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BLESSING AND BURDEN FOR "A PERFECT MAID' // Idella

Second in an occasional series commemorating the 100th anniversary of Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings' birth.

Idella Parker visits Cross Creek as often as she can. Sometimes she drives over by herself, and sometimes with other people, who want to see the Creek through her eyes. There are few places in this world that elicit in her so many memories, both happy and sad.

I have talked to Mrs. Parker _ "Call me Idella, honey" _ at the Creek and at her home in Ocala. In her home, she seemed impatient about sitting and talking, and the only time I thought she was relaxed was when we stood in her front yard, admiring her dogwood trees, as I was fixing to leave. Now, seeing her at Cross Creek, I realize it was folly to talk to her anywhere but on the North Florida farm where she and her late employer, the author Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, spent so many years together.

Rawlings and Idella were close _ probably about as close as any rich white woman, and any poor black woman, ever got in the heyday of Cracker Florida. In her 1942 essay collection, Cross Creek, Rawlings called her employee the "perfect maid," a description Idella treasures all the while denying its accuracy.

"I'm not perfect," she tells people. "And neither was Mrs. Rawlings."

Theirs was a complicated relationship. Idella was Rawlings' housekeeper and cook, cheerleader and friend. She knew the Pulitzer Prize-winning author at her best, but also at her very worst. Like perhaps too many creative people, Rawlings suffered from depression and alcoholism. Finally, caring for Rawlings became too much of an emotional burden for Idella, who left.

She once wrote a book about all of this, Idella: Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings' "Perfect Maid." More than just an account of her relationship with Rawlings, the book paints a vivid picture of the joys and trials of rural black life before integration.

Rawlings was only 57 when she died of a stroke in 1953, and for many years, Idella could not bear to visit the Creek because of the most painful memories of their years together. But it is different now, and as she approaches her 82nd birthday, she can remember the better days.

"Honey," she tells me, "We had some good times here."

A needy woman calls

People are drawn to Idella Parker like bees to orange blossoms. They crowd her as she sits on a bench next to a tangerine tree at Cross Creek, where the Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings Society, an organization that celebrates the life and times of the writer, is holding its annual meeting. There are few people alive who knew Rawlings well, and Idella is one of them. At Cross Creek, among about 100 of Rawlings' most ardent fans, Idella is a celebrity.

People shower her with questions and take her photograph. She springs to her feet and poses. "Springing" comes easily to Idella, who could pass for an athletic woman at least three decades younger. She has smooth ebony skin and beautiful cheekbones. She has black hair _ don't you dare ask if she dyes it _ and flashing eyes that almost glow with health. She's small and lithe, walks ramrod straight, taking big strides.

"You look so young!" someone tells her. "What's your secret?"

"I didn't drink Mrs. Rawlings' liquor!" she says with a belly laugh.

She was born in 1914, the grandchild of slaves and a distant relative of Nat Turner, who led the nation's most famous slave revolt, in Virginia, before he was hanged, in 1831.

Her parents believed in education, and Idella and her sisters got enough to became teachers at black schools in the 1930s. Teaching turned out to be a poor living for Idella, who moved to West Palm Beach to cook for a wealthy white family. Trouble with an obnoxious boyfriend sent her home to her parents in Reddick, a little town near Cross Creek. One fall day in 1940, a white woman in a cream-colored Oldsmobile drove into her yard. The woman was chain-smoking and had unkempt black hair. She spoke so fast her words almost ran together.

"They tell me you're looking for work as a cook," Marjorie Rawlings said.

A few weeks later Idella loaded her bags into Rawlings' car and automatically started for the back seat. Black folks had learned to be cautious.

Idella's mother was nervous about her daughter going to Cross Creek. There were places near it where black folks supposedly were unwelcome. Idella went anyway. She wanted a job, and there was something needy about Mrs. Rawlings.

Rawlings was an unusual person, although Parker had never heard of her. A successful journalist in New York, Rawlings had repeatedly failed in her efforts to write fiction until she moved in 1928 to a backwoods part of Florida that lacked electricity and even running water. Inspired, she began chronicling in fiction the lives of its scrappy people. The Yearling, which won a Pulitzer Prize in 1938, brought wealth and fame.

Rawlings stopped Idella Parker from climbing into the back seat of her car.

