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I work for four hundred and thirty-eight white ladies in a three-story mansion, not a one of them over the age of twenty-two. When I took this job, nearly twenty-five years ago, I did it out of necessity. Things in my life had … well, let’s just say they had jumped the track. All of the women in my family, as far back as any of us knew, had worked as domestics. I had been determined to do something different—graduate from college—make a name for myself. Yet here I am following along in their footsteps.
I clean toilets, I mop floors, I polish fancy furniture, and I shine the sterling silver. I do a whole lot more, unrelated to housekeeping, but I’ll get to that later. Even though things may not have turned out the way I planned, I like to think I’ve made the best of it. My people always told me, “When the praises go up the blessings come down, even if they are found in the most unlikely places.”
Now, let’s get back to the young ladies. Only sixty-six of them actually stay in the mansion. The other four hundred or so stay in dormitories or apartments and come over for meals, to do their homework, attend chapter meetings, and just be together. They’re sisters. Not by blood. Sorority sisters. Alpha Delta Beta sorority sisters. It’s considered one of the oldest and finest sororities on the University of Mississippi campus. And that mansion I mentioned? We all call it “the House.”
In a way, it reminds me of that Downton Abbey house on PBS. Not as spectacular on the outside, but with every bit of drama on the inside. Like Downton, there’s a staff of people cooking and cleaning at the Alpha Delt House, plus a whole lot of wealth, gossip, pretty clothes, and tears.
Until it went off the air, the sisters living in the House used to pack into the TV room and watch that show every Sunday night. Made it into a party, too, bringing in cheese plates, dips, and desserts. Always had an adult beverage—or two—to go along with their hors d’oeuvres. They’d have to be sneaky about it, though. No alcohol allowed in the House, even if the drinker is twenty-one.
Looks to me like some things haven’t changed all that much in a hundred years. Yet other times I know they have, for the better. Last year, the Alpha Delts let in their first black sister. I see the positive in that—I’m not denying it—but truth is I’m curious. I’m trying to get up my nerve to ask her why she wanted to join a white sorority in the first place when there are three black sororities on campus. Seems like she’d feel a whole lot more comfortable over there, rather than sticking out like a black swan over here. I know it’s not my business. But, like I said, I’m curious. Every time we pass each other in the House, me in my navy work scrubs, she in her fancy designer dresses, I can’t help but wonder what it is she’s thinking when she looks at me.
Wouldn’t it be nice if all the black and white sororities combined? I ask myself that sometimes. But that has about as much of a chance as all the black and white churches coming together. Personally, I think that’s the way the Lord meant for it to be, but it would be easier for the Delta State Statesmen to beat the Ole Miss Rebels than it would be to fully integrate Mississippi.
We—that’s the rest of the staff and me—have been working like mules for a solid week now trying to get this House ready for the new school year. It’s been closed up all summer long and the cobwebs—thick as bagworms—have found a home in every nook and cranny. I’ve been wearing myself out ten hours a day, washing down the baseboards, cleaning the dust off all the mahogany dining room tables and the hundreds of matching Chippendale chairs. Vacuuming the draperies. Vacuuming the upholstery. Polishing the silver. Woo. Makes me tired just talking about it.
I finished scrubbing the bathrooms on all three floors yesterday, and today I’ve still got the composites. It’s my job to make sure they are dust and fingerprint–free; we’ve got one for every year clear back to 1912. I have to laugh when I look at them all lined up and down the halls and in the chapter room with tiny oval pictures of all the members. It looks like white is the only race. Except for last year’s composite with that little black head on the end. That’s Alberta Williams, our pretty black swan.
Seems like I’m doing nothing but murmuring and complaining. God hates a complainer. I know that full well. Scripture says so. I do it, and I might do it more often than I should, but the truth is nobody’s twisting my arm to work at the Alpha Delta Beta House. There isn’t but one thing tethering me to a job where after twenty-five years of loyal service, I don’t get but $11.50 an hour.
