Thursday, October 6, 2011

The Help: Memories from my Upbringing in Virginia

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.


Anonymous said...

Wow, powerful story. I grew up in the Valley, too, although the Northern end, and didn't start school (public) until the 80s. George sounds like he was an amazing man.

Martha Mawson said...

That's made me cry. George was wonderful, warm, loving and kind. He wasn't the black head waiter, he was our friend. We all loved him dearly.

Jules said...

I think we all had a George in our lives during that time, what a shame we knew no better. And no, I have not seen the movie yet but I'm going to.
Jules @ Trying To Get Over The Rainbow

Sarah Pearson said...

Oh Katie, that last line made me cry.

Sioux said...

What an awful ending to a wonderful vignette.

Su said...

I'm currently reading the book. And this story makes me so sad.

Lisa Ricard Claro said...

Wow. Your last sentence WAS a bullet. How sad.

I just finished reading "The Help" today and plan to see the movie. I grew up in New England, so things were different in a lot of ways.

Anonymous said...

I read 'The Help' a year or so ago and have recommended it to friends and family ever since. I hadn't realised you had grown up in such a world. I was stunned by the last line, so final. Poor George. If you were writing this as a novel perhaps your friend would have let him keep the rocker and he would have been given a sum of money to settle himself with and seen out his days sitting on a porch somewhere, watching the world go by. Alas, maybe that's why we like writing novels - we can make the world a better place in our imaginations.
I always seem to have so much to say when I respond to your posts - which says a lot for the power of them...

Linda Medrano said...

What a story, Katie! My god, that was powerful! I grew up in San Francisco in the late 50's and early 60's. Black and white people were fairly integrated when I was coming up. I do recall going to a prom with a black guy when I was a junior in high school. It didn't even raise eyebrows.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the rundown. I didn't make it to the movie. I used to see movies with my son who is away doing his Army thing now.

I didn't know you were a Campaigner. We must be in different groups. How's it working for you?

Mel said...

I was smiling along with you as you triggered my memories of lighthearted, perpetually cheerful and good natured George in his bow tie and a linen napkin over his arm. Katie, I had NO IDEA that happened. I've had the shock of my week. I'm so deeply dismayed by this sad news, albeit old news.

taterbelle said...

A sweet, sweet soul and a true gentleman. I know I was not alone in my affection for George. I used to stop and chat with him between meals at the back door of the kitchen. I was very shy, but he made me feel comfortable and cared for. He was always smiling, always kind. He chose to love us. But it would have been understandable if he had chosen to resent us instead.

How early did he have to get up to be there at breakfast, and how late in the evenings did he arrive at his own home after serving our dinner? I never gave it a second thought then.

I must have known of his suicide because reading it now does not feel new. But I had blocked it from memory.

Now, it's back. As it should be.

Thanks, Katie.

Pat Marlin said...

I am so glad my friend from Fairfax sent this link to me. What truth and sadness in your words. Thank you for that memory of a time I wish was past.

Nelda Nordberg said...

George was a first year waiter in my senior year-1958. He was so cute! But I knew better than to befriend him. Randolph was a first cousin of very dear friends from Connecticut who moved to Waynesboro and recommended Fairfax to our Dad over Stuart Hall. These friends of course knew to cross the street if they saw us coming. They knew we would fly into their arms for hugs and memories. We would all have gotten into deep sneakers! Maybe you may have heard of our friend. William W. Perry an elementary school named in his honor.

val Kangail said...

wow...loved reading the story and triggered many memories of fairfax (class of '71) and very powerful extremely sad ending! thanks for sharing this well written piece. val kangail '71

Shannon said...

This was beautifully written - but so sad! Poor George. It always makes me sad to think about how lonely someone may be, even when they're surrounded by other people.

karen said...

Thanks for sharing your thoughts.....I was one of the Freshman 7 the year they announced FH was closing. I know, it's been a long time, but I can recall my shock and pain almost as if it happened yesterday. George was part of the family I lost that May. What a beautiful person....I'm SO sad he took his own life, hope he is at peace.