Maybelle Charley would have celebrated her 90th birthday today. She died in 2002, after struggling for many years from complications related to diabetes, including the amputation of her leg.
Like the lovingly maternal Aibileen brought to life in Kathryn Stockett’s best seller, The Help, Maybelle was one of multiple generations of black women from the South who choose to devote their lives to helping white families care for their homes and raise their children. While she may have made the trip from Columbia, South Carolina to Washington, D.C. in the early sixties looking for household work, she found an opportunity to become a mother.
In retrospect, I realize that the turmoil that dissolved our family in the early sixties was also touching the lives of many others, as national divorce rates began the sharp climb that continued for several decades. Maybelle was my shelter from the impact of an almost completely disinterested father, a mother narrowly focused on building her career, and the departure from our home of three older siblings that turned our family into Maybelle and me long before my teenage years began. Like many others who grew up without fathers or mothers present and engaged in their lives, the passion for life, example of service and integrity modeled by someone who choose to love me became the foundation of my own life.
From my earliest memories until I left our Northern Virginia home for college in 1979, Maybelle was the ever-present nurturer, champion, comforter and counselor whose eager heart and loving embrace remain the happiest memories of childhood more than three decades later.
Although she often talked about her marriage at the age of 13, as well as her early natural talents with a basketball, Maybelle, widowed and divorced, never had a child of her own. For years after she moved into the Marion Barry Senior Center in downtown Washington, D.C., she loved to watch the faces of her neighbors when her white son came to visit, take her shopping for a new outfit or her favorite Estee Lauder cosmetics, or hang out to enjoy delicious Chinese take-away, especially shrimp and lobster sauce.
I’ll never forget the morning in March 2002 when I got the call in Florida that Maybelle had died, just a day after we laughed and reminisced in what would become our final conversation. Within hours, my biological mother and I were standing over her still warm body draped in a white sheet at a hospital not far from where we shared so many meaningful conversations, laughter, and love. I still wonder if Maybelle was ready to leave that day. She had struggled for years to navigate the world after the amputation of her leg. When doctors took off an infected finger shortly before she died, I suspect Maybelle decided she’d had enough.
In The Help, Stockett brings Maybelle and others of her generation to life through her masterful portrayal of the charm, character, devotion, and emotions many black women brought to helping white families of the fifties, sixties and beyond.
Women like Stockett’s Aibileen, Minny, and my Maybelle remain the unsung heroes of many lives, including my own. I’m forever grateful I don’t have to imagine what life would have been like without her.
Happy Birthday, Maybelle.