Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Those Who Help Themselves

The concept of 'help' and I have a somewhat hostile relationship. Basically, I don't like asking for it. For that matter, I don't particularly like receiving it. Doing so makes me feel weak, and inadequate, and in some manner awkward, much like I'm standing around in someone else's kitchen, unsure where anything is kept or how to assist.

This is not to say I'm not touched when someone does offer to help me when it's needed; I am. I'm just not sure how to proceed: how to hand over the reigns, step aside, sit down and shut up. How to adequately say thank you. Perhaps this is a very masculine trait; I don't know.

I do know this: when I think of help--the concept as well as the deliverance--I think of Mrs. Bird. Mrs. Bird was my grandmother's housekeeper when I was a child. This would be back in the late '70s and '80s in Laguna Beach, California. Anyone in my family reading this is probably thinking it's odd that I still remember Mrs. Bird (maybe they don't themselves), but for whatever reason, she was to me one of those very inconsequential people in your life who dip in and then back out but not before leaving a lasting impression. I'm not speaking of the gym teacher from high school or the long lost boyfriend who resurfaces on Facebook, but the ones whose role was so very minor, they barely scratched the surface of your reality, but whose touch seems to somehow linger.

Why this person, for me, was Mrs. Bird, I have no idea. I don't think she ever spoke more than two words to me, but when I was in my grandmother's house, which was often, I was always acutely aware of her presence, maybe because even then, I didn't know what to do around someone who was, essentially, there to help me. I was always stepping over her vacuum cord or trying to avoid her mopped floors or thanking her shyly  for the fresh beach towels or PB&J when really, I just wanted to do these things for myself.

I can't recall my first introduction to Mrs. Bird; she was an institution in my grandmother's household from my earliest memory of the place. As a young girl, she struck me as very, very old, but in hindsight, I doubt she was much older than my grandmother. She might even have been younger. (I wonder, sometimes, whether she's still living.) Despite her age (or perceived age) she exuded formidable strength. I have no idea how tall she was in terms of stature, but in terms of sheer presence, she towered. Without a doubt, she was very capable. She walked around the house with purpose, mostly ignoring us kids around her feet. She had dark skin that intrigued me because where it creased around her mouth and eyes and on her hands, the lines ran so deep and black as to seem bottomless. She wasn't unkind, but she wasn't overly friendly, either, and for this reason (and the pronounced wrinkles), she inexplicably struck me as wise. (I don't know whether she actually was.)

She lived in the canyon (this would be the Laguna Canyon), and every day, my grandmother would drive her home in her big Cadillac so Mrs. Bird wouldn't have to ride the bus. Sometimes, I'd get to go too. I looked forward to this, because I loved seeing Mrs. Bird's house, which seemed as much a mystery to me as Mrs. Bird herself. I'd sit in the massive back bench seat of the car, slipping around on all that leather whenever my grandmother took a turn, and listen as they chatted about their grandkids and kids, their husbands, and the like. Again in hindsight, I think my grandmother and Mrs. Bird were friends of a sort. At very least, they enjoyed the company of one another on those drives, whatever their relationship was otherwise.

Mrs. Bird had many kids still living at her house (whether they were her children or grandchildren, I never fully worked out), and when we would pull up, there would always be lots of bikes and toys littering the dirt driveway and a kid or two in the yard. To my mind, this meant that all those children got to stay home alone all day long while Mrs. Bird was with us (which may actually have been true), which made them very impressive to me. Older somehow. More mature than myself or my school friends, even though I could see that most of them were actually littler. I'd watch from my seat as they rode their bikes down the street to greet the car, and I'd long with a sort of thrill to be one of Mrs. Bird's kids for just one day.

When I'm in my grandmother's house even now, there are moments when I think of Mrs. Bird. Such as when my grandmother pulls one of the many worn, cotton aprons with the crossed straps in the back out of her bottom kitchen drawer. When I have to dig into the linen closet for clean sheets. When I yank out the ancient vacuum. And sometimes, when I catch my mind flitting to Mrs. Bird during these moments, I'm ashamed that I'm remembering her in terms of these menial chores which surely never defined her. But the truth is, they're the only context I have for her, and even as a child, I was painfully aware of how narrow and thinly sliced that context was. With the anomaly of her greater life beyond my grandmother's house cut off from me, the memories in my head now are sharper, less forgiving than they might have been had I been gifted with a fuller picture. They're just jagged snapshots, scattered around my mind like shards of glass: Mrs. Bird in the family room with its grand piano and oriental vases and plush, spring-green carpeting that must have been a pain to keep clean. Mrs. Bird in the kitchen covering casseroles. Mrs. Bird gathering her sweater from the side-board when it was time to go.

And then there's the even more splintered images: The way her hands looked gripped around the plastic vacuum handle. The leather flats she wore in the house. The way her skin was dry and cracked around the ankles. The little purse she always set in her lap while riding in the car.

The way I was always in her way.

But if I'm tempted to delude myself into thinking Mrs. Bird is one reason I'm more inclined to help myself than accept help, I must push that away as well. Because of course I didn't know her, and she didn't know me. The brief connection of our lives was too thinly threaded to hold the weight of any sort of self-discovery, no matter how helpful.
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