"Sit in the front, Idella," she said. "Always sit in the front with me."

A whirlwind of a boss

The Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings State Historic Site, with its rambling farmhouse, orange grove, cabbage palms and stately oaks, is still beautiful, but it is different from when Idella Parker first saw it.

"My, oh my, yes," she tells me. She whirls in place. "Over there was the cow pen, for Dora and Ferdinand. Mrs. Rawlings had her own Gulf gas tank over by the barn. She had a windmill then, and the black people who worked for her had their own house back there by the cabbage palm. The road out there? It was dirt back then, honey. And across the road, where the oaks are now, was what Mrs. Rawlings called her young orange grove. My, how she loved those trees!

"That first time I drove in with her, everything looked so beautiful. She had a lawn that looked like a golf course, and pretty flowers everywhere. She had pecan trees and magnolias and oranges hanging from the trees. I wish I could describe all the colors, the pinks and blues and yellows."

When Idella told Rawlings just how pretty the yard was, Rawlings looked surprised. Thinking back, Idella believes Rawlings had never heard a black person talk lovingly about nature.

Later, in Cross Creek, Rawlings wrote:

There came to me, in answer to prayer, a reward for my sufferings, the perfect maid. She is well trained, as good a cook as I, well educated, with almost my own tastes in literature and movies. She loves the country, she loves my dog, she loves company dinners, she dislikes liquor and has no interest in men.

Idella, in fact, did have an interest in men. But pickings were slim out there in the country, and sometimes Idella felt she was living on a plantation in antebellum times, at the beck and call of a boss woman.

Yet Rawlings was famous for her liberal views about race. Her black workers were paid more than the going wage for white laborers at other farms. Rawlings in speeches sometimes infuriated Southern white audiences by speaking passionately about the plight of the black poor. She was generous to those in need. Once, when Idella asked Rawlings for a donation to a black college fund, Rawlings gave $150, a small fortune in those days.

Now, in the orange grove, Idella and I walk back to the bench. A crowd is waiting.

A tongue-tied young woman approaches without speaking. Idella notices something in the woman's hand.

"Sweetheart, I see you got my book," she says. "You want me to autograph it?" As she signs, Idella offers the bashful woman advice. "My Mama always told me, when you want something, just ask for it."

Timidity was hardly a Rawlings trait, either. She could be disconcertingly direct, and her emotions always seemed ready to boil over. She could laugh and weep in a short time span. She feuded even with neighbors, who were close friends. She could cuss like a field hand, but she loved kids. Indifferent to fashion, she sometimes wore unmatched socks; her hair often needed a good combing. She enjoyed shooting a good gun and liked to hunt. When Rawlings was seething about something, she didn't walk. She stomped.

Idella had worked for Rawlings for months. She had never taken a day off, and Rawlings had never suggested that she take one. One Sunday, when Idella decided to rest, Rawlings ordered her to hem a dress. Idella complained about never getting to go to church. Bristling, Rawlings turned several shades of crimson.

"I looked outside for the road," Idella tells me now with a smile, "just in case I had to run."

Rawlings grabbed the dress and stomped out of the room. She returned moments later, tossed her car keys to Idella, and swore.

She apologized later. From then on, she lent Idella the car on Sunday.

Paying literature's price

A good place to talk to Idella Parker about Marjorie Rawlings is in the kitchen at Cross Creek. "My, oh, my," she says. "We had some happy moments in here."

Rawlings loved to cook and loved to be around when Idella was cooking. A highlight of Cross Creek is the essay "Our Daily Bread." It was so popular with readers that Rawlings followed up Cross Creek with Cross Creek Cookery. She and Idella worked on recipes in the little kitchen, slaving over a wood-burning stove, running outside to pick something from the garden, or finding the right preserves in the pantry. Idella is credited with several recipes in the book, though she says she deserved much more credit.

"What's this?" she says. A ranger earlier had whipped up a batch of hoecakes, a kind of corn pancake that was a staple at Cross Creek. Idella pokes the hoecakes with a fork and frowns at the skillet. "Not enough baking powder," she says tartly.

Rawlings liked breakfast in bed, usually toast, jelly, coffee and fresh-squeezed orange juice. Sometimes her Persian cat, Smokey, ate from the same tray.

