Living With And Without Revered Maid

Wonders of America

By Jenna Weissman Joselit

Published November 11, 2011, issue of November 18, 2011.
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The other night I dreamed that my parents, siblings and I were sitting in the sukkah, making polite conversation with our guests, when the sukkah’s rickety wooden walls were breached by the high-pitched and insistent cry of my mother’s name: “Al-ice, Al-ice.”

My mother, reddening slightly, got up from the table with all the dignity that she could muster, and made her way to the back steps of the house, where a platter of food and the formidable Gladys, who had prepared it, awaited. Determined to maintain the protocols of bourgeois life, even (especially?) within the humble precincts of the sukkah, Alice returned to the table, a bit deflated. After all, the maid had just summoned her peremptorily — and by her first name, no less.

Even though this incident appeared in my dreams, it really did happen years ago, when I was growing up. At the time, my parents and their guests laughed it off and put the episode behind them as quickly as they could, but I remember it vividly, as do my siblings. It stays with us still — a funny, if unsettling, moment in the history of our family.

My father, given to grandiloquence and euphemism in equal measure, called Gladys our “family retainer.” The rest of us called her, simply, “Gladys.” By whatever name, she cooked, cleaned and kept after us for years. Had my parents not moved to Israel, Gladys would probably have remained in their employ until she retired.

A light-complected and freckled African-American woman given to wearing prim cardigans over her starched uniform and to smoking cigarettes and drinking copious amounts of iced tea while watching soap operas on television, Gladys possessed the grand last name of Beauregard. The proud owner of a home in a neighborhood that had once seen better days, she lived with her sister. Oh, and from time to time she would ask for, and receive, some legal advice from my father. From these meager facts, a life.

Stern and unsmiling, Gladys cooked up a storm. On those days of the week when dairy was the requisite bill of fare, she made bread pudding from the shards of challah that had outlived the Sabbath, as well as fried fish and a rich and frothy rice pudding. And on occasion she “helped out” when my parents gave dinner parties, then de rigueur in our suburban neck of the woods.

My mother, who preferred reading to housework, pretty much left Gladys to her own devices. Then again, maybe she was cowed. I know we were. We could never please Gladys, who, with a dismissive scowl, would reprimand us for the noise we made, the mess we created, and our collective failure to pick up and put away in our respective bedrooms the neatly folded piles of laundry that, on laundry day, sat proudly in a bin at the foot of the stairs. We were a disappointment to Gladys, and she let us know it.

Little wonder, then, that we stayed clear of her. Not for us the easy, familiar banter or the trading of confidences that characterized the relationship that so many of our friends in our leafy, affluent neighborhood had with the African-American women who cared for them. Perhaps Gladys and Alice chatted about this, that and the other thing. I’d like to think so. But we kids and Gladys never did. She wouldn’t have it.

I hadn’t thought about Gladys for years, and suddenly she was in my dreams. Why now? True, one of my students was writing a paper about the riots in Brooklyn’s Crown Heights, prompting my own thoughts on the relationship between race and class in modern America.

Could that have been the trigger? Might the recent release of the film “The Help,” have also set things in motion? Or was Gladys’s reappearance merely a function of my childhood memories of Sukkot as the festival made its annual rounds? Ver veyst?

Still, I was sufficiently intrigued to pester my siblings for more details, but they only confirmed what I already knew. They, like me, could not figure out why our mother, no great liberal, relaxed the prevailing racial etiquette of her day by having Gladys call her by her first name. Nor were they able to account for what happened to Gladys after most of the family left for Israel. Putting our heads together, we came up with very little.

In lieu of a happy ending, then, there’s a big, hulking gap. I, for one, keenly regret not learning more about Gladys. I never thought to ask.


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