Review of “These Walls Between Us,” by Wendy Sanford

Review of: These Walls Between Us: A Memoir of Friendship Across Race and Class, by Wendy Sanford

Review by Polly Cleveland

I picked up the new book of my college classmate, Wendy Sanford, and immediately found myself plunged into some of the contradictions of my own life. Like me, Wendy came from a wealthy family totally, obliviously, dependent on the “help.” Like me, she grew from taking that arrangement for granted, to a cringing awareness and a confused determination to break the pattern.

Mary Norman entered Wendy’s life at the family’s cottage on Nantucket, as the new summer “girl.” Wendy was twelve; Mary was fifteen, a graduate of a one-room unheated school in rural Virginia, and already experienced in serving white folks. This was her first live-in job. Intelligent, focused and eager, Mary quickly learned the requirements of the family. Notably she learned how to fill the glasses of Wendy’s alcoholic parents: her elegant socialite heiress mother and her success-driven, angry and sometimes violent father. Mary pleased them so well that she began to work for them in their Princeton home as well. Eventually she nursed them in their final alcohol-related illnesses. Yet Mary managed to have a successful independent career as a corrections officer, becoming the first woman to rise to the level of Lieutenant in a men’s prison.

When Wendy got married halfway through college, her parents threw a big society wedding for her on Nantucket. Even though Mary by then was married with a toddler son, she couldn’t refuse to come help out, leaving the child with her grandmother in Virginia. Wendy only later realized what a hardship that had imposed on Mary. It’s an understood condition of the job that domestic servants must put their families on hold when called. Gradually Wendy began to reach out to Mary as a respected friend. “Walking on eggshells” as she and Mary both put it, she constantly reproached herself for saying the wrong thing, or missing an opportunity to say the right thing.

Divorced and active in the women’s movement, Wendy became a coauthor of the women’s health classic, Our Bodies Ourselves. She plunged into reading about race and class. As she traces the course of her growing friendship with Mary, she points out how the white-dominated system directly and indirectly injures Mary. First, safety. Danger lurked in Mary’s childhood Virginia neighborhood, especially for women alone. As recently as 1997, two drunken white men murdered and dismembered a cousin. Then, discrimination: the pathetic school Mary attended, the childhood health care she didn’t get, the drugstore that filled prescriptions but wouldn’t sell her a soda, the segregated bus she took to her new job on Nantucket, the GI bill that wouldn’t serve returning soldiers in her family, the redlining that denied her a cheap mortgage. Finally, the “war on drugs” that filled the prisons with Black men and poisoned the last years of Mary’s career as a corrections officer. Mary always worked three or four jobs, looking over her shoulder for things that could derail her precarious lower middle-class life. From a life of hard physical labor and stress, Mary now suffers arthritis and multiple other health problems. Wendy remains healthy and fit, as do I.

Wendy’s father eventually did right by Mary, sort of, leaving her a house in Florida after forcing her and her husband to move there to care for him after his wife’s death. I wish I could say the same for my parents and Alicia.

Alicia (not her real name) came into my parent’s life in the 1970s in Washington DC, after my dad had retired from the State Department. My mom lived for their frequent trips, especially to see animals, from penguins in the Antarctic to toucans in the Amazon, to puffins in Scotland. Alicia kept house for them and my grandmother. When my grandmother died in her sleep, Alicia was with her, and called my parents back from a trip.

Alicia immigrated from Mexico, one of a family of nine. Because she was darker-skinned than her siblings, her grandparents wouldn’t let her in their house, standing at the door snapping an umbrella open and shut and telling her to “shoo.” When she came to the US, she left her two little boys back with her mother.

My parents sponsored Alicia’s citizenship and treated her generously but thoughtlessly. My dad bought a two-bedroom condo at a foreclosure auction, sight unseen, for her to live with her boys and her mother. Alicia told me it was filthy and took them weeks to clean up. My mom, who had taken cooking classes with Julia Child in Paris, taught Alicia to cook. But ever after she would criticize Alicia’s meals, with Alicia in earshot in the kitchen. (“Hush, Mary,” my dad would hiss.)

My dad managed the household from his laptop until the day he died, with my mom and Alicia by his side. I immediately took over my mom’s finances, as she barely remembered how to write a check. By then, Alicia was living in the downstairs guest room. A few years later, when I moved my mom into luxury assisted living, Alicia became her “private duty” aide. There, she ferociously defended my mom against the incompetence and willful neglect of ill-trained, underpaid and overworked “care managers.” When my mom died, early in the pandemic, Alicia sat beside her holding her hand, while I was barred from visiting. I feel enormously grateful, and a bit guilty, that Alicia spared me much of my mom’s hands-on care during those last years, even as my mom alternated gratitude and nit-picking complaints.

After my dad died, I made some unpleasant discoveries. I visited the shockingly decrepit condo and ordered a new tile floor and replacements for rusty bathroom fixtures. My dad had been paying Alicia partly by check and partly off the books. I put the official pay on a payroll service. My brother and sister forced me to stop the off the books part. I found that bill collectors had been hounding Alicia, leaving her haggard and sleepless. Turned out her sister had forged her name to a credit card and two mortgages and then defaulted. (A few “This is Dr. Cleveland!” phone calls put a stop to the collectors.) Alicia’s savings had disappeared into some investment of her sons. She had taken Social Security as early as possible, leaving herself with a pittance. Worst of all, my dad had neither set up a pension for Alicia nor included her in their wills. Alicia told me my dad had promised to leave her the condo.

I could have washed my hands by putting the condo in my mom’s will. But I knew the 10% Maryland inheritance tax would force Alicia to sell—leaving a lump of money for her family to grab. I put the condo into a trust with some money for maintenance, insurance and taxes as well as Alicia’s health insurance. Paternalism? Perhaps. When the money runs out in a few years, I’ll be liable, morally, for the lifetime support of a woman my own age.

Alicia understands none of this. “I need a new mattress but it’s too expensive. Where is the money Mrs. Cleveland promised me?” Deeply religious, she always tended to right wing views. But now she’s an angry, antivax, Trump supporter. When her blood pressure co-pay doubled, she told me, “It makes me so angry all those illegal people getting everything free and I’m paying for it. I’m so glad Mr. Trump is throwing those people out of the country.” Alicia’s rage may be misdirected, but it’s hard to blame her after a lifetime of condescension and vague promises. A wall of barbed wire stretches between us.

By contrast, Mary and Wendy can finally break through the race and class wall. Mary expresses her anger almost humorously to Wendy, reading aloud to her from a 1956 novel by Harlem actress and playwright Alice Childress. The novel features the witty and sarcastic take of a Black woman, Mildred, on domestic work for white Manhattan families.

“You think it is a compliment when you say, ‘We don’t think of her as a servant…’ but after I have worked myself into a sweat cleaning the bathroom and the kitchen…making the beds…cooking the lunch…washing the dishes and ironing Carol’s pinafores… I do not feel like no weekend house guest…”

A moment of redemption, allowing two extraordinary women to become true friends in their old age.

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