I just finished reading The Help by Kathryn Stockett, a fascinating story of race relations in Jackson, Mississippi, from 1962-1964. Reading about the Southern women and their African-American maids brought back memories of our family friend, Aunt Fannie. Though some might see calling her “aunt” as a derogatory term, it was not that to us. My mother’s closest friends I always called with that familiar term; Aunt Beck and Aunt Mildred were beloved to me. Besides, Aunt Fannie would have had a fit if we’d called her Miz Goins, and Mother would never have tolerated any of us simply calling her by her first name.
The only time I ever heard her last name was when my mother would introduce her to a visitor. If someone stopped by when Aunt Fannie was there, she’d say, “I want you to meet my friend, Fannie Goins.”
As I was growing up, about three or four times a year my mother would go to Scattersville, the local primarily black neighborhood, and get Aunt Fannie to come work for her. They would spend the day cleaning house from top to bottom and Aunt Fannie would catch up on all Mother’s ironing.
They would talk on and off, but when they weren’t talking, Aunt Fannie was singing hymns. She had no idea, I’m sure, that we could hear her so clearly and enjoyed it so much.
The lunch routine was always the same. Mother would say, “Aunt Fannie, I have lunch prepared. You can stop what you’re doing and come eat with us.”
“Oh, no, ma’am,” Aunt Fannie would answer. “I’m goin’ to finish this up. You just go ahead and eat.” And nothing would budge her from that resolve. After we’d finished, she would take her plate outside or to the basement and eat.
Mother and I were dismayed by this, and Mother, never one to hold back, confronted Aunt Fannie. “Why won’t you eat lunch with us? I fix a nice lunch and I think we can sit and chat while we eat and then you won’t sit down with us. Why not?”
“It not be right, for me to eat with white folks,” Aunt Fannie explained, as though to a child who didn’t understand what everyone else knew. And though Mother argued, Aunt Fannie stood firm. She “knew her place.”
When Mother got Aunt Fannie to come help clean the house to host the reception when Steve and I got married, they worked hard for two days solid. When Mother picked her up the second day, she gave Mother an envelope containing cash.
“I wants you to buy Lanita a nice weddin’ present from me,” she said. “Get her something for the kitchen.” And I still treasure the little saucepan that Mother bought with Aunt Fannie’s money.
Long after all of us were gone from home, Mother heard that Aunt Fannie was in the hospital, so she went to visit. She sat by the bed and held her hand, prayed with her, and talked about their families. Aunt Fannie was moving around a lot and couldn’t seem to settle in the bed. Mother asked what was so uncomfortable.
“My feet are burnin’ like fire,” she said. “I keep rubbin’ them against the sheets to cool ‘em off and stop that burnin’.”
“Well, I can do something about that!” Mother responded. She knew enough about hospital supplies to know there was always a bottle of lotion in a nearby drawer. She got it out, pulled up the sheet from the foot of the bed, and started massaging Aunt Fannie’s feet with the lotion.
Aunt Fannie started to protest, but she could see that this battle was already lost. She laid back and enjoyed the cool, soothing lotion rubbed on by loving hands. Mother could feel her relax and “get easy” in her bed.
“I’ll be back tomorrow to rub your feet again,” Mother told her as she left.
“Miss Mary,” Aunt Fannie said, shaking her white head, “you is the nicest white lady I ever knew, and I mean that for sure!”
Mother just laughed, delighted at such a compliment, and especially delighted that she finally could convince Aunt Fannie that there was neither “Greek or Jew, male or female,” black or white, “but we are all one in Christ Jesus.”