She's the one who stepped on my Legos and washed my dirty underwear. She visited me in the hospital when I was born. She was my nanny but she was never the help. She was family by hire. TW: domestic violence
When I was 4 or 5, I wanted to have a picnic. I don't know why I was home during the day, maybe it was summer, but she was taking care of me and she loved me. She made me a picnic in the bread basket. She spread a blanket out on a mound of dirt in the back yard, knowing that she would have to wash it later. We went outside to have a picnic, me in a nice dress with my toys, a fancy tea party.
A bird pooped in my hair, my beautiful, straight blond hair. I was distraught. She brought me inside, washed my hair, got me dressed, and we tried again. A bird pooped in my hair. She brought me back inside, washed my hair, got me dressed, and we tried again. Third time's a charm, I guess. She humored me. I thought the birds were picking on me, that they had it out for me for some reason and I didn't know why. She told me that they must have gotten over it, whatever it was. She took me out there until those birds got over it.
She was a single mother, still in nursing school when we hired her. Her boys were older. They were football stars, motivated and academic with bright futures. They were old enough to care for themselves; my sister and I weren't. She needed the extra money; we needed saving. We didn't know that second part.
My father was always bringing us down. My mother thought he was right but Irma was there in the background, picking us back up. When I was 7, I told my mother that I thought she should divorce my father "because he's an asshole." I'm fairly certain that was Irma talking. Irma is the one who taught me to stand up for myself, that I had value, that even though I was a girl that I could still have goals beyond growing up to marry a prince and have babies. She was a master of subterfuge, working in the edges and the cracks to try to undo the damage being done to us. I owe my feistiness, my stubbornness to Irma.
We never asked how she came to be the single mother of three boys. Maybe we didn't want to pry. Maybe we thought the question would sound racist. How do you ask the nice black woman you hired as a nanny how she came to be a single mother of three, middle-aged in nursing school on scholarships, needing work on the side to pay the bills?
After we'd grown up and Mom was living on her own, Irma still came by to help and to make some extra money. Mom didn't need as much help but Irma had been there for us for so long. Her hours got shorter and her pay stayed the same. When she became too elderly and ill to work, Mom still sent her checks from time to time to help her out. We called it her retirement plan. We visited her for Christmas every year, delivering gifts of owls. She loved owls. Her walls were covered in owls, even that 70's orange macrame one that I gave her as a child. One year, my mother asked the question. I wish she'd asked before.
Without a blink, Irma said "I know I never told you because you never asked and you were my employer. You don't tell your personal story to your employer. It's just not done." We assured her that she was our family; that's why we were visiting for Christmas. She said "I'm not a single mother. I'm married.
"My husband was abusive. He was a drunk. But I had these wonderful boys and it wasn't just about me anymore. I had to protect them. So one night, I waited for him to go out to the bar. I knew he'd be gone for hours. I packed a few things, grabbed the boys, and I ran. I never saw him again. I couldn't divorce him because then he would know where I was. If I filed for divorce, he could find me. He's still alive. We're still married. But the boys are grown now. I kept them safe."
Things started to make sense. The horrible things that my father said? She saw right through them. The damage he tried to do to us, she tried to undo. The only defensive skills I had had come from Irma.
Twenty-three years ago, I was in an abusive relationship. One day, I reached my limit. I plotted and I schemed and when the moment was right, when I knew he was in my trap and couldn't follow, I ran. I ran and I kept running. That was the Irma in me. The Irma in me ran.
She was the closest thing I had to a savior and I didn't know it until 15 years after I was saved. Thank you, Irma, for being my first feminist, for teaching me that I could stand up for myself, for loving me and helping me instead of just picking up after me and entertaining me, for teaching me the fine art of escape. I wish I'd been to see you this year for Christmas; it was a short trip and it didn't occur to me that I might be my last chance. I had an owl for you.
You're flying now. He can never catch you.