"Mae Mobley, you sit your bottom right there and tell me what's up," said papa, patting a spot next to him on the living room couch. I hesitated before complying.
Mother and Johnny were over at Hilly's house, a trip I opted out on. Papa supported me, to my general relief, and Mrs. Leefolt seemed almost happy that I was staying here. Fewer problems, I figured, was her general outlook—Hilly always somehow managed to find something wrong with me, and I, nonverbally and inwardly, with her. It was best for the entire party if I just stayed out of it—and stay out of it I did.
"There's nothing wrong, papa," I said, leaning against his shoulder.
"That's a lie, and you know it," accused papa gently, taking my face in his hands and turning my entire head so it was directly opposite from his. I giggled. This was papa's way of gently scolding me, and it had always been like this. He joined in my laughter, chuckling throatily, his deep voice very different from my high-pitched twitter (a characteristic I myself found annoying.)
"It's nothing serious," I promised. "For real, papa, it's nothing to worry about."
"Anything that worries my daughter worries me," he insisted, and finally, I broke.
"It's just that Pastor French is leaving," I gushed, feeling heat rise to my cheeks. Already, this early in my confession, I felt like a naïve schoolgirl, a feeling I didn't like but often experience. Papa quickly set me at ease.
"Pastor French is a good man," said papa. "But he's got to move on. If he says he doesn't want to, he's telling the truth. A man like that wouldn't lie—not a man of God. And even if he weren't a religious pastor, he's honest. Pastor French is only leaving because his commitments are taking him elsewhere. We Jackson-ites are sadly left to mourn his departure." He hugged me close, and I felt the tension seep from my muscles. Papa was right, as usual. And comforting enough to make me see reason.
"Thanks, papa," I whispered into his Harvard sweatshirt. "Thanks."
Even if Pastor French hadn't left, I would've, eventually. College was a few months away, and already I had begun to feel nervous. But I had always excelled in anything academic I'd ever tried, and Bryn Mawr College had accepted me with open arms.
Mrs. Leefolt, on the other hand, had been less willing to let me go.
"It's a Northern college!" she'd shrieked. "A Northern college, Raleigh!"
"I went to a Northern college," he pointed out. "They're fine folks up there, just as kind and respectful as you and me."
"That doesn't change the fact that it's in Pennsylvania, Raleigh! It's too far away, and plus, I'm sure Mae Mobley will be much more happy to go to Ole Miss. A legacy, that's what she'd be, and a happy one at that. What do you say?" she'd finally asked, rounding on me. Her eyes glinted with fury.
"I…I couldn't say," I replied meekly, my drive draining from my bones.
"Hah!" exclaimed Mrs. Leefolt triumphantly. "Hah!"
"Oh, Elizabeth, you know she's only saying that to appease you. She wants to go to a good college, up north," papa said, rolling his eyes. "And she's damn right, Lizzy. You can't expect her to follow in your footsteps just because you've found comfort here in Jackson. What if Mae decides to do something outside of the box? What if she breaks the barriers of Southern living and makes a difference in the world? Your college won't help her any." He shook his paper open. I gaped at him, but shut my mouth when mother opened hers. I was ready to bet she'd be pissed.
"Ole Miss is a perfectly good college," spat mother angrily. "You damn Yankee-soft-hearted folks are willing to exchange a tried-and-true lifestyle on a damn whim. Fine! Throw it all away! But you'll regret it, Mae Mobley, and you, Raleigh, will be sorry you ever encouraged her." She turned on her heel and left.
It was a bad day whenever Mrs. Leefolt cursed—so rarely did she lose her temper so completely that I could count on one hand the times she'd gotten so out of control. Papa turned to stare at me and burst in laughter.
I was shocked, but he said, "Looks like we've won, Mae!"
He picked up my hands and we danced merrily about the living room. I was going to college, not a sorority one like mother's, but a "tried-and-true" college for academically-driven students. I would join the ranks of educated, beautiful, mysterious women, hopefully abandoning forever Jackson, Mississippi. My only regret in that respect was losing papa—otherwise, I had nothing here for me. No friends to speak of, only Hilly Holbrook, that insufferable daughter of hers, and Johnny. And mother. Did any of them count?
I was going to college. I was going to be free.
