The movie has been out for a while, so I suspect that if you had intended to see The Help, you have done so. I saw it the first weekend of its release, and I was very moved by it. Among other things, I appreciated its depiction of the variety of relationships between whites and blacks during that era. As some of those scenes conveyed, the racist laws and customs of that time were much more cruel and inhumane than many of the white individuals living within that societal culture. With that in mind, I want to share some memories from my childhood…
On many occasions, we’d go to Grandma’s for “Sunday Dinner.”
In our corner of the Shenandoah Valley and in the world my father’s family occupied, Sunday Dinner took place at 1:00 in the afternoon, and turkey was always the main course.
Gathered around Grandma’s dining table, which was dressed in the finest linen and appointed with the best sterling, we’d partake of the meal that was delivered, in courses, by Hurley, Grandma’s cook.
When something was needed between courses, Grandma would ring the silver bell that was just north of her teaspoon. In response to that ring, Hurley would enter the room to receive her request.
Hurley would serve us throughout the meal, and – as a child – I never had a sense of our family collectively hurting Hurley.
In fact, Hurley always felt like family.
… My grandfather, who died 6-7 years before these memories, had founded a prep school in the small Virginia town where we all lived. And that prep school revealed – through its staffing – some southern ways. I didn’t even notice those “ways” until I was 14, which is when I entered the school as a sophomore.
It was a boarding school and so – even though my parents were less than 10 miles away – I boarded there. And so, every morning, my wake-up call came from George.
Every morning, one hundred plus of us adolescent girls would zombie our way down to the dining hall.
Every morning, George was there to make us smile and laugh.
George was awesome.
Into my third and final year at Fairfax, I realized his magic: Within one week of a fall semester, he knew every new girl’s name. Every girl. And he loved the opportunities he had, as Head Waiter, to wake us out of our somnambulant states and get us smiling.
Yes, we were all white, he was black, and something in that picture was terribly wrong, BUT: George loved his job, and we loved George.
… I remember the end of junior year, when my dear friend Barb needed to find a place to store her large reclining chair so that she’d have it for her senior room. There was no logical place to leave it, so she lent it to George for the summer. When we returned for senior year, George told Barb how much he had enjoyed that chair. He loved sitting in the breezeway, just outside the kitchen. Rocking back and forth, enjoying the down time before the fall semester would begin.
Senior year, George spoke of that chair often. And in doing so, his sense of home was apparent.
… The school had been taking losses for years, and so, just at the beginning of the second semester of my senior year, the announcement was made. Fairfax would close with the Class of 1975.
As a member of that class, I felt like a “meanie.” (I remember sharing that very word with a riding instructor, as we were ambling our horses through the woods that were part of the school’s property.) I mean, I already was planning to leave, so what would I care? But… there were others. Underclassmen… Girls who expected to reach their senior years at Fairfax, just as I had.
I wasn’t particularly thinking of the faculty and staff, but they also were looking at an unknown future.
... Graduation came and went. Tears were shed. Then, each of us walked away with our memories and our yearbooks.
Along with just about everyone else, I had asked George to sign my yearbook. And, as he did with others, he proudly pulled out his stamp, drew ink from an ink pad, and squarely filled the space below his picture in the faculty/staff section.
“George E. Stewart,” his stamp said. “Head Waiter.” He also signed his name, just above the stamped section.
George smiled and chatted happily as he met our requests for his autograph.
I don’t know if anyone asked George what was next for him. I know I didn’t. And if others also didn’t, it’s probably because we were more worried about ourselves than we were about him. And that’s not about color, either. Adolescent girls are simply and always more worried about themselves than they are about anyone – or anything – else.
I wish, though, that I could turn back time and find out what George was thinking. I wish someone would have pursued his inner thoughts. But I guess no one did. And later, that summer, George put a bullet through his head.