I asked for help, and she came

August 30, 2011 

I fear I've missed a lucrative writing opportunity. Kathryn Stockett's best selling novel "The Help," and now the movie, are raking in megabucks. Though I'm too late to make money from it, I, too, have a story to tell.

I began teaching in Virginia in 1978, and it soon became obvious that I needed help managing a household with two children, a dog and a husband, along with my professional commitments. That's when good luck and a referral brought Evvy into our household.

Evvy was of a certain age, black, and unmarried. She hailed from a Virginia county outside Washington, D.C., and shared a tiny apartment with a sister. Neither had a car. Her background was rural poor and her formal education sketchy. She worked six days a week, sometimes seven, cleaning houses.

From the outside looking in, Evvy's life seemed to me a hard daily grind without much reward. Yet, she found satisfaction in her job. She considered herself a professional although she would never have used that word to describe herself. In the theory of multiple intelligences, hers was cleaning. She loved to put things in order and to see them sparkle. Polishing silver was a favorite task; she savored the shiny difference she made.

Evvy fully supported herself, no small feat in the expensive Washington suburbs. Despite her need to budget carefully, she bought generous gifts for her extended family and clients. At Christmas, she always brought us a loaf of banana bread made from expensive ingredients she wouldn't buy for herself, large navel oranges, and small gifts for each of us.

One evening, she told me about an incident that made an impression on me. She was browsing during the Christmas season in an upscale specialty shop, looking at a music box with a porcelain angel on top. As she described the music box to me, I watched her smile and the enchantment in her eyes. Observing her delight, a fellow shopper, a man, approached her, and she told him of the joy she felt looking at the angel's perfect face. Surely, the angel was contemplating God, she said. This man, a total stranger in the middle of busyness and expense of Christmas, bought the music box for her.

Even though she could barely read, Evvy sought to understand the world around her by asking questions. "Miz Lane, can you tell me how electricity works?' she would ask or "Can you tell me what toothpaste is made of?" She agonized over atrocities reported in the news, always asking, "What's wrong with people?"

Evvy, like all of us, had her idiosyncrasies. Perhaps because she spent each day alone, she talked non-stop once I arrived home. She seemed never to immediately recall my name, beginning most conversations with "Miz Neal, uh Miz Cohen, er, I mean Miz Lane...." She dusted the furniture in the dark. For a while, she faithfully watered a silk floral arrangement on top of the piano. Despite my urgings that she had done enough, she would not leave our house until "perfection" prevailed.

In "The Help," the maids are portrayed as the backbone of Southern households. So, I ask, what was Evvy to us? Although we cared for her and hoped for the best for her future, I can't say that she became like a member of our family. Nor did I view her as a friend, although she was as dependable as one, and we shared many laughs about household incidents together.

I do, however, recognize and appreciate the contributions she made to my life. Because of Evvy, my weekends and evenings were less encumbered--free for family times. Because of Evvy, our house was always clean and presentable. Through Evvy, I saw that lack of education, opportunity and money do not have to tarnish appreciation of beauty, anticipation of joy, and hope for a kinder world.

So even though I'm not getting rich writing about Evvy, I am grateful to Kathryn Stockett for writing The Help. It reminded me of the intense social issues of the 1960s and led me to do something I had not done - to spend time seeing life from Evvy's point of view. My admiration and respect for her grew.

Because of Evvy, I was a better wife, mother and professional.

Wanda Lane lives in Sun City Hilton Head

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