Saturday, January 21, 2012

A Maid for Memory (given The Help)

Tsho! An essentially South African exclamation, it haunts me still. From her aged frame and care-worn soul it was the singular sound of disappointment. Her wizened face has by now likely assumed the mind's smudge of so very many other maids along the way, and I found out just recently that her name was 'Marta'. Not a Mrs. M., or a Madam, or a Lady, but just Marta. She was possibly old enough to be my mother, or maybe even my grandmother. But back then, she was just the old maid belonging to another household, my girlfriend's household, in fact, over forty years ago.

We human beings have been like that, are like that: dismissive. The accord we give another is generally relational to our sense of kismet, our sense of an other's worthiness in comparison to our own. It's the birds of a feather flock together syndrome. It's the gathering of the similarly dressed, the similarly educated, the other most like ourselves, generally speaking. Racial and cultural differences apart, we naturally gravitate toward that which is familiar, expected, ingrained, habitual. And so, in the youth of my twenties, and in the presumptions of my privilege of race, circumstance, education, and culture, I easily took from old Hannah, the domestic, the maid, the very thing she'd been waiting very many years to deserve.

Canadians often ask me about South Africa. In the 70's it was a constant wrestle with change. It still is. But whereas the boil of too many people is now its problem, back then it was the yoke of legalized oppression. In the apartheid system prior to Mandela's 1994 release any person not of white skin as a birthright was doomed to servility. Sitting on a whites-only-bench was not allowed (let alone the same toilet.) Apartheid yoked the Chinese, the Indians, the Pakistanis, the Zulu, the Xhosa, and any and all other Bantu into the same envelope of separation from the whites. Apartheid relegated, mandated, legalized, and doomed non-whites to perpetual and inescapable subservience. Tsho! It was a difficult country to live in. Still is. The tensions of the opposites was palpable. Yes, people were kind and considerate and generous and thoughtful, but under the yoke of societal expectations and legalized differentiation (the maid was not allowed next to you in the car) there was a cloud of constant suppression. The USA based movie, The Help, highlights what was going on with social racism in the 50's. But we all are now well past that, aren't we?

My University of Cape Town friend and I wanted a washing machine. We'd secured a cottage up on Klaasensweg Drive, in the posh neighborhood overlooking the famous Kirstenbosch Gardens, and we'd furnished it, held weekend parties, become regulars on the road with my 20 year-old black Rover and his new blue Fiat, and we generally lived the life of privileged students on our way to becoming real men (whatever that might signify). My girlfriend mentioned that her family was thinking of replacing their machine. And somewhere in the transitions from the request to a price to collecting it I knew full well that their old Hannah, who'd worked with the family for very many years, wanted that old washer, but could not afford it. Or was it just that she did not have the right to claim her priority of interest in it? I knew that. But still, I ended up taking it. Tsho, indeed!

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