The Help: Not the Gospel

The Help: Not the Gospel August 24, 2011

I sat in my car and cried after watching the movie The Help, right there in the middle of a blazing hot afternoon, in front of God and nobody. It wasn’t a sniffling, weepy cry but a full-blown bawl. The kind that blinds a person.  I couldn’t drive home. I just had to sit there and wait for the gale of grief to pass over me.

It took awhile. I’m not sure I know all the reasons for those tears, but the one I recognize best is Thelma.  I have often thought of Thelma over the years. Every time I change the sheets, I remember the day that she stood at the foot of my mama’s bed and told me how to fold the sheet up underneath the mattress just so – a hospital corner, she called it.

Thelma came to work for our family in what was assuredly one of the most horrific years of all of our lives – the year after Daddy died in Vietnam. In 1967, Mama returned to school and got a job as a nurse’s aide. Thelma took care of us three kids while Mama was gone off working.

Our living conditions were a helluva long ways off from those of Hilly Holbrook or the other white women depicted in The Help. Sure, we argued over the bathroom in the 12 x 60, but not because we didn’t want the help using it, but because it was the only bathroom in that trailer and when you gots to go, you gots to go.

Thelma was the only person I knew who was poorer than us. Mama paid her $5 a day to clean, cook and look after us.  The going rate for domestic help.  Thelma lived in a house with siding made from asphalt roofing.  We were never allowed to get out of the car in Thelma’s neighborhood.

The most disturbing part of all my memories of growing up in the segregated South is how little attention I paid to the discordant rhythms of that life. I attended Tillinghurst Elementary, which was directly across the railroad tracks from the Projects. Yet, never once did it seem odd to me that there wasn’t a black kid in my classroom, or in the entire school. That disturbs me now, of course, realizing that as a young girl I never raised the question of “What about the black kids?” I never asked Thelma where her boy went to school. We never spoke of her family at all.

She taught me how to fry chicken, peppered and salted and goldened just so, and how to make baloney with melted cheese sandwiches under the oven broiler. She taught me how to iron a crease in a pair of pants and how to separate the whites from the darks when doing laundry – something I was already subconsciously doing in my everyday life.

Thelma insisted on manners and kindness and, even though she never said, I know she must have prayed for us. I could tell by the way she loved on us kids that she felt bad about our daddy. Everybody felt so bad about daddy that nobody ever talked about him. We just hung that big oil painting of him in his Army suit on the trailer house wall and went around pretending for years that having a war hero in the family is a good enough reason for all that suffering a widow and her orphans has to endure. What a load of dookey that turned out to be.

Thelma wasn’t around for the worst years. Those would come later, when us kids began to figure out that we lost more than our daddy to the war. We lost our way of life, and the woman our mother had been. All these years later, Mama is still missing some of the best parts of herself. That’s hard to say but it’s the truth.

I was a sophomore when I first started attending school with black kids.  To be honest, I probably wouldn’t have thought too much of it one way or another had it not been for the way all the parents were carrying on. There were fights nearly daily in the high school parking lot. Boys cutting or getting cut. Angry parents staged a demonstration. They marched down to the Administration’s office and yelled at the School Superintendent about busing. They did not like it, not one little bit.

I was going through the cafeteria line one afternoon when I looked up at the gal dishing up the mashed potatoes and saw it was Thelma. We smiled at each other and spoke a little but it was almost like she didn’t remember those sweltering days we spent in that box of a home. For the school annual that year, Thelma stood smiling with the other cafeteria staff. There are no names under the photo. It’s just a snapshot of the lunchroom help.

Years ago, I was in my hometown, visiting, when I opened the newspaper and read Thelma’s obituary. I asked a friend if she thought it would be okay for me to go to Thelma’s funeral. She told me that my presence would probably make Thelma’s family uncomfortable, so I didn’t go.  I wish I hadn’t worried about all that. I wish I could have stood up before Thelma’s family and told them how the only time I felt safe in that year after Daddy died is when she was around.

I know that there are a lot of people upset about Kathryn Stockett’s  story. They say The Help glosses over the wrongs done to blacks, downplays the hatred and racism of a segregated South. They say the movie plays to stereotypes. What they don’t mention is that the stereotypes aren’t limited to blacks – it also plays to the stereotype that Southerners are an insipid lot.

I’d get my feathers in ruffle over all that if I thought Kathryn Stockett was writing commentary, or even a historical rendering of the segregated South, but The Help is a work of fiction. It’s a story, people. A parable, perhaps. But it is not the Gospel.

Or even the Gospel truth.

