"All I'm askin' is for a little respect when you come home"
(Performed by Aretha Franklin)
I was raised by "the help." I don't mean that "the help" served me in my parents' mansion. No, my parents were "the help" in white households -- my mother a domestic servant and my father a handyman. While their employment was not necessarily the most desirable, domestic workers of their generation practiced in their lives what they had learned from those who professed a more genteel upbringing.
My parents were in their prime during the years of the Great Depression. They both worked in "some of the finest white homes" of their community. They earned a paltry $4.50 per week. Still, they were blessed to have any job as millions went unemployed in ways that even today's economic climate can't begin to mirror. During it all, those two people thought it important to teach their children basic manners and respect.
Our home was small in comparison to today's dwellings but it was paid for and proudly ours. Mom and Dad had paid Mrs. Watters, the previous owner, on a weekly basis so that we kids would have a roof over our heads. Dad contributed his weekly fifty cents by walking to work rather than taking the trolley -- even during the heavy snows of winter. Times were hard, the country was in disarray, but the Grays had a roof over their heads, food on the table and hope for a better future.
Much of that hope was invested in their children and in the future our folks prayed would result from their own sacrifices and continued efforts. Part of that hoped-for future could be seen in the ritual which unfolded when visitors were expected. We kids would be scrubbed clean, dressed neatly, and expected to wait behind the swinging kitchen door as the guests settled in the living room which adjoined the dining area. At some point after the guests had arrived, either they or our parents would bring up the topic of "the children." Then my mother would call out, "Children!" and we would enter the room, with a bow from the boy (me) and a curtsy from the girl (my sister). We quietly took our seats with our backs straight, feet firmly on the floor, and with hands properly positioned on our laps. We spoke only when spoken to and responded with the expected "Sir" or "Ma'am."
Ours was a world of respect -- respect for our parents, neighbors, anyone older, but -- more than anything -- respect for ourselves. These weren't the affectations of "the help" trying to copy the masters; it went much deeper than that. It went to a true appreciation of human life, regardless of wealth or station.
Some years ago I journeyed to Oklahoma to attend the funeral of a young cousin. He had lived in Pennsylvania while his mother lived in Southern California, but he had chosen to endure his watch for resurrection morning among other family members in the little cemetery in Wybark, Oklahoma. That community wasn't much more than a dozen homes stretched over the length of a couple of football fields, just five mile from Muskogee, Oklahoma -- the closest "big" city.
It was during the drive from the mortuary in Muskogee to the Wybark cemetery that I was reminded of those kinder days, those periods of human respect that appear to have left us now. As the funeral procession moved along the way, motorists on our side of the divided four-lane highway stopped, exited their vehicles and stood in respect for the departed. But the crowning deference came when cars going in the opposite direction of that divided highway also stopped to give honor to the deceased. No one was aware of whose remains were carried in that hearse, be they white or black, rich or poor, male or female. It was simply understood that a child whom God respected by giving them breath had flown home.
I miss those gentler times.
May we all be blessed.
Bro. Darius A. Gray
(A Christian in the Mormon Tradition)