Wednesday, March 28, 2012


In the movie, The Help, when little Mae Mobley said, "You're my real mama, Aibi," I had one of those time-travel moments, instantly transported back some sixty years, to Lillian.

Lillian came north from Georgia during the great migration of the 'thirties, and went to work five days a week in my recently-married parents' home. My mother (who eventually lived to 98) was, in the term of the day, "weakly," and Lillian did whatever needed doing in and around the house. By the time I made my appearance, she was family, as were her husband, Big Tim; and her sons, Little Tim and Ralph.

As a toddler and preschooler, I was Lillian's shadow. Mornings, I'd wait for her inside the front door, then trail her through the house. I helped her fold laundry and move the vacuum cleaner from room to room. As she worked, she told me stories about her early life in the south, and sang folk tunes and spirituals. Her favorite was Swing Low, Sweet Chariot. Sometimes, when she was down on hands and knees, cleaning the kitchen floor, she told me to get up on her back and have a horsey ride. Lillian was one powerful woman.

She was a church lady of the hardest core. Above all else, she loved Easter, when Jesus rose from the dead, and she often told me that when it came time for her to go to heaven, Jesus would be there to show her the way. I loved going to church with her on Sundays; there was wonderful music, and dancing, and even shouting. After the service, I got to bask in the glow from a circle of admiring ladies, to whom Lillian was introducing "My Laurence." (I had not yet become Larry). And then, off we'd go to Lillian's house, where I'd demolish a plate of pork chops, the likes of which I've never tasted since.

One day, when I was about four, I think, I discovered that pushing on that little stem coming out of a tire made an interesting, funny noise, and was enjoying myself thoroughly until the corner of my eye caught my father heading my way at an alarming speed. I took off running, into the house, saw Lillian vacuuming in the living room, scooted behind her, and grabbed onto her legs as if she were a life preserver. As my father charged up, Lillian raised the business end of the vacuum cleaner like a sword. "Mr. Karp," she announced. "If you lay one hand on my Laurence, I will walk out of this house, and I will never come back." My father let out a token splutter, then turned around and stomped out of the room. For the rest of his life, he told that story to anyone who'd listen.

When I was eight or nine, Lillian developed diabetes, and spent a long time in the hospital, where I'd go to visit her. We were all scared silly she'd never come out, but her constitution prevailed, and eventually she returned to work at the Karps', though with a lighter load.

Years passed. I grew up, went off to school, married (with Lillian's enthusiastic approval of my prospective wife), had kids, and eventually moved to Seattle. I wrote to Lillian, kept her up on what was happening, until one Sunday when I got a call from my parents. Lillian had died suddenly that Easter morning, just about the time the sun was rising.

I don't think any writer since late Victorian times has dared to put a story like that into print, but there it is. More than forty years later, thinking about it, my eyes still get leaky.

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