I loved The Help for all the memories, good and bad, it stirred in me. Some wrongs need crying over. God understands. He doesn’t mind sitting in the car with a gal on a hot summer’s day listening to all that remembering.

God is good like that.

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  • Loving it. Gotta share.

  • Wanda

    Blessings to you, Girlfriend….and hugs o’ plenty.

  • It was a great movie, but a better book. The book had some great things in it that weren’t brought to the movie. Still, it’s a good reminder that it is just fiction, but it is fiction that is worthwhile. It’s fiction that has something important to say and I think that we are all happy when we get that out of a story these days. It’s really stories that remind us who we are and what’s important to us. If they don’t, no one really notices. After growing up reading hundreds of Harlequin romances as a youngster, I can safely say that when a good book comes along with something important in it, I notice.

    • Karen Spears Zacharias

      It’s stories that remind us who we are… Such a powerful statement. As we become more and more isolated from family and community, we lose the power of that storytelling. We lose who we are, where we have been.

  • Cheryl Adams Stratigos


    Your story is so heart-warming. I wished you had gone to the funeral too, but back then we all worried what people thought. I loved the movie and felt so good afterwards. Everyone in the movie theater seemed so nice to each other as we poured out, black and white. Love your stories!! Keep up the good work. Hope to see you next time your are in Macon.

    • Karen Spears Zacharias

      We will make the visit happen next time I’m in Macon for sure!

  • I haven’t seen the movie yet, but regarding its critics, it should be noted that the widow of Medgar Evans, as well as Alice Walker, endorsed the book. So it didn’t offend everyone who matters.

    • Karen Spears Zacharias

      FYI: she lives in Oregon, near Bend.

  • Penny Byrd

    So touching, Karen, It does bring up and stirs a lot of emotions.

  • Beautifully said, as always.

  • Mary C

    I have not seen the movie but read the book and it felt close to home for me also. I spent some of my growing up years in the deep south where my father was a gardener on some big estates and my mother worked as a maid. We had it better than the blacks there as we had a house of sorts provided for us and I remember my dad saving newspapers for the black help to line the walls of their houses. But my mother never had a “house of her own” and she definitely felt more like “the help” than the people she worked for. The book is good and perhaps makes us all aware of how easy it can become to dismiss others who aren’t like us.

    • Karen Spears Zacharias

      A friend suggested that this notion of the help not using the bathroom wasn’t relegated to race (I didn’t know anyone who had a problem with their help using their bathrooms) but was rather an issue for the wealthy. She grew up in the NE and had “white help” and remembers that they weren’t allowed to use the family bathrooms. They had their own.

  • dave

    I know nothing of that world, Karen, but you’ve written another good one.

    • Karen Spears Zacharias

      Thanks, Dave.

  • Mike Morehouse

    When I was growing up in West Virginia in the late 50’s early 60’s we had a black woman named Myrtle who was our Thelma. Sadly I don’t remember ever asking about Myrtle’s family. She took care of us well when my Mom was tied up with the infants in our family. Wish I had cared enough to care about her family the way she cared for ours…

    • Karen Spears Zacharias

      I bet Myrtle knew, Mike. I bet she knew.

  • John Feagin

    Beautiful tribute to Thelma. My family had a wonderful housekeeper, Georgia. She taught me to iron my shirts, saying ‘Mista Johnny’, when you ‘goway’ to college you will need to know how to do this. I still know !! fifty one years later. When are you headed back to AL?

    • Karen Spears Zacharias

      John: I’ll be in Alabama in September. Love your story about Georgia. Wasn’t Georgia just the wisest woman to know what you would need to know?

  • Beautiful and true, Karen. So many who grew up in the South in that era can tell similar stories. I have a couple, and you nailed the reality of it. Makes me want to see ‘The Help,’ which is something I didn’t consider before reading this.

    • Karen Spears Zacharias

      Seriously, Tony, you’ll love it.

  • Sam

    My mother had Ruby when we lived at Ft. Benning, and Mary when we lived at Ft. Bragg. Ruby taught a little girl who mostly spoke German how to speak Southern, and provided a home for my Easter chick, Mr. Peepers, when he got too big for us to keep (and she never cooked him up, despite the threats – “he’s too sweet”). Mary sent me off to college each semester and after each holiday with freshly ironed everything and more fried chicken than I could handle. She watched over my mother until they both died.

    These women weren’t “help” – they were family. We just didn’t know it at the time, though we should have.

    • Karen Spears Zacharias

      They weren’t help — they were family. Brings tears to my eyes. So true.

