The following essay is reblogged from Southern-Style. A real life modern-ish mammy story! I’ve long been interested in the dynamic between black women and other people’s white children. When I was in college studying African-American history for the first time, I stumbled upon the thought that Mammies had raised our nation and yet black women generally are not revered (to say the least). When I was a nanny myself, I thought a lot about mammy. And, back in January, when I devoured The Help I pondered her some more. If you haven’t read it yet, please do yourself a favor and put Kathryn Stockett’s The Help on your summer reading list. It’s one of the greatest books I’ve ever read. Right up there with The Girl Who Fell From the Sky, Caucasia, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime, Memoirs of a Geisha, and Life of Pi. i.e. the rest of your summer reading list.
I Remember Mammy:
Mattie Lee Martin (“Mammy”)
By one who loved her, Sharman Burson Ramsey
Thirteen year old Mattie Lee Martin took her mentally challenged older sister by the hand and led her down the rutted, red clay country road. Neither looked back. Mattie was determined her sister would not be abused again in their grandparent’s home. She’d finally accepted that her parents would never come back to get them. The road led to the town of Dothan, Alabama, and a life, Mattie Lee hoped, that would be better than the one they’d known on that god-forsaken farm.
Mrs. Bender stood at the door of her variety store, broom in hand, and watched the two girls walk toward her down the sidewalk. Mattie, the spokesperson for the two, stepped forward and boldly asked, “I need work and a place where me and my sister can stay. Do you know of anything?” She looked up at Mrs. Bender quite seriously. Her black eyes were wide. Anxiety was written all over her round black face that now dripped in sweat in the hot summer day after her long walk. Mrs. Bender read in that expression that she’d gotten this far, but now the little girl was in a quandary as to what should she do now? She looked at the tight grip she had on her much larger, but obviously more dependent, sister.
Mrs. Bender sized them up and in her gentle voice said, “I hear they are hiring maids across the street at the Wadlington Hotel, but come in here and let me help you with something to wear to your interview. Your sister can rest here while you go and inquire. Tell them I sent you.”
Mattie stood straight and said, “I don’t take no charity. I’ll pay you back.” Mrs. Bender nodded.
That Jewish lady remained a dear friend to Mattie the rest of her life.
Mattie Lee Martin later became highly regarded for her cooking skills. She cooked at the restaurant of the Houston Hotel for awhile and then took a job as the private cook for Dr. Moody, founder of Moody Hospital in Dothan. When the Moodys moved into their big house on Main Street from the house across from the hospital, Mattie for some reason was not going with them. Dr. Moody recommended Mattie to Dr. E. G. Burson, my father. The Moodys gave her a house as a parting gift.
When Mattie Lee Martin interviewed with my mother, she told my mother, “I don’t work with children.”
Yet as the pictures reveal, Mattie Lee Martin became as dear to us as our grandmothers and so she deserved just as endearing a name. Thus she came to be called “Mammy.”
Mammy came to work every morning before seven, except Sunday, either by bus or by taxi and stayed until after five. Even after our overweight dog, Sir Bow Wow, went blind, he would meet Mammy at the bottom of the hill where she got off the bus every morning and together they would plod their way to the house. She cooked, cleaned, and loved us. I remember seeing one of her paychecks in the amount of $27.00. I also remember the days we’d take Mammy home and she’d ask Mother to stop by the grocery store several blocks away. Then she’d put some money in my hand and I’d run into the grocery store and plunk the money down saying, “Bit o Dental Snuff, please.”
Mammy ordered the groceries to cook for lunch from Murphy’s Market downtown first thing in the morning and a boy on a bicycle delivered them in time for her to cook. Dinner was served at exactly 12:00 noon. (In the South we eat breakfast, dinner and supper.) The meat went on a platter before “the doctor”. The table was set precisely with forks on the left of the plate (with the napkin) and the knife (facing inward) on the right. The glass was placed above the knife. She trained us well.
…Mammy had worked for the aristocracy of the town, Dr. and Mrs. Earl Moody. While she often locked horns with my mother (whose own father had been killed when logs rolled off a log truck when she was 13 leaving her mother to struggle raising five children) she refused to give up on us. “Yo mama, she be mean. But I be mean too, so we get along.” Mother had been awarded campaign ribbon for service in World War II as a nurse at the Battle of the Bulge. She could curse a blue streak and did so on occasion when things did not go to suit her. Sometimes those disagreements would get so heated that Mother would fire Mammy, but we’d cry and carry on so, she’d have to go and ask her to come back. My father was a doctor and his father was a doctor and that made us worth Mammy’s time and effort. My mother might not know what was “proper” but Mammy did, and she was determined to turn us out well.
…Mammy did have her own family…a daughter Lucy Mae Dixon who was my Mother’s age. Mammy had very little education herself and the lists she made could barely be read, so she valued a good education. Mammy skrimped and saved and sent her to college in the North. It must have been a Catholic college because Lucy Mae converted to Catholicism. Mammy was a dedicated member of the Cherry Street AME Church. Lucy earned her Masters and came home to teach. Mammy bought her items of silver “on time” as birthday gifts. The mahogany furniture in their living areas was always covered in plastic to “save” it.
…I guess Mammy told my brother and sister the same thing she drilled into me. “Yo daddy be somebody. You gotta be somebody.” My sister is a cardiologist in New Orleans (Dr. Sylvia Burson Rushing) and my brother (Elkanah George Burson III ) has just started a pharmaceutical company (Burel Pharmaceuticals). Me? After you’ve got a man it’s all right “to rune yo hands” with Ajax, I learned. I wash a mean bathtub and have stayed married to the same man, an attorney of whom she approved (whose family once owned the Houston Hotel where she had worked) for forty years doing a little teaching and writing. This humble generous woman whom I never saw wear a single piece of jewelry gave me a pearl and gold bracelet for graduation from high school. She who worked from can to can’t all of her life gave me a silver goblet when I got married. I wonder if she ever knew how much they mean to me and that I realize the sacrifice and love those gifts demonstrated.
…Mammy was a proud person who made the most of her situation and, selflessly, with hard work and determination earned respect and made a good life for herself and her family. She raised us, her white family, to believe we could do whatever we chose to do and that we should make our parents proud. She drilled into us values of honesty, integrity, and a sense of responsibility. Because we had been given so much; much was expected. Because we loved her, it was Mammy we wanted to make proud.
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