a mammy tale

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.

Read more HERE

8 thoughts on “a mammy tale

  1. Hi Tiff,
    This is a touching and poignant story and I’m glad that you shared it, but I’m curious if the children & now adults, understand fully the life that their beloved mammy led? Did they understand truly what it meant to be black; what it meant to be oppressed? Or was she simply, “one of the good ones”?
    I don’t know how to feel about this article. In my honest opinion, it’s about as gripping as it is numbing; they see a woman who worked hard that they loved, but at the end of the day, she was a worker, a black worker than came into their household to ensure that they “became something”. And yet, they seemed to be blissfully unaware of her struggles, her injustices, and the true meaning of being a mammy. I guess, I find it difficult for a person of color privilege to truly comprehend what it means to not only be black in America, but black in a white-washed world.

  2. I see nothing but humans who shared a place on this earth with a noble love that no “trite” and labeled box could contain. Yes there are victims here….victims of a limited understanding of respect and love beyond place and race.

  3. Thank you for thinking my article on Mammy worthy of notice. I think you would say that Mammy had an influence far beyond as a worker. I have since gone on to write novels. Should you read the novel, In Pursuit, I think you will see how great that influence was. After I discovered my own Native American heritage and wrote Swimming with Serpents a love story set against the Creek Indian War, I became curious about what happened to the Red Stick survivors. The research led me to another tale that should be a part of a Black Heritage trail. It is the story of the Negro Fort on the Apalachicola River. Jackson sent a gunboat up the river and a hot shot hit the munitions and in a flash 300 black men, women and children were blown up. Three years later Jackson came down into Spanish Florida pursuing Red Sticks and escaped slaves and built Fort Gadsden on the site once known as the Negro Fort, effectively pulling a blanket over the original purpose of that fort. I hope my presentation of that event comes through with love and compassion — qualities I saw in Mammy who was my one of my formative role models. Perhaps I am driven to tell these stories because of her.

  4. My grandmother was a maid (as in The Help) in 1975 and as a little girl (9 years old) I would go to work with her (I was on school vacation). I went to work with her because in my little mind I always knew they would work her too hard and I would rather them do it to me. When I saw what they paid her I became furious and more determined to go for as long as she needed me. They owned a 15 room mansion and they wanted the light bulbs dusted, every floor vacuumed, laundry (ironed sheets), silver polished, every bed changed, every floor moped, and she would cook (she was an excellent cook). Today, I am known as the best cook in my family second only to her (she taught me everything she knew. After everything I just mentioned and they would pay her $25.00.

    Well, after they realized that I would be coming with her they decided to pay me $.50. The first time they gave it to me I looked at my grandmother and she knew me well enough to know that I was pissed. She said “thank Mrs. Trustman”. I did what I was told but was seething inside. After that day of work was over my grandmother said with laughter ” I know you are mad as hell”. I said granny I don’t want them to give me anything. She said “you will not be disrespectful and will take the money”.

    The experience changed me and made me more of a fighter for the rights that were so clearly ignored. I became educated and graduated college Cum Laude because I was determined not to work for a society that didn’t respect me or pay me my worth. I have never forgotten the experience and have told my girls who are now grown women.

  5. I just wanna know? where is mammy now? Did she ever know how much she was appreciated and loved? She was indeed a true mother.

  6. A very beautiful and poignant story. My parents did not grow up rich, but both had black maids growing up who took care of them. My mother’s caregiver was Nancy Jones, who at the time was in her 60s. She worked for my grandparents for eight years, and apparently she often did things with my mother and her sisters that still mean a lot to her. She told me that once she took my mother and her sisters trick-or-treating – and even that Nancy put facial cream on her face and went as a ghost! I love that my mother can have such good memories of her. She also said she’ll never forget Nancy making sardine sandwiches or the crackling when she ran a hot comb through her hair. She said that she even sometimes took her and her sisters to her house and referred to them as “my white children.” My mother’s family never even though of racism or what they were doing as racist. It was just the truth that it was in the South in the 1960s, and not only was Nancy most like uneducated, even my own white grandmother only had an 8th grade education.

    For those complicated questions of the social position of African Americans at the time, I can only say that it’s quite easy to judge the past with present values, isn’t it? Of course we all value our integrated society and black people have much more social mobility today than in the 60s. For my mother’s maid, the only thing worse could have been no work at all. My mother (now in her 50s) often says that Nancy was sometimes like a mother to her. My mother’s family even attended her funeral many years after she stopped working for them.

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