  • I love the memories you share here and warm reflections of Thelma! Love your conclusion! God is good like that!

  • Ramona

    I have not seen The Help yet. Your story, however, stirs memories of my Thelma. Yes, I had a Thelma, too. She walked us to and from school everyday. Cleaned our scrapes and wiped our tears. Thelma drifted out of our lives for a while, but as She would have it, reappeared right on cue. I was getting married and Thelma was working at the bridal shop where I purchased my dress. She was responsible for pressing and prepping the dresses. I didn’t see her until she saw the name on my dress and came out when I was there for a fitting. What a glorious reunion! Thelma was at my wedding, front and center… The marriage didn’t last, but that memory will always warm my heart.

    • Karen Spears Zacharias

      Ramona, what a beautiful story of yet another Thelma. Thank you for sharing it. I know how much you needed a Thelma in your life this past year.

  • Thank you so much for that glimpse into your childhood, Karen. As the new MLK Jr. memorial is being unveiled in DC, I find myself thinking that so much has changed in terms of race relations, and yet not nearly enough. But, as you reminded us, God is good and big enough to keep transforming us to become more like Him: loving, embracing and just.


    • Karen Spears Zacharias

      I am looking forward to that memorial.

  • Jan Rabe

    WOW, Karen….I didn’t know why you wanted a picture of Thelma, we had our Latha, she was more of a Momma to me Ethan my own, she died in the same nursing home as my G’mother at the same time, she had worked for her also. I did go to her home, inside if you can believe it…..I can remember feeling so bad for her because she was colored, I remember thanking God that I was white. Along came integration, I was bussed to Carver, I loved it there, much better than Hardaway….stayed there only 6 wks until my Daddy talked to Herman Dollar and I transferred to CHS. The book made me very sad, actually I have Penney Vaughn Byrd’s copy, so glad that we have come so far since those days in Georgia, I wish I had known you better back then, I wish I had been a better friend to you. As hard as those days were for you they helped make you what you are today and look how many people you touch!!! I am planning on a visit with you soon! Jan

    • Karen Spears Zacharias

      Jan: When I come to South Carolina we have to get Penny over. We’ll have our own Blue Devil reunion.

  • LOVE, love, love this post, Karen. You know about my angel Sadie, who saved my life in so many ways, from the post I did about her on All the Church Ladies. We were I dare say the only white folks at her funeral a hot August day a couple years ago, and definitely the only white folks who stuck around for the friend chicken pitch-in in the basement of her little Baptist church afterwards. But the sweltering awareness of any different-ness felt that day melted away with the knowledge Sadie sits, whole and healthy, laughing and beautiful, at the feet of Jesus…just like we all will someday…when we’ll all be blind to all our differences and have eyes only for the beauty of each other and the One who saves us all.

    • Karen Spears Zacharias

      We should pray that more often.. God make us blind to our difference, help us to see more of Jesus.

  • Amy Burton

    Beautiful story. Thank you.

  • “Some wrongs need crying over” such a great post. I read The Help but the movie hasn’t opened here yet. I live in Bangkok where expats and rich folk have maids and so much of ‘the help’ is still true today. Thanks for such a transparent sharing from real life. Beautiful!

    • Karen Spears Zacharias

      I think you will find universal themes in the book & movie. I have a friend who played in the NBA and made a lot of $$. I heard him say once that any problem others had with his race was put to rest when he made his first million. I loved that line because it’s simply the truth.

  • Beautifully moving. I’m a quiet fan of yours, never left a comment before now. But this really touched me. I’m the granddaughter of a “Thelma”. I know stories from the other side. And I know how some of the families she worked for touched her life so deeply, she prayed for them until the day she passed.

    Thank you for sharing.

    • Karen Spears Zacharias

      Alisha: Thank you for being a quiet yet faithful member of this community. I am honored that you felt compelled to add your voice to this post. Thank you for bringing us the story from the other side.

  • My wife and I saw this movie tonight. It was powerful.

    • Karen Spears Zacharias

      Good for you, James, going with the wife. I haven’t convinced Tim yet that he ought to.

  • Lakesha

    Thank you for your transparency. My grandmother was a “Thelma” and I wish I could hear the impact she made in the lives of those children she raised. Hearing what you’ve said about Thelma makes me feel confident that her long years of service was appreciated. Love this.

  • Donald Smith

    Karen, your authentic story is a fine answer to the critics of the film who find fault for what it is not and what it is not trying to be. Thanks for saying it so very well. “The Help” should be a holy, healing catharsis for us all.