I have just finished a book my mom told me about over a year ago which has since become a movie. My mind is spinning with parallels and ironies. For me, it's one of those books which stays with me long after I have read the last page. This is the first book which I actually cried OUT. LOUD. Not just a few tears and watery eyes...but a full out cry. The Help by Kathryn Stockett really touched my heart in a way I never would have expected. If I would have read this book before coming to Lagos, I would have thought, "Wow! That was a funny book about different women and their hired help in the 60's. But, I'll never experience anything like that. And, by the way, how sad that some people treated their staff that way!"" There would have been no meaning in my own life or any parallels drawn. I would have gone to see the movie and had a few laughs and maybe a few tears and that would have been it. Period. Done.
But, I didn't read it while I was living in the U.S. I read it an ocean away from the life I had before moving here. In the U.S., I never had a housekeeper come to my home everyday. I never could have even imagined having someone in my house every. single.day. But, I guess that is why the old saying says, "Never say never." I do have domestic staff...a very smart, clever, industrious, special woman who came into our lives named Happiness.
It was crazy to me how reading about a group of women from the 1960's in Jackson, Mississippi living alongside their domestic staff or "help." could have so many comparisons even though I know it is fiction. It was almost, (at least for me) like I was reading about expat wives here and their staff. The book highlights some of the worst employers for domestic staff as well as some of the best. And since living here, I can definitely tell you that there are some "madames" who are downright mean to their staff and treat them like they aren't even a person. And, since the Nigerian staff here needs the money to put food on their table, he or she will put up with that treatment. Or, how the employers will talk about their staff when they are standing right there and not even think they can hear what they are saying. I was shocked to see some of this same behavior emulated in this book (because it reminded me of here a little bit. Those stories made me cry).
But, the stories in this book which really struck me were the ones of the employers and the help having a true friendship with each other which at that time was dangerous territory. (That is the part I was full blown boo-hooing!) There is a quote in the book which rang truth in my ears, "Good help is like true love, it only comes along once in a lifetime." And until I read those words on that page, I had never thought about it that way...
People may think I'm crazy or that it's too "dangerous"( I have been told that, too) but I can't help how I feel about my stewardess. People warned me when I first moved here, "Don't get too chatty with your staff." or " You don't want to know what is going on in their lives...they (the staff) always want something." ( And like everyone, there is good and "bad" staff). But, Happiness is our family's "once in a lifetime". In my heart, she is a dear friend. She is the reason I transitioned so well to Nigeria. She has listened to my complaining, and we have even shared a few tears together. She has taught us so much about Nigeria, and she has done all of that for us while cleaning, cooking, grocery shopping, ironing and taking care of our kids. My children have fallen" head over heels" in love with her....and there's no going back...
It's hard to imagine our lives without her in it at this point, and I guess that's why this book pulled at my heart so much. This book gave me the perspective of the domestic staff taking care of their employers and I could see my own life in a strange way on these pages. It drove home in me that you can never "judge a book by it's cover" (so to speak) and just assume you know how people are. My "help" knows every aspect of my day practically. She sees my home and my children and pictures of my family,and I don't know that much about hers....until I ask.:) It's funny to me ( not in "ha ha" way) how I hear some people treating their staff so badly , but trusting them with their children??? Or, letting staff cook food for their employers but not even letting the staff keep their own food in the fridge to warm up at lunch time because the madame doesn't like the smell???!!!
I just had to write down what has been rolling around in my head these past few days since I finished this book. I think this book was so well written and gives perspective from both sides. I am sure those of you who have never had domestic staff work for you probably think I'm crazy, and I lost you somewhere by the end of the first paragraph. But, if you are an expat who has read this book, I would love to hear your thoughts about it. And, if you have "help" working for you, I hope you find your "once in a lifetime". It makes all the difference in the world when you are feeling alone, sad, and scared in a faraway place.:)