Reviews of the movie "The Help" brought back childhood memories to me. In the northern Illinois town where I grew up, it was very common for families of professional men, such as lawyers, doctors and business owners, to have a full-time maid or housekeeper.
It was usually a woman from the sizeable black population that lived on the east side of the river that ran through town. My remembrances of the tall, slender warm and gentle maid who became a vital part of our household are still a cherished part of my childhood in the early 1920s.
Her name was Lavinia. As a 3-year-old, I had trouble pronouncing it and called her "Lalaminia," which she thought was delightful. I still think of her that way today.
She loved working for my mother, because in our house she was treated with respect and affection.
My mother had traveled to many parts of the world over the years and gained regard and understanding of a wide range of people. Racism of any kind simply did not exist in our household.
There were several family stories about dear Lavinia's years with us. One that always amused me was when she was helping my brother wash up and he kept pulling his hands out of the water. She suddenly realized what his problem was. "Don't you worry, Billy, that's fast color," she said in her sweet soft accent.
In addition to a swingset and slide, we had an almost room-size playhouse in our yard that our doting grandmother had bought for us. Mother encouraged Lavinia to bring her children some days to play with us. Some of our neighbors thought that was odd, but if they ever said anything to my mother, I never heard of it. We enjoyed sharing their delight at finding what seemed to them like a park right there in the yard.
As I grew up and attended high school in our town and college in suburban Chicago. I was always frustrated by the superior attitude some of my classmates took toward the students of color from this country and from abroad. Whenever I sensed racist attitudes, I tended to think of it as an insult to my beloved Lalaminia.
It seemed to be a hopeful sign that racism in our country had greatly diminished when we elected a president of mixed race. He, like my grandfather, had one mixed-race parent and one white parent. As I hear him give speeches, whether you agree with his policies or not, he shows himself to be both intelligent and articulate. Unfortunately, it has become clear that he is still up against opposition, some of which is not based on honest policy disagreement, but remnants of our country's persistent racism.
I have often wondered what my great-grandmother, that young mixed-race girl from a Caribbean island who married the plantation owner's son, would think of the extended family of doctors, lawyers, teachers, farmers and business people that have followed as her descendants. I hope she would be proud.