"We didn't have meals like normal people," Idella says. "Every night we cooked like we were having guests, even if we weren't. She'd want lamb chops, a baked potato. Broccoli she really loved, with hollandaise sauce.

"My, oh, my. I spent so much time in here, with the light coming through that window."

Rawlings would write after breakfast. Her typewriter was on a round table on the front porch. She'd ignite the first of dozens of Lucky Strikes and have at it. "For myself," Rawlings wrote, "the Creek satisfies a thing that had gone hungry and unfed since childhood days. I am often lonely. Who is not? But I should be lonelier in the heart of a city."

Beautifully written sentences came at a high price, and Idella knew enough to stay away when Rawlings was laboring. When things went poorly Rawlings might jerk the paper out of the typewriter, ball it up and throw it to the floor.

Sometimes she'd stomp off the porch and march down the dirt road, 2 miles up and 2 miles back. Like many of her writing contemporaries, including Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald and Thomas Wolfe, she also soothed her pain with whiskey, often keeping a convenient bottle in a paper bag near her typewriter. Some days, Idella says, Rawlings would start the sipping early.

"I'd say, "Please, Mrs. Rawlings. You have to stop.' " Sometimes, Rawlings wanted to unwind on a long drive, and Idella says they fought over the car keys. When Rawlings won, the drive could be harrowing. One time, when Rawlings took a curve too fast, the car rolled over, and Idella's ribs were broken.

"I've thought about Mrs. Rawlings a lot," she says. "Who was that woman who was married to the man who ran for president? Dukakis? Kitty Dukakis! I remember she had a book out about her problems with alcohol. The thing is, she had people who helped her, and Mrs. Rawlings really didn't.

"She didn't smile much," Idella says. "I think she found it hard to be happy."

A heart torn by race

Rawlings struggled with her conflicting feelings about race throughout her life. In her early fiction, black people tended to be stereotypes and insignificant and were described in crude ways that are considered inappropriate today.

But her work evolved. Sometimes her Cracker characters used racial epithets, but she, as the narrator, did not. In parts of Cross Creek she is condescending about black lives; in other parts respectful and loving. In one of her later short stories, "Black Secret," a white boy finds out his favorite uncle has fathered a black woman's child. One of Rawlings' last works, The Secret River, is a delightful children's story about the adventures of Calpurnia, a wise and courageous black girl.

In public, Rawlings continued to fight for black equality: Once, she insisted that Idella accompany her to an Ocala movie theater where black patrons were allowed only after dark, and only in the balcony. The sun was shining, and the theater managers were angry at the impudent young black woman trying to see a show. Rawlings waded into them, cursing and intimidating, and dragged Idella into the theater. To this day, Idella can't remember the movie. Too frightened.

Another time Rawlings wrote an angry letter to a Jacksonville newspaper columnist who had argued for continued segregation:

How can I say it, how can I open your mind and heart, to the psychological and actual fact that "justice" and "opportunity," however far they extend into education, politics and economics, are a cruel and hypocritical farce, as long as the artificial barrier of "segregation" is maintained. Don't you see, can't you see, that segregation denies a man or woman something more important than "justice" or "opportunity," and that is self respect, freedom from being made to feel subtly inferior, from being, after all, and finally, an outcast.

At home, Rawlings didn't always behave so nobly. She'd curse Idella _ and later shower her with gifts or the use of her car. Sometimes, when Rawlings and her second husband, Norton Baskin, hosted dinner parties, black workers would troop into the house to sing for the white guests.

Rawlings entertained many famous writers at Cross Creek, including poets Wallace Stevens and Robert Frost and novelist Margaret Mitchell, who'd written Gone With the Wind. An infrequent guest was the black novelist and folklorist Zora Neale Hurston, the author of Their Eyes Were Watching God.

By most accounts, including biographies and personal letters published after their deaths, the two well-known writers were fans of each other's work. Idella has a painful memory regarding a Hurston visit to Cross Creek. The two authors, black and white, had spent the day together on the front porch, reading, writing, talking and laughing. Now it was dark. Rawlings called for Idella and told her that Hurston would be staying for the night _ not in Rawlings' empty guest bedroom, but in the humble black tenant house, in Idella's room, in Idella's bed.

"She didn't ask me. She told me," Idella says, with a sad smile.

Sometimes, when Idella talks about these things, some folks, both black and white, express outrage. They wonder how Idella could have stayed.

