My understanding of the woman that was Mable Oliver was a long time in the making. She was one of the grownups in my world who sometimes watched after me and the rest of my six brothers and sisters. I did not think about her situation (a poor black woman in a segregated South) as a small child, she was just there, waiting at the end of the dirt road that led to her tidy frame house when my grandmother came by to pick her up. Mable’s home, built with meticulous care by her father-in-law Abraham Oliver, was on the edge of town about a mile north of our home. Sometimes, if the weather was really bad, my grandmother would drive down the road, arched over with branches from towering trees, and Mable would be standing on the porch, waiting to dash out to the car through the rain, holding a newspaper or cloth over her head. Mable worked for my grandmother as a maid; she was one of that army of black women who worked for tiny wages, fifty cents an hour in the fifties, in so many white southern homes.
As a little child, I loved to go next door to my grandparents house, and visit. Mable was the third in the magic trio, along with my grandparents, Big Daddy and Nana Cox. They seemed to have time to listen to my questions, allowed me to follow them around and, “help,” with whatever they were doing. Mable toiled endlessly, washing, ironing, cooking, and cleaning, in a day when these were major tasks, requiring skill and strength, both mental and physical. By the time I knew her, she had nearly grown children, and was always covered by a white bib apron, made from recycled, bleached flour sacks, covering a button front print dress. She wore lace up shoes, socks, and in the winter, she would add a wool sweater to her outfit. I only saw her dressed differently a couple of times, once on a Sunday, her day off, she stopped by, resplendent in a double breasted white suit dress, wearing a broad brimmed straw hat, and once during a rare freezing, snowy spell, wearing dark wool clothes, bundled in a elderly looking, heavy coat. Most of the time, she seemed the same to my eyes, always waiting at the end of the road, in the morning, and disappearing in the trees at the end of the day, when my grandmother dropped her off in the evening at five o’clock.
I loved Mable, who seldom said a cross word and seemed to have endless patience with the horde of kids who lived next door, and came over in the afternoons to iron for my mother. She would sit at the ironing board, singing hymns, and producing rows of starched dresses and piles of stiff shirts for us seven kids and my parents. I loved to watch her make the starch, boiling some mixture on the stove, that seemed to consist of candle wax, Niagra powdered starch, and water. She would plunge the wet, freshly washed clothes into the concoction, wring them out, and hang them on the line to dry. They would come in, piles of stiff wrinkled bundles, like sticks, to be “sprinkled down,” with water from a coke bottle which had a tin, corked rimmed sprinkler fitted in to the top. Mable laboriously, endlessly, meticulously ironed, afternoon after afternoon, an infinity of 100% cotton, pre-polyester, pre-permanent press fabrics, rows and piles of clothes, for us to wear.
When I was in first grade, Mable would remind me to take off my dress after I came home from school, because, as she put it, “It takes a lot to get those dresses, washed starched and ironed.” Sometimes when my mom was elsewhere, I would take all my dresses (all five of them) and line them up in a row, where they would stand up by themselves, like little bodies without heads, every ruffle starched and ironed, amazing items, created by a mistress of the art of fine laundering. For something like this labor, I pay five dollars an item, just for pressing, at my Brooklyn dry cleaners. The finished product does not look like Mable’s work, but it’s all that is available in the post-modern world. On Saturdays, sometimes when my parents would take a day off from the mob, Mable would “mind” us, and we would mind her as best as we were able. She would make the most wonderful fried chicken, corn bread and collards for our lunch. I have never again tasted such wonderful cooking, which was only one of Mable’s many talents. She had vision that extended beyond her own works and restricted circumstances in the small southern town of her birth.
Because I lived in segregated world, where white skin was privileged over black, when I was young, I did not understand the challenges that lay behind Mable’s life accomplishments. While Mable had some formal schooling, she understood that education was the key to a better future for her own four children. She insisted that they all complete high school in the “separate, but unequal” black school system in our town. When the time came for their college, she would get up at daybreak to pick strawberries, before she would go to her “day” job at my grandmother’s house. With extra money picked up in agricultural piece work, she managed to send all her children to college. The eldest girl, Winnie, escaped to New York City, and got a job teaching school. The second child, Zenobia, met a man from Jamaica, and married him and moved to the islands, where she told me, things were different. Just how different I could not even guess, but dimly sensed when I met her husband one afternoon and marveled at his “foreign” accent and confident character.
But it was Mable’s grandchildren who really reaped the fruit and sacrifice of her efforts. One of her granddaughters became the first black member of the National Honor Society at the local integrated high school. This granddaughter later graduated with a Ph.D. in psychology from the University of Michigan. A grandson attended the United States Naval Academy and was the Service Academy’s middle weight boxing champion. Another grandson left Lamar University with a degree in business administration and the record for the most points scored by a basketball player. Another grandson graduated from East Carolina University after having attended that institution on a football scholarship. Without going into all the details, Mable, who scrubbed, cooked, and cleaned other people’s houses, to send her children to college had the pleasure and pride of seeing her grandchildren attend college on either academic or athletic scholarships.
Something else besides beautifully ironed clothes, great cooking, a rock solid faith, and a loving heart perished when Mable died in the early 1970's. She was a faithful member of the North-East Baptist church and is buried in the town cemetery, (in the black section, of course). She was an important member of our family. For a while, after she died, I did not think about her, flinching away from the implications of oppression and racism omnipresent in the world of my youth, but finally, now, in my fifties, about the age she was when I first knew her, I can look at her life and acknowledge the wonderful person that she was and be grateful for the gifts of service and love she gave my family and me. I am sure we really never appreciated or understood the quality of her character, and certainly did not “deserve” the help and care she gave us as kids. There was no justice in situation, she was just a gift of grace, a wonderful woman, who was a privilege and blessing to know.
Laviece Eugenia Cox Ward