The first African American I ever met was Lucille MacIntosh, my Aunt Eleanor and Uncle Jim Beaton’s housekeeper in the 1950s and ‘60s. We cousins spent a lot of time at each other’s houses, so I saw Lucille a lot. She was so tiny, only a little bit taller than I was, probably just over four feet, and was quite dark-complected, with a very pronounced Mississippi dialect, full of “you’se” and “ya’lls.”
I clearly remember standing in my aunt’s kitchen one time with Lucille’s granddaughter when we were about six or seven, as we curiously and tentatively felt each other’s heads: she putting her hands on my straight brown hair, and me putting mine on her tightly coiled, slightly fuzzy black braids. A first, I’m sure for both of us.
Another distinct memory I have is of the “clapper” sandwiches Lucille made for our lunches. She’d mix honey and peanut butter in a bowl, spread it on two pieces of bread, then clap them together to make a sandwich in this contraption that was a round metal pouch at one end attached to a long pair of handles that opened up. She’d lay the sandwich-end down on the stove’s hot burner to cook, flipping it over once to toast both sides evenly. The honey and peanut butter melted together, oozing out at the first bite of this now steaming gooey-on-the inside, crispy-on-the outside concoction that sometimes burned our tongues.
But Lucille was known for dispensing out a lot more than food; it was her words that people really savored and appreciated. By the time she started working for the Beatons, Lucille had raised ten children on her own plus numerous grandchildren, so she had a lot to say about life.
When my aunt died in 2005, we found several envelopes full of notes she had written about Lucille over 15 or 20 years. She was always going to write a book about her, and when my cousin Suze transcribed all the stories, verbatim, and there were more than 30 pages. What’s wonderful is that my aunt wrote all of Lucille’s words exactly as Lucille spoke them, which perfectly preserved the moments; we can all see her standing there with her hand on her hip as she gives us her opinions in her very recognizable southern drawl.
These stories are nothing like the ones we all read about in “The Help.” In fact, it’s obvious by the way they talked to each other that Aunt Eleanor and Lucille had a close friendship and greatly respected one another. As she states in her introduction to the book she never got around to writing, my aunt talks about what an “intelligent, unique, and lovable person” Lucille was and how she “freely communicated, in a sound and understandable way, her magnificent outlook on life.”
Most of Lucille’s carefully recorded comments are about the Beaton kids—there were six them—and it’s fun to see now, more than five decades later, how Lucille felt about each of them as they were growing up, how one was sweet, another a little spoiled, and so on. But what I really love are her many wise observations about life in general—the importance of getting an education or saving money, for example.
My personal favorite was something she said about men, specifically husbands: ”Naw, honey, they ain’t none of ‘em perfect.” I can say for certain that those eight words, which I’ve heard in my head so frequently, definitely contributed to the success and longevity of my second marriage. Not only that, but I’ve amended them slightly and applied them to everyone I know, from my best friends to myself: They ain’t none of us perfect. We all screw up once in awhile, so let’s give each other the break we need to keep the world civil and sane, and move on.
Lucille was one of those people you meet in childhood who turns out to be much more important to you than you realize at the time. She positively influenced me my whole life through, and I’ve never forgotten her, especially today when there is so much negativity regarding race relations in our world. In fact, I even found an observation that Lucille made 60 years ago that is worth repeating now: “Some Mexicans done move in across the street a while back,” she said. “Five or six of them plays together and they don’t stray from their yard. Yestahday I saw some little colored boys by them. They had some marbles and they done play togethah for first time. Now Miz Beaton that is good.”
Can you see why we all loved Lucille?