I’ve been downwardly mobile since childhood. This is not a complaint. It’s just how my life unfolded. I had an affluent upbringing in the Westwood area of Los Angeles. We had what was called in those days a “live-in maid.” Her name was Iola. I was an infant when she came to work for us.
Over the years, Iola and my mother became close friends—so close that they’d laugh about a little charade they’d put on in front of company. Ordinarily, we ate all our meals in the breakfast room, with Iola at the table. But when we had guests, we used the formal dining room. There was a buzzer under the rug so that the lady of the house (my mother) could buzz “the maid” to let her know that the guests needed attention. Iola would dutifully show up and pretend that this was how we ate every night. I remember my mother joking with Iola afterward about how official she'd looked in her starched uniform. (It was the only time she wore it.)
Iola didn’t have children of her own. Her only young relative was her nephew, Lawrence, so I was the girl in her life. I can’t remember any part of my early childhood without her being present. She was with me when I learned to ride a bike. She was with me on family vacations. She took care of me when I got sick: putting cold compresses on my forehead, bringing me food in bed, reading books to me. And, she disciplined me when I broke the rules. For several months after my father died—I was ten—Iola became my sole parent. This left my mother free to attend to all that needed to be done, including figuring out how to support a family and moving us to a more modest neighborhood.
I spent hours on end in Iola’s room, trying on her jewelry, watching her knit, playing gin rummy with her, and listening to her scratchy 78 LPs of Billie Holiday and Cab Calloway. We also liked the radio soap, Stella Dallas. Sometimes Iola would take me to her home in the Watts area of Los Angeles. I have vivid memories of the beauty parlor where she got her hair straightened—the bright pink walls, the pungent smell of the chemicals, and the joyful camaraderie among the women in the shop.
Iola and I had our little secrets. One day, when my mother was gone for the afternoon, I decided to play dress-up with her make-up and fancy clothes. When I got lipstick on one of her dresses, I went running to Iola, crying, “I’m going to get in trouble, Iola! I’m going to get in trouble, Iola!” She got the stain out, and mom never found out what happened. Another time, despite my begging and pleading, my mother told me I was too young for a bra. Soon thereafter, Iola secretly gave me a “training bra.” I felt so grown up. I hid it in the back of a drawer and wore it when my shirt fit in such a way that I was sure the bra would be undetectable to my mother. It worked!
On most weekends, Iola went home to her husband, Tex. They had a good marriage, even though they were separated much of the time—sometimes for weeks on end when my parents were out of town or when she came with us on vacation. I met Tex a few times. He was confident, physically strong, and very funny.
Tex painted billboards for living, climbing the scaffolding with a paint can in one hand and a brush in the other. One day, the scaffolding collapsed and he was killed. I remember Iola crying a lot, and my mother consoling her. After a few months, it appeared to me that Iola had returned to her old self, but my mother continued to worry about the effects of Tex’s death on her. Some years later, when I was about thirteen, mom told me that she was concerned about Iola’s new boyfriend because she thought he had a drug habit. (I didn’t know what that meant—only that it wasn’t a good habit to have.)
A few months after she told me this, we drove to San Diego for a weekend vacation. (San Diego was a resort town back then.) Iola usually went with us on these excursions, but this time she stayed behind. I don’t know whose idea that was. On our second day there, Iola called in a panic, saying that someone had broken into the house and taken a lot of valuables, including some of my mother’s prized jewelry. We rushed home. I have vague memories of the police coming over and talking to my mother and to Iola for a long time, first together, then separately. None of what was taken was ever recovered.
A few days later, I came home from school and was surprised to be greeted, not by Iola, but by my mother (who was usually at work). She sat me down on her bed and said that the police were positive that Iola had committed the crime and that she was sure they were right. She told me that, against police pressure, she had refused to press charges but that she had told Iola that she had to move out of the house immediately. In a sudden panic, I asked, “Where is she?” Mom replied, “She’s gone.”
I was heartbroken (and perhaps my mother was too—I was not sensitive to her feelings at the time). I’d never been without Iola; suddenly, she was gone from my life. I remember a lot of tears and an empty feeling in my gut. I missed her the way I’d missed my father when he died. I blamed my mother for sending Iola away. It’s hard for me to write about this without feeling bad about the anger I directed at my mother. Now I understand that it was an act of compassion on her part to refuse to press charges.
About three months later, mom told me that Iola called and begged to see me and that she’d agreed to let the two of us meet. Iola was to wait for me in her car outside my junior high school, and we’d spend the afternoon together. Reflecting on this, I’m incredibly moved that my mother agreed to this. Here was someone who had stolen from us, but mom was willing to let the two of us spend the afternoon alone together. It's a testament to how much she trusted Iola with me.
When the day came, I was so excited that I ran from my last class out to the street to meet her. She never came. I waited for two hours, eventually walking home in tears. I was upset for weeks, but I was never angry at Iola. I’ll never know why she didn’t come that day, but I still believe that if she could have been there, she would have. I never saw her or talked to her again.
There’s a wall in our living room with pictures of my children, my grandchildren, my parents, and my nana. Once a day, I stop and silently address each of the them with love in my heart, using whatever words feel right at the moment.
Then I close my eyes and bring Iola’s face to mind (I have no picture of her). I tell her how much I love her and how I hope that her life was as free as possible from pain and sorrow. And then I thank her for being my mother.
© 2014 Toni Bernhard. Thank you for reading my work. I'm the author of three books:
How to Live Well with Chronic Pain and Illness: A Mindful Guide (Fall 2015)
Visit www.tonibernhard.com for more information.