We didn't think of Veronica or Dora as anything more than people who worked for us, at least my parents didn't. My father admired Dora's dark beauty and graceful movements and he liked Veronica's easy manner and the way she fitted into our family as though knit there by design, a dark bright thread running through the fabric of our lives. To me, Veronica was someone I could talk to and Dora a young woman who understood what it was like to be nine going on twenty-five. Veronica was kind and warm and welcoming and Dora was understanding and showed me a respect I never got from my mother. These two women were a fixture in our lives and it seemed as though they were as much a member of the family as my brother and sister or my parents, and yet they weren't. Dora and Veronica were our maids in a place where servants were cheap and the need not at all visible.
We lived in a two-bedroom apartment that was small by today's standards. My parents had a smaller room with a bathroom separated from the larger bedroom by a curtain. The kitchen was a corridor between the bedrooms and the living and dining rooms where plastic strips hung from the door frames to keep the air conditioned air in the bedrooms and front rooms. Another bathroom was off the dining room and that's the bathroom we children and the maids used. Mom and Dad's bathroom was separate and theirs alone.
Into this small living space came Veronica first to clean and do the laundry. Dora came later when Veronica was off having another baby. I cannot remember a time when Veronica wasn't pregnant, her belly round and bulging with life. She was the quintessential earth mother and spent her time producing children, although not while she was working. I don't remember ever seeing more than a glimpse of her husband, a dark sliver of a man so incongruous beside the Amazonian proportions of his wife. I didn't know the names of Veronica's children either. They were a cluster of dark faces with wide and round eyes peering around their mother's ample hips when Dad took me to visit her after she had one of her babies. She cradled the gurgling child in her arms, a swarm of hands clutching her brightly colored skirts. Dora is easier to remember because she stayed with us on Friday nights while our parents went to the NCO club to play bingo, drink, and dance.
I have thought often of those times, but it wasn't until I was reading The Help by Kathryn Stockett that I began to wonder about Veronica and Dora and what their situation was like from their perspective.
I do know neither were mistreated, but as I look back now I see a certain reserve from my mother in her interactions with both women and a pulsating green jealousy where Dora was concerned that no doubt came from a glimpse I had of Dora dancing with Dad and Mr. Kennon from upstairs in what can only be described as intimate. I learned later Dora was teaching them the dirty dog. What I remember most is the look of barely suppressed fury on my mother's face, her lips a tight red line of disapproval and disgust I had often seen when she looked at my hands each night when she painted my nails with Tabasco sauce to keep me from biting them. It was the same look she gave me when I came home from playing with my friends in the jungle that made me bow my head and grip the sides of my shorts or skirts with sweaty hands. I could never mistake that look or the thrashing that followed for not acting like a lady. Mom obviously wanted to thrash Dora but she must not have because Dora continued smiling while she worked and humming some song that made the work go quicker. She told me music made everything easier. I always wished I could find a song to hum that would make dealing with Mom easier. I still haven't found it.
There were little things that made the separation between them (Veronica and Dora) and us more apparent, like when Mom made me put on a dress and my best black patent leather shoes to go with her to the dressmakers down in Colon. I didn't see why I had to go; Dora was riding to town with her. That should have been enough, but it wasn't. I had to go as a buffer between Mom and Dora, but mostly so Dora wouldn't be riding in the front seat with Mom. She was the help not a friend and Mom would not pretend she was anything more than a servant.
There were other subtle things I missed as a child that are all too clear to me now, especially given the numerous arguments Mom and I have had over the years about racism and bigotry. It is a demarcation that children don't understand, or at least I didn't see growing up. Dora and Veronica were friends. They were women who cared for me and my siblings, women who kept our home neat and clean, washed our clothes, and were there to comfort me when I needed someone to hold me or listen to my troubles. How silly I must have seemed with my petty feuds with the neighborhood children or my anguish over being denied some pleasure when I sniffled against their shoulders or was comforted when they put their arms around me, and yet they gave me comfort and love and let me give them teary kisses when we were sent back to the States.
Reading The Help, I know they loved me as they loved all the children they tended, and I am honored to have known them. It was their generosity and kindness that shaped me and not the heavily veiled bigotry I could've learned.
I imagine Veronica surrounded by her own children and her grandchildren and great grandchildren, still the earth mother, and Dora with a small family of her own and a husband who blesses the day she came into his life, as I bless the day both women came into mine.