96-year-old writes memoir of 'the help' on Lowcountry plantation

dlauderdale@islandpacket.comFebruary 23, 2012 

  • Lyda C. Youmans will read from her memoir, "Blessed Beyond Measure," and sign copies from 1 to 3 p.m. Saturday at Jasper's Porch Restaurant, 153 James Taylor Drive, Ridgeland.

  • Read David Lauderdale's musings, see his morning photos and get alerts about his latest columns by following That's Lauderdale on Twitter.

The dainty handkerchiefs looked out of place drying in the sun on a barbed wire fence.

"That's how poor we were," says Lyda C. Youmans.

The handkerchiefs belonged to school teachers. Youmans washed them and pressed them with an iron heated by a wood fire. She also raised chickens to sell eggs and fryers.

She was a young woman then, scraping for nickels and dimes in Jasper County, where her father farmed, cut railroad ties with a huge ax and dug up stumps for 40 cents a day. Pine tar and sawmills put a little cash in her husband's pocket, but that's where it stayed.

Youmans still lives near the small village of Gillisonville, where she was born 96 years ago.

She came into a world where African American women had little opportunity. Conventional wisdom had it that they lacked any semblance of the wit and wisdom that pours from the pages of Youmans' new memoir, "Blessed Beyond Measure."

It debuts at a book-signing Saturday in Ridgeland.

The book is an insider's version of the currently popular novel and movie, "The Help."

Youmans was a cook for a wealthy Northeastern family that owned the 2,100-acre Davant Plantation near her home.

Someone she did not know took notice of her meticulous work with the frilly handkerchiefs and recommended her for a job at Davant.

Youmans did not want to work on the place she used to cut through on her walks to a one-room schoolhouse where she got a seventh-grade education. But she was persuaded to try it for two weeks, and she stayed nearly 40 years.

Today, her trailer with a porch and added-on rooms contains many photographs of the family she served at Davant -- the Berols of New York and Connecticut. They created the Eagle Pencil Co., the world's largest, and ran it for five generations. They owned Davant Plantation from 1939 to 1981.

In the Lowcountry, the Berols indulged their passions for dogs, horses, hunting, raising flowers and painting on the picturesque plantation off U.S. 278. In 1995, it was the location for the movie "Something to Talk About" with Julia Roberts, Robert Duval and Dennis Quaid.

Life for the nation's super-wealthy who escaped northern winters on Lowcountry plantations surely seemed like a movie to the local help. Plantation owners rang bells to be served and had help with baths and got massages before cocktail hour and a full-dress dinner.

Youmans still drives, bakes and cooks for others, and is the matriarch of the Mount Calvary Pentecostal Church. And she still keeps in touch with members of the Berol family. Some have continued to support her financially. Myra, Albert and Mary Berol employed her year-round, taking her home to their Cloister Farm estate in New York.

"I've always been the boss of what I've done," she told me, sitting in the chair by a space heater where she wrote her book by hand late into the night.

Her talents are self-taught. She started cooking at age 7 because her mother didn't like to cook.

"The Lord has given it to me," she said. "The Lord has been working with me, honey."

That's the theme of her book, published by a firm owned by her granddaughter Vela Keyta Y. Redding.

Youmans writes about life's hardships, but says she left out the worst hurt. She writes more about redemption, forgiveness, morality, hard work, the church and the Bible.

"Seek the Holy Ghost, pray every day, and live according to the leading of that still, small voice," she writes, "and you too will be blessed beyond measure."

Follow columnist David Lauderdale at twitter.com/ThatsLauderdale.

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