"Letter for you, Elizabeth!" called papa from the front door. "And a package for me, and here's an envelope for you, Mae Mobley…must be from Bryn Mawr, can't get enough of you, can they?"
Papa entered the kitchen and navigated his way through the crowd towards Mrs. Leefolt. He handed it to her and she smiled and took it. Must've been something to do with Hilly; that and bridge club were the only things that made her grin like a little schoolgirl.
He set down his small package and passed me the envelope. I wondered what it might be. Did Bryn Mawr really need to send more than a letter of acceptance? They'd included the list of supplies, and my dorm room number, and all the other forms and things I needed to sign.
But it wasn't from Bryn Mawr.
It was from a woman named Aibileen.
Dear Mae Mobley,
I don't suppose you remember me. Not one bit. That's alright, you were young, and I wasn't around for as long as I'd have liked to stay with you. But I wanted to tell you that I remember you, and you have haunted my dreams since the very day I left you.
My name is Aibileen Clark. I am fifty-six years old—and old woman, older than your ma and pa, for sure. I am a writer, a mother, an aunt, and a friend. But now, most importantly, I was your mother.
When you were just a little baby girl, and your mother had slid you from her womb, she was only twenty-some years old. She was too young, too foolish, too naïve to be able to raise a baby. And so she hired me to keep you alive.
But I did more than keep you alive. You became my baby girl, my little Mae Mobley. I got up every morning, and I raced over to pick you up, change the diapers your mama Mrs. Leefolt had neglected all night, and I hung you and sang to you and you were as much my baby as you were beautiful.
I love you, Mae Mobley. I need to talk to you. To tell you why I left, and why I can't ever come back. Listen to me, Mae. I love you so much. And each day I wonder why I ever let them send me away.
Just remember, Mae—you is kind.
You is good.
You is important.
You is kind. You is good. You is important.
I drew in a sharp breath of air, my eyes widening. I set the letter in my lap and proceeded to breathe deeply, trying to cleanse my circulation of the terrible shock I'd just experienced.
"I hope you're not hyperventilating," said Mrs. Leefolt from the other side of the room. "Hilly's just sent me an invitation to a mother-daughter-tea-party this coming Thursday and if you're in the hospital I'll only have Johnny."
It took me a minute to find the words, and the ability, to respond. "I'm not hyperventilating, mother. They've—Bryn Mawr has sent me an expensive food plan contract," I lied. "I'm just trying to think things through."
"Hmph," said Mrs. Leefolt. "I told you that school was for no-good academics, and Hilly agrees with me. You'll end up caring more about a career than starting a family, just like Skeeter—" She stopped, and clapped a hand over her mouth dramatically. Her eyes flicked to papa, who stood frozen, briefcase in hand, about to enter the living room. They exchanged a worried glance before he gave me and Johnny goodbye kisses and went to work.
"Well, best finish up with your thinking," said mother, returning, awkwardly, to her usual self. "We're leaving for Hilly's in a few."
I sat on my bed, holding the letter in my shaking hands. Aibileen Clark. Aibee. Who was she? Petunia had always been around our house…she had been with us since I was four, mother told me. And before that, I'd just always assumed mother had raised me.
Now that I thought about it, that thought was ridiculous. The thought of mother lifting a finger to change my diapers was laughable—even hysterical. She'd always had Hilly to consume her time, and bridge club, that convertible Mustang of hers.
Who had raised me before Petunia arrived? Papa was at work, Johnny wasn't even born, and Hilly was…Hilly. Had this Aibileen Clark really been my mother after Mrs. Leefolt birthed me? Had she been the one to make sure I didn't drown in the tub, or get stuck in the washing machine? It seemed a much more likely theory than mother taking care of me.
But why had I never known about Aibileen? If she really had been the most important person in my life up till Petunia arrived to take care of me and Johnny, why had she just disappeared? Why had she left me, as she so aptly put it herself.
And each day I wonder why I let them send me away.
Mother and papa—that must be who she was talking about. I couldn't imagine papa firing this woman, and as for Mother, she wouldn't go against papa unless she had the support of a navy fleet behind her.
In other words, unless Hilly Holbrook took her side.
So the real question was—what did that damned Hilly have against Aibileen?