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To Pernice Moses, with Love and Thanks

Alice pays tribute to her childhood caregiver.

To Pernice Moses, with Love and Thanks

Like many women my age, I belong to a book club — The Alameda Readers. (Yes, I know... we intended to come up with a more creative name for the group but never did.)

Several months ago we read Kathryn Stockett’s bestseller The Help, which is now a movie starring Emma Stone. You would think a Yankee girl like me would have absolutely nothing in common with Jim Crow era southern belles, but the love between “Skeeter,” an aspiring writer, and Constantine, her caregiver, hit close to home.

I grew up in San Francisco in the 1960s, the youngest of four children – rambunctious twin boys between my older sister and me. Given a chance  could have chaired the board of a major corporation, but she wasn’t a natural homemaker. With all of us and a menagerie of critters, her hands were full. Thank God for Mrs. Moses, a.k.a. “Mrs. Moe” — our childhood caregiver.

Mrs. Moe was my other mother. A Baptist, she lived in San Francisco’s Fillmore district and rode the Muni to our house on Jackson Street, balancing on arthritic knees. She wore a white uniform, slightly wrinkled and damp from the steam off pots and irons, and a tiny crystal cross around her neck. When you stood up close on your very tiptoes and squinted one eye, you could read the Lord’s Prayer printed inside. I swear it was made by fairy folk.

She made the world’s greatest fried chicken. It tasted nothing like fried chicken from the supermarket or that stuff in a bucket. It was the chicken of my soul — homemade 1950s Texas fried chicken. Three parts flour to one part salt, cooked in my grandmother’s heavy turkey roaster over a high gas flame. (To this day, I haven’t found fried chicken that compares to Mrs. Moe’s. I have the recipe, and I stand over a hot stove in a hot kitchen, burning my skin with spattered grease, but it’s just chicken.)

Mrs. Moe started cooking her chicken mid-afternoon, the smell of hot oil welcoming us home from school. If she turned her back on the stove for even a minute, my brother Jamie would try to steal the giblets (livers, kidneys and gizzards) off the warming plate, but she would usually catch him in the act and wrap him hard across the knuckles with a wooden spoon.

You didn’t mess with Mrs. Moe. You just didn’t. (My husband, Si, who spent seven years of his childhood in Texas, has similar memories of a woman named Willoughby, who threatened to turn him into a “greasy spot.”  I think he remains traumatized.)

But Mrs. Moe never intimidated me. As the baby of the family — “Honeybun,” I know I was her favorite. When she stayed with us occasionally at night, she would sit right beside my bed with the light on until I fell asleep, softly singing gospel songs.

I loved to watch her iron, begging her to let me take a turn. (I don’t know what I was thinking. Out of all possible housework in my grownup world, I hate ironing the most. My own girls outgrew dresses that sat in a wrinkled pile on my bedroom floor.)

When I was in middle school, Mrs. Moe informed my mother that it was time she retired. My mother said I threw such a hysterical tantrum that instead of retiring, Mrs. Moe just cut back her schedule and still made that bus trip a couple of times a week.

In hindsight, I am ashamed. It never occurred to me that she was achy, exhausted and deserved to get off those knees. I took her for granted in only the way a little child can — I expected her unconditional, unqualified love on demand. All take and little to no give.

I was fourteen when Mrs. Moe died. My brother and I attended her service — two of very few pale white faces in the congregation. I was completely broken in my grief, having never experienced such profound loss. I wondered why God had taken away my Mrs. Moe, how a supposedly loving god could do something so cruel.

I sat in the hard wooden pew and sobbed until I couldn’t breathe, while the Baptists around me celebrated — singing, clapping and praising God for taking Pernice (her given name, a name we never used) to a better place, one of those many rooms in that mansion in the sky.

I am not Baptist, but Episcopal. Episcopalians sit when they are told to sit, stand when they are told to stand, kneel when they are told to kneel, and say what they are told to say, when they are told to say it. At that moment, as the congregation sang and danced their grief in the church aisles, I wanted to convert and become a Baptist. To turn heartbreak into celebration, now that might be even better than turning water into wine.

In interviews, author Kathryn Stockett said she received sixty rejection letters before The Help was finally accepted for publication. She said she hoped to start conversations about relationships that might not otherwise happen. She succeeded.

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