I remember sitting on Grandpa's lap in his chair in the window in Brooklyn. I remember the hard, little, stuffed Pekingese toy dog that someone gave me as a child that I carried around everywhere (having very originally named him Pekie).

But my memories of Nezzie are like movies. And to this day, they stir all of my senses. I remember her carrying me up the stairs for a nap and sitting with me until I fell asleep, which, of course I fought because I didn't want to miss a minute of anything. I remember going to visit her and her husband Willis in Mount Vernon. The lived on the second floor of a house and there was a small gate at the top of the stairs to keep their mean little dog Brutus in the house. Brutus probably wasn't really mean. He was probably old and tired and didn't appreciate a four-year-old who wanted nothing more in the world than to play with him but I do remember him barking at me. He never even so much as nipped at me but I was pretty well convinced that he didn't really like me.

And Nezzie had a princess phone. A white one. With gold trim on it. And it didn't have a coiled plastic cord like our phone at home did--it had a long, straight, woven canvas covered cord and, to this day, I think it may be the most elegant thing I've ever seen.

And she had the kindest hands. I think that may be the one thing that I still have of Nezzie's is the lessons she taught me, without actually teaching me, about what your hands can do. They were never cold. They were always strong. And I think that they may have set a very good example for me. The only other person I know with those kind of hands is my father. So I think my own hands are the product of both nature and nurture. Like both Nezzie and Pop, I can soothe a crying baby. Calm an upset child. Rub lotion just right on the burn that Nanny had on her back from the radiation treatments after she was diagnosed with cancer. I'm proud of my hands but am also humbled by the knowledge that I learned how to use them from two of the best. And, after a really cool moment with my wonderful friend Lori a few years ago, I learned how to appreciate and acknowledge the passive satisfaction (not sure if that is the word I am looking for) of using my hands--with kindness and love--on other people. You see when you give someone a massage or scratch their back or carry them to their crib, they are experiencing an active sensation. But at the same time, your fingers--as they rub or scratch or carry--are experiencing a passive sensation that, if you pay attention to it, is quite lovely.

The thing that I remember most about Nezzie is her smell. I can smell it sitting here tonight at my computer as if she just left the room. It was an earthy smell with a little bit of cocoa butter to it. I've never, ever been able to identify any of the other elements of it. And, as a small child, I thought that that was what black people smelled like.

Now please don't think that this has anything to do with race. My mother's mother (Nanny) wore Miss Dior. So I assumed that that was what everyone's mother's mother smelled like. My father's mother (Grandma) lived in a row house in Brooklyn that always smelled vaguely of gas stove and gravy. So I assumed that that was what everyone's father's mother smelled like. I thought the song Crocodile Rock was about my sister because she was the only person I knew named Susie.

I was three years old so my universe was really limited to less than a dozen people. Several years later I learned about racism. That is my first memory of being righteously indignant but that's another story.

As all good children do, we grow up, a little bit more every day. And our world expands. And, because of Nezzie, I used to surreptitiously sniff black people. By the time I was five, Nanny and Poppy had moved to Florida and Nezzie had retired and I missed her smell. Billy Collins tells the story of the disappointments a child experiences as they grow older in his poem "On Turning 10". And learning that I may never actually smell that smell again was a tough lesson to learn as a kid.

About a dozen years ago, I was on line at a clothing store at Cross County and there, right in front of me on line, was that smell. And it was paradise. And I inhaled deeply. And grinned. And the women in front of me turned around and looked at me like I was a lunatic. But I was so taken by her smell that I told her the whole story and she started to laugh--in a good way--and we were best friends for five minutes until we took our clothes and left the store.

On the Sunday night after Thanksgiving in 1999 my Aunt Kitty died. She was Nanny's sister and lived right downstairs from me. On that Monday, I took my key and went down to her apartment to find her address book to see who needed to still be called. Aunt Kitty was old and most of her friends were gone but there, in her leather address book that she had for her whole life, were Inez and Willis. So I called to tell them that say that she had gone. Willis answered the phone and when I told him who I was, I could hear his grin through the line. He said "Hello Bonnie, how's Clyde?" and laughed.

I cautiously asked if my Nezzie was still alive and he told me yes, she was still with us, but her mind was gone. But he did promise that he would tell her that I had called and that Kitty had passed over. I hope that she remembered that way that her hands felt when she carried me up the stairs in the same way that I remember the way that my body felt being carried in her lovely hands.

And I hoped that she remembered my smell.

1 comment:

Gracey is not my name.... said...

That was lovely and brought tears to my eyes...