"You don't know how it was," she tells them firmly. "You weren't there. Idella was."

There also are people in the Rawlings Society who like to think of Rawlings as a saintly Earth Mother, and they hate to hear anything even remotely negative about their favorite writer. "But I'd say most of us are fine with Idella," says Susan Woods, the president of the 300-member society. "We're glad to finally have a more rounded picture of Marjorie."

Idella Parker tells people that she loved Rawlings, for all her faults.

When they were alone, stopping the Oldsmobile along the road to pick dandelions, or admiring a cheese souffle in the kitchen, they felt an easy friendship. They talked, and laughed, and shared important things about their lives.

Still, when Rawlings had guests, Idella would feel the walls _ the racial barriers _ going up. Rawlings suddenly acted distant, seemingly uneasy about appearing too friendly toward the people with black skin who worked for her.

"I wish Mrs. Rawlings had lived to see integration," Idella says. "I think she would have loved it."

Remembering what was

At Cross Creek, Idella Parker is still signing autographs and posing for photographs in the late afternoon. Then she eats a plate of fried chicken, baked beans and collards, and washes the good food down with sweet iced tea.

In 1950, she left Rawlings for good.

Idella found that caring for her employer was exhausting and frustrating and sad. Some mornings, she says, Mrs. Rawlings didn't remember what she had done or said the night before. Sometimes, she says, Mrs. Rawlings wept in her arms. Idella could only be so strong.

In 1953, Rawlings wrote her for the last time and asked her to come back. Idella didn't answer the letter. Two weeks later, Rawlings died of a stroke. Idella didn't hear about it in time and missed the funeral.

She went on with her own life. She married, worked in a beauty parlor and taught home economics. Two decades ago, some friends brought her back to Cross Creek. She wept. Then she walked into the house and started telling her friends about Mrs. Rawlings. The rangers gathered around her in delight, happy to at last meet the woman they had read about in Cross Creek.

Since, she has been a regular visitor. Last year she helped the rangers get the yellow curtains in the kitchen just right. They look so nice now. "I help them here at the house any way I can," she says.

In the spring, dark comes to the Creek late, and Idella has to use her handkerchief to shoo away the mosquitoes. She's fuming about the insects when someone from the Rawlings Society stands next to the barn at a microphone and wishes her a happy birthday.

Everybody sings to her. She giggles with pleasure. Then she opens a birthday card. Inside is $82 _ a dollar for her every year.

"My, oh my," she says. A little while later she follows a trail lit by kerosene lanterns through the grove. She can smell the orange blossoms as she gets into her car and drives away from Cross Creek, into the waning years of the 20th century.

Recommended reading

Idella: Marjorie Rawlings' "Perfect Maid," by Idella Parker with Mary Keating, University Press of Florida, $13.95.

Cross Creek, by Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, Touchstone Books, $12.

Cross Creek Cookery, by Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, Fireside Books, $12.

The Secret River, by Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, San Marco Bookstore Books, $12.95.

Short Stories by Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, edited by Rodger L. Tarr, University Press of Florida, $24.95.

Selected Letters of Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, edited by Gordon E. Bigelow and Laura V. Monti, University Press of Florida, $19.95.

Recommended visit

Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings State Historic Site, State Road 325, Cross Creek. Mailing address: Route 3, Box 92, Hawthorne, FL 32640. Telephone: (352) 466-3672. Public tours of the house are given Thursday through Sunday beginning at 10 a.m.

Other information

The Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings Society, P.O. Box 117310, Gainesville, FL 32611-7310.

_ JEFF KLINKENBERG

Idella's crips biscuits

2 cups flour

4 teaspooons baking powder

3/4 teaspoon salt

6 tablespoons Crisco or butter

3/4 cup milk

Mix as usual, using a fork throughout. Roll out once, to a thickness of 1/4 inch. Cut in very small rounds, 1 inch in diameter. Bake 12 or 15 minutes in a very hot oven. These are so crisp and thin that they are usually eaten with a dab of butter on top. There's no need to split the biscuit. Diners love them, but are likely to be embarrassed by them, as they are ashamed to keep asking for them. I always say, "Oh take several," and keep a plate on the table.

Serves four.

Source: From Cross Creek Cookery by Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings (a Fireside Book published by Simon & Schuster).

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