Her name was Emily and she was The Help.
When I was a child in the 50's, Emily worked in our Alabama home five days a week. She did some cooking, some cleaning, and some baby-minding. I was the baby who nestled in Emily's lap, smelling her perfume of sweat and furniture polish, falling asleep to her humming and rocking, and knowing she'd be there when I woke up from a nap.
I loved her with my whole heart. I have a black and white photo of the two of us in our front yard. I am puffy with the mumps and she is standing behind me, her hand resting on my shoulder.
Though my parents paid her dental bills and bought her winter coats, though my father drove her home and made repairs on her tumbledown house, she was "like family" in my parent's eyes, but surely not in her own. Her own family was made up of a daughter sent to live with relatives up north and a husband who knocked her around when he drank.
She was physically small - she would not have been able to fight back - and wore the white apron and gray uniform all the maids wore. Sometimes she wore a white, starched cap pinned back on her head, like a nurse.
When I sat in my high chair in the kitchen, she fed me peas, which I hated, by zooming the spoon into my mouth like a flying airplane or piling them on top of a volcano of mashed potatoes, tricking me into eating my vegetables. I was a fussy eater, but she took her time and added sugar to stewed apples or yellow squash.
She slept on a pallet on the floor of my room on the nights my mother drove to a Birmingham hospital where her own mother lay dying of cancer. In the morning, Emily drank her coffee out of a "maid's" cup that only she used.
When she'd travel to the beach with us, she'd carry me on her hip as she waded along the shore. I asked why she didn't go into the water, and she explained that it was "the white people's ocean." It would be decades before I understood how big that ocean was that divided the help from those who hired them.
My family moved north for five years. And when we came back south, Emily came by for a visit. This time, she called me "Miss Beth" since I was twelve; this time, she sat at the kitchen table with my mother who served her a cup of coffee out of a real cup, one the family drank from. She and my mother even laughed nervously, it seemed to me, about the old ways, and my mother told her she was glad times had changed. When they embraced goodbye, my mother thought they'd stay in touch.
I invited Emily to my wedding ten years later, but she sent a gift instead of coming to the all-white Presbyterian church. And when I moved away and had my own family, I'd search for Emily on my trips home, asking for her by name in the black sections of town, thinking I'd seen her - there! - a small, stooped woman with white hair stepping out of the grocery store. But I never found her. My mother called some families she had worked for, but nobody knew what had become of Emily.
I wanted to hold her one more time and thank her for my life. Her love and kindness had shaped the person I became. And I wanted to say I was ashamed of pallets on the floor and maid's coffee cups and an ocean of injustice.
When I saw the filmThe Help a few days ago, memories of Emily washed over me. I stayed until the final credits rolled over the screen. Out in the lobby, I walked toward the exit with the others. I was not the only white woman of a certain age who'd been crying.