That one thing, the only thing, keeping me working here is the girls. I love them like they are my own daughters. And most of them love me right back. Sure, there’s a few with their noses stuck up in the air who don’t want much to do with me or the rest of the staff, but that’s anywhere. The vast majority are twenty-four-karat gold. They’re my babies. Whether it’s my advice, a shoulder to cry on, my prayers, or my unquestionable love, they always seem to be in need of Miss Pearl.
* * *
I hear someone squealing my name and the scurry of flip-flops on hardwood clapping in my direction. Today is move-in day and I’m inside my hall maintenance closet searching for a spare bottle of Windex with my backside poking out the door. When I straighten up, look behind me, Elizabeth Jennings is standing there with that pearly white smile of hers spread clear across her pageant-perfect face. Mississippi is the beauty queen capital of the world and all it takes is one glance inside the Alpha Delt House to understand why.
An armload of clothes on hangers falls, kerplunk, onto the floor, and Elizabeth jumps in the closet with me. She throws her arms around my neck, squeezes me like I’m family. “I missed you, Miss Pearl.”
“Welcome back, sweetheart. I missed you, too.”
I have to keep from laughing at her tiny self. That backpack she’s wearing is bigger than she is and it’s bulging at the zipper like a tight dress. She’s wearing Lululemon shorts with an oversize white Alpha Delt T-shirt and leather flip-flops. Why all the girls want to wear those big T-shirts, hiding the prettiest parts of themselves, is something I’ll never understand. Her legs are dark, like caramel candy, and well toned.
“Woo-whee, baby, your skin looks like mine,” I say, busting out laughing.
“I just got back from Seaside four days ago.” She holds her arm up to mine. “Our family goes every summer. Did you go anywhere fun?”
I’m thinking to myself, Me? Go on a vacation? I’m laid off three months every summer. Best I can do is collect an unemployment check, and that’s not enough to fill a sugar jar. Some might wonder why I don’t look for temp work. I do. Aside from a babysitting job or two, there’s not much left. Oxford is a college town. Things scale way back in the summer. But that’s not Lizzie’s problem, nor her fault. “No, baby, I had too much going on right here in Oxford.”
The crease between her eyebrows deepens. “I’m sorry, Miss Pearl.” She closes her eyes, pokes out her bottom lip. It’s genuine. I know Lizzie’s heart.
“I’m not worried about it. And you shouldn’t be, either. What room are you moving into?”
“I don’t know yet. I was on the way to Mama Carla’s apartment to get my key, but there was a big line. So I came to find you.” She hugs me again.
Mama Carla is our housemother, although these days people say House Director. On move-in day she checks out room keys to each girl and has them sign a contract swearing to obey all the House rules.
After a few minutes of catching up, Lizzie sighs and says, “I guess I better get in that line.” She leans down, scoops up half the clothes into a messy pile, high as her chin. Any ironing done before today was a big waste of time.
I lean down, pick up the rest. “I’ma help you with your things. Come on, let’s use the back steps.”
“You’re sweet to offer, but my dad’s around here somewhere. Just stick the rest on top.” She laughs. “If you don’t mind.”
I plop the remainder of her clothes on top of the pile, mash them down so she can see. “Be careful now.”
“I will.” She takes a few steps toward Mama Carla’s apartment, turns back around. “I’ve got a lot to tell you—when you get a minute.”
“You know I’m here for you. My office is always open.” All the girls know they can stop by my office, also known as my maintenance closet, for counseling any time they choose. I’ve got two stools inside exactly for that reason. Alpha Delt In-House Counselor is another of my unofficial titles.
She steps forward to hug me once more, remembers the load in her arms, and kisses my cheek instead. “Thanks, Miss Pearl. You’re the best.”
Lizzie has always been one of my favorites. Oh, Lizzie is what most everyone calls her. She’s a senior this year and I’ve known her since she was a pledge. She’s also this year’s Recruitment Chairman and that is one heck of a job. I’ve never met her dad, but her mother’s real nice. She’s always polite and tells me she’s relieved I’m working here. Last year when Lizzie came down with that kissing disease, mono-something-or-other, and almost had to leave school, her mother must have called me every other day for three months asking would I please check on her baby.
Copyright © 2018, 2019 by Lisa Patton