Poor Little Kathy

December 4, 2013 § Leave a comment

This video segment features Katherine Robertson-Pilling and Faye Williams, daughter of Thelma Johnson, the African American woman who raised Katherine.  In the film, we see Katherine watching unedited video footage of an interview of Faye displayed on my computer monitor.  Katherine learns quite a bit she didn’t know about Faye’s mother and hears about tensions between her own mother and Thelma.

Although their memories of Thelma and of certain circumstances differed, they both agreed that Thelma was stubborn and proud.    In the 1950s, Thelma was hired by Katherine’s family as a housekeeper.  In addition, part of her job was to take care of Katherine, while Katherine’s mother, a pediatrician and psychiatrist, worked full-time.  For Katherine, Thelma was her protector.  As she grew up, Thelma was always there.  She was not just like family—she was family.

Thelma was born in 1918 and was the oldest of eight children.  Her father owned 40 acres near Houston, a remarkable feat for a black man in that day.  Faye was told by Thelma that her mother’s grandfather had been a slave but that he knew Greek and Hebrew.  In contrast, Katherine’s grandfather started out as a sharecropper in the panhandle of Texas. He became like a son to his landowner, who had no children, and so he inherited his land from him when “Old Man Chandler” died.

Thelma finished eighth grade and “worked the fields” during the depression.  She escaped picking cotton by arranging to marry a man who agreed to divorce her after they got to Houston.    (Faye said her mother told her that the only way her parents would let her leave the farm was if she got married.)  She had a second husband but they split up—he was already married! Faye was a result of Thelma being told she could never have children and a man who turned out to also be married.

Thelma’s first job as a housekeeper was at a hotel in Dallas.  Then she worked for a white family who “took Faye in” so she could get to school in the morning without taking the early bus with Thelma.  In 1967, Thelma began working for Katherine’s parents and stayed there for 18 years.  Blacks were not eligible for social security until 1950.  And like most white employers of domestics—even many today—Katherine’s parents maintained the “tradition” of not paying into the system.  When Thelma retired, she opened a successful flea market booth.  In her lifetime, she survived two severe car crashes, colon cancer, Lupus, trouble with white people, and a nearly fatal childbirth, as well careers ranging from car repair to security officer.

While Katherine expresses her deep love for Thelma, Faye said she and her mother weren’t close.  She described her as a “drill sergeant, a disciplinarian and a nit-picker.”  Thelma thought of Katherine as “poor little Kathy.”  Katherine says she and Faye talked about Thelma’s presence in Katherine life and that Faye told her she was jealous of Katherine.  (Many conflicting feelings can exist at the same time.)  Katherine was jealous of her mother’s young patients.  In the end, although Katherine and Faye had different experiences with Faye’s mother, they shared in their knowledge of Thelma’s determination and dignity.   Katherine visited her in a Houston hospital a few weeks before she died and urged her to hang on to see the election of the first black president. Thelma died shortly before this historical event.

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