My parents hired her to work for them when we moved from an apartment into our first and only home. Sylvia came several days a week to clean the house and wash and iron clothes, the latter being her specialty. There was no one who could iron a shirt as crisply and perfectly as Sylvia. My mother called her “my girl.” It was the ’50s, and middle class white women who employed black cleaning women called them their “girls,” i.e. “My girl only comes in on Fridays,” “My girl was sick last week, and boy, our windows need washing.”
Virtually all of these “girls” were black, which makes this prospect seem all the more horrifying in this day and age. It conjures up the very cruelest of prejudice, but back in the ’50s it was nothing out of the ordinary; nothing of malice. And no one seemed to mind because in most cases, these “girls” were treated fairly, paid reasonably well, and considered to be members of the families who employed them … invited to family weddings, parties, and first communions. But the fact still remained that most were black, under-educated, and not well off, shoved into a white world as little more than servants.
I didn’t care. I was a somewhat lonely little girl, and my friend Sylvia paid attention to me. Where I was chubby, she was thin and stylish. I thought myself plain-looking; Sylvia was pretty. I remember she suffered mysterious headaches sometimes, which I thought very sophisticated and dramatic, and I secretly wished I had headaches like that. As an overprotected only child with few friends, I didn’t play outside much, because outside was where things could happen to you, and you could get hurt; so I played inside, in the company of my friend, Sylvia.
My world was the cellar, because that’s where my record player was, that’s where my toys and games were; and most of all, that’s where Sylvia was. While she spent some time upstairs making beds, washing floors, and cleaning the kitchen, she spent most afternoons in the cellar because that’s where the washer and dryer and ironing board were located. So when I came home from school each afternoon I hurried downstairs to Sylvia’s world … and mine.
There I would chatter on about my day and play a Broadway soundtrack that we both had heard so many times the needle skipped over most of the grooves; yet I would continue to sing and dance along. What a great audience Sylvia was for me! She listened intently as she ironed those perfect collars, applauding my dance steps, watching me do the same thing again and again and making me feel important when the rest of the world would often make me feel clumsy and unwanted. I knew she was different, but I didn’t care. In my house she was my friend, and that was all that mattered.
As I grew older, Sylvia came less often because there was less to do. Then Sylvia’s headaches became worse, and she would come only once a week. And then, not at all. Sylvia’s death became the first death of a friend that I experienced, and therefore one of the hardest, yet I couldn’t cry.
Suddenly it was the ’60s and our social consciousness was raised and people marched and sang “We Shall Overcome,” and “negroes” magically turned into blacks, and there was Martin Luther King Jr. and civil rights for everyone, and murder for some of them. Two water fountains became one, you could now sit anywhere on a bus, and we didn’t have to guess who came to dinner. Then blacks became African-Americans, and we overcame a little more and pretended that color no longer mattered … then it was today.
A few years ago I saw a Broadway show called “Caroline, or Change,” dealing in large part with the social changes of the ’60s and race and separation and anger. As the curtain rose, a black maid walked down the cellar steps holding her laundry basket. Sylvia! And with her a little boy who told her all his secrets. At one point he looked up at her and said with all the sweetness and innocence of childhood, “We’re friends, aren’t we?”
Her retort was swift and sharp, cutting to the very quick. “I just work here. We weren’t never friends.”
It was then, more than 40 years later, that I finally cried for Sylvia.
Rona Mann has been a freelance writer for The Sun for 16 years, including her “In Their Shoes” features. She is the author of three books and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 401-539- 7762.