In Jim Crow south, a reason to love

2 women with much in common grew beyond the limits of the society that bred them

When I was 5 years old, living in Savannah, Ga., Rose Martin came to help my mother take care of me and my younger siblings.

Several days a week, as my mother had more children, eventually eight in all, Rose arrived at our little house to help cook, clean, change diapers. She and my mother were both in their 30s then, though I didn't think about the similarity, just as I didn't think about the fact that Rose had kids and a home of her own.

She was just Rose, tall, muscular, friendly, efficient, there.

When I was 9, my family left Savannah. On moving day, my father asked Rose to run up to the new McDonald's to buy hamburgers for our drive.

Rose, not the crying type, came back in tears.

The restaurant wouldn't serve her, she said, even after she said that the hamburgers were for her boss. Her white boss. My father took me with him when he stormed off to yell at the McDonald's manager.

Often in the years afterward, I thought about that incident, and how demeaning, how frustrating it must have felt to Rose. It was the moment that I began to realize there was something wrong in the place I lived.

Many years later, when my mother was close to 80, we went on a vacation trip to Savannah.

"I'd like to see Rose," she said when we got there.

They'd talked occasionally on the phone after Rose somehow found my mother's phone number, but they hadn't seen each other in decades. Rose sounded excited when I asked if we could come visit.

As we drove toward the outskirts of Savannah, my mother was excited, too, but something was worrying her.

"What if she calls me Miss Mary Ellen?"

I didn't know what to say. My mother and Rose met in a time in which black people were expected to be deferential in addressing white people, a time my mother looked back on in shame. Her discomfort made sense to me, but I told her that bringing it up might make Rose uncomfortable.

We drove on. Rose greeted us in the driveway with open arms.

"Miss Mary Ellen," she cried.

She was still tall, erect, strong. She had to bend over to hug my mother, who was tiny, white-haired, stooped.

"Please," my mother said, "call me Mary Ellen."

Rose just smiled, and held my mother's arm to guide her into the house.

For the next couple of hours, they sat there reminiscing.

My mother recalled how Rose used to bring the small "black" newspapers into our house; my mother read them, learning things about the South that were absent from the news served to white Southerners. She told Rose she was grateful for that.