As a little girl in the 1940s, Norma Watkins was so close to her nurse, Marie, that she thought Marie was her mother. The fact that Norma was white and the nurse was black didn't even register.
That prelapsarian state wouldn't last long. At the country resort run by her aunt, "the summer I turned twelve, Parthenia, Ellis, and Ora Dee (some of the black servants who staffed the resort) started calling me Miss Norma. I told them to stop. They smiled and went right on. . . . The new formality killed me. It felt like a withdrawal of love."
In her memoir The Last Resort, Watkins writes about coming of age in and near Jackson, Miss., from her childhood during World War II to young adulthood in the midst of the struggle for civil rights. Daughter of a lawyer and a socialite, she's raised to marry well and not ask questions — neither of which will stick.
This may remind you of a certain bestselling novel recently brought to the screen. Watkins began writing The Last Resort long before The Help, Kathryn Stockett's fictional account of Jackson in the civil rights era, was published. Stockett grew up there, too, but is young enough to have to imagine her story back to that time — and to be able to imagine its ending filled with comeuppance and uplift. Watkins lived it, and her story's ending is far less rosy.
Not that this memoir is a downer. Watkins, a professor emerita at Miami Dade College and creative writing teacher at College of the Redwoods in Northern California, as well as a contributor to the St. Petersburg Times, is wickedly observant and often tartly funny. She has a gift for the vivid phrase, as in this description of her Aunt Hosford Fontaine (always called Miss Hosford), who runs the rambling resort called Allison's Wells by commanding in the softest of voices: "You listened and thought Miss Hosford could talk out a fire."
Norma comes to Allison's Wells to live in 1943. Her dashing daddy, Thomas Watkins, has gone off to war, and his military salary won't maintain the family's gracious home in a ritzy Jackson neighborhood. So Norma, her little sister, their mother and Marie move into the resort. Furious at first, Norma is soon delighted by the quirky old buildings, the half-wild grounds and especially the backstage view of life she gets by spending as much time as possible hanging around with the black workers who cook, clean, bartend, farm, drive, babysit and do pretty much everything else at Allison's Wells.
Watkins does a splendid job of drawing her characters, such as her brittle but indomitable mother, also named Norma. Glamorous and exacting, she is no warm and fuzzy mom. But we get a fully rounded portrait of her that lets us understand her restless unhappiness in the limiting role of a wife and mother whose husband is away at war (and remains away even when he returns home) and whose children are, as her culture insists, being raised by other people.
Although dire things happen — her father's return from the war with a mistress in tow, her own brutal introduction to sex — Watkins describes much of her childhood and teen years as rollicking fun, filled with colorful characters and extravagant parties. In places, The Last Resort reminded me of Eudora Welty's wonderful family comedy Delta Wedding.
At first, it looks as if Norma might follow in her mother's clicking, high-heeled footsteps. After an adviser at Ole Miss tells her in her sophomore year that with an English major she can become "somebody's very fine secretary," at 19 she marries a promising fellow and, despite a notably thrill-free sex life, has four babies in rapid succession — babies cared for by Marie.
But along in there, Brown vs. Board of Education is decided, and Watkins' world is shattered in all sorts of ways. Her father, who has always been her hero, reveals himself as a virulent racist, shouting down her timid support for civil rights and joining the Citizens Council of America, a sort of country-club version of the Klan.
And then Allison's Wells burns down. Miss Hosford and other family members must figure out how to restart their lives — but the black staff members are simply left out in the cold. Although many are lifelong, even second-generation employees, the family feels no obligation to them. That and a confluence of other events will finally send Watkins into the arms of an ultimate outsider — and then out of Mississippi.
Watkins writes with honesty about her relationships with the black servants she calls "the people I loved" and yet in many ways hardly knew. She treats them with insight and dignity and, thank goodness, she does not write in heavy-handed dialect. Recalling clearly the limits of her childhood understanding, she describes how flabbergasted she was as a young teen when she figured out why Ellis, one of the servants, was so much lighter skinned than the others: "white people and colored people had sex. That meant the same people who wouldn't share food with Negroes for fear of being contaminated managed to overcome their disgust enough to mix bodily fluids."
She doesn't portray her childhood closeness to them as extraordinary — it was how kids were raised. What did make her unusual was her unwillingness to adopt bigotry as a mantle of adulthood, and her realization of how much might be lost because of the walls racism builds:
"When everyone who worked at the hotel was gone, I realized how much I'd never known and never thought to ask. Where did the help go to the bathroom? Except for Ellis and Parthenia, I didn't know where anyone lived. I didn't know the names of their children unless those children worked for us. I didn't know who took care of these children while the parents worked, or where they went to school. I never asked how they made it through the long winters when the hotel closed.
"These questions came later. At the time, all I felt was loss."
Colette Bancroft can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8435.