March 5, 2015 § 2 Comments
This past summer I ran into Mary Francis Roberts, the daughter of my father’s best friend. They had had a falling out many years ago. In our conversation, we had the opportunity to discuss the facts as well as the emotions surrounding the events of the split. We were able to find closure for us and we think for our deceased fathers, too. As we talked about our families, Mary Francis spoke about the African American woman who raised her and promised to post her story on Just Like Family. I’ve copied below the email that Mary Francis recently sent to me about Thelma, her partner in crime.
In reading your wonderful blog “Just Like Family” and the stories therein, I wanted to share my story of my beloved Thelma Austin whose influence I was privileged to enjoy for many years when I was young.
Thelma came to us when I was about four years old. Every morning, she would ride the city bus from where she lived off of Pleasantburg Drive, and walk a couple of blocks to our house. Her husband, James, who worked at the filling station picked her up every day at 5:30. He had to be at work early, so that is why she took the bus in the morning. When I got older and figured out that she was riding the bus to work, I would get out of bed in the summer time and walk up to the bus stop to meet her and walk back home with her so she wouldn’t be lonely. We would often hold hands. It delighted me to no end when I would see her get off that bus.
I was the baby at the time she came, and my brother and sister were several years older than I. My first memory of Thelma was of her washing my hair. She would lay me down on the kitchen counter and I would hang my head back in the sink so she could shampoo and cream rinse without getting it in my eyes. Then she would make a towel turban and then we would move on to the combing out, detangling, and all that painful stuff. Sometimes she would roll it up and I would get to sit under my sister’s big dryer. It was a long process and great fun. Much more fun than if mother had to do it, which always involved a great deal of whining and crying on my part, but never with Thelma.
Thelma raised us, cared for us, did all those things all of the other ladies did for their white families. She cleaned, did the laundry and ironing, child care and did some cooking. She cooked two or three nights a week, and that was a huge highlight of my life! She let me help all the time and nurtured my love for the kitchen, cooking at eating! Everyone was happier on the nights Thelma cooked supper! Sometimes she would bring a sweet potato to work to cook for herself while mother was gone, and she always brought one for me. She would bake them in the oven and we would peel and eat them straight from their jackets like a banana. She also brought Oreos sometimes which we ate with thick slices of cheddar cheese! Delicacy! These were our secret snacks…just for us.
Mother was gone for the better part of the day most days, for she was a great golfer and bridge player and had her Junior League activities. My brother and sister were around, but they were older and had outside activities and friends. Our baby sister was born when I was eight, so she, Thelma and I spent a lot of time together.
As I got older, Thelma and I became buddies…friends…partners in crime…mischievous. We had fun! My brother and sister loved her, and she loved them, but our relationship was different…they left for college or prep school long before our little sister or I did, so we had a chance to become really close, and she knew I needed her and loved her.
Mother and I had a difficult relationship, and Thelma and Mother also had a difficult relationship, as Mother was “hard to please!” Thelma “had my back” with Momma, and I had hers. As time went on, she assisted me with my teenage shenanigans, and sometimes would call the high school for fake early dismissals so I could skip and hang out with my friends (she always knew where I was and with whom), or give us cigs, or teach me how to sneak out the window at night…not too often, but I think when she thought I was having a particularly rough time at home. She would keep a deck of cards in her apron so when Momma left, she could play a game with me. She taught me to iron, polish silver, and I actually “helped” her with her work. She wasn’t being lazy, she knew that I wanted to learn about these things, and she carefully taught me the right way to do things. She taught me a lot of things about keeping house, all of which I was very interested in, and I credit her with helping me become what I am today. Thelma was my friend, ally..accessory to my teenage crimes, my best friend. We ate things together we weren’t supposed to be eating, we did all sorts of naughty things like watching Days of Our Lives instead of working. I could talk to her, and she told me what it felt like to have a baby when I asked her, and about my womanly monthly thing I would get… Momma didn’t! I could never discuss these things with Momma! She was one of THE most influential people in my life, and one of the most loved. She was my momma. I was playmates with her granddaughter, Karen, whom I continued to be friends with even after college years.
Don’t get me wrong, she never put me in danger. I think she felt sorry for me and wanted me to get a break. Momma was very, very hard on me because I was so different from my older brother and sister, and this caused many treacherous and disastrous times which Thelma was witness to. She wanted to quit years before she did, but when she saw how distraught I was, she told me she would stay until I left for college, and she did. She quit the week I left and went to work at a hotel in housekeeping. It still broke my heart, but I was just being selfish. I was glad she got a better job. I am sure it was better for her.
By the way, Daddy loved her and broke all the rules, too. He insisted she eat lunch with him at the table when he came home for lunch and, a lot of times, he would stop by the Eight O’Clock Superette and bring her lunch to her….( don’t tell Sarah!) on Momma’s golf and bridge days..which was every day, just about! He joked and teased and played with her just like he did everyone else. He thanked her for everything she did…all the time. She adored him. I am sorry for Momma that she never let herself see the great person Thelma was.
After college, for many years, I continued to visit Thelma on her birthday and take her a cake.
Did my relationship with Thelma help shape my life? Yes. Did it help shape how I relate to people from other walks of life? Yes. She made me feel loved, and helped influence how I am able to love others.