Oseola McCarty’s tiny tome of consolidated life wisdom found its way into my library while I was searching out a present at a local bookstore for my co-parent. The text stirred the very well of my discomfort throughout the reading and found me still unsettled as I flipped the final page.
On one hand, her words struck an immediate emotional chord as sage elderly insight emerging from the spring of Great Depression economic realities and Post Reconstruction Jim Crow era social conditions. Her personal aphorisms are as quaint and heartwarming as words that could have been just as easily spoken from my grandparents Robert, Lily, Shay or Katherine in some conversation about the perils of the modern day. On the other hand, I felt a sense of historical revisionism pervading the celebration afforded her personal act of unselfishness. The notion that during her life, the same people who would honor her had neither cause nor desire to afford a simple washerwoman the dignity of being looked in the eye struck me as the height of insult. McCarty does not have to consider it this way, but I identify her amongst my own elders and feel vindicated in taking umbrage on her behalf.
In one reflection, Paul Laughlin recounts the reaction of correspondents who felt that McCarty reminded them of someone they once knew. He goes on to cite “an immigrant mother”, “a church janitor” and “maids and housekeepers” amongst their memories. In each instance, the hindsight is reflected upon some warm individual employing devotion and humility in the accomplishment of a menial task whom had aided or been kind to them throughout their life, but that they had managed to forget anyway. One is brought wonder if they were really honoring McCarty or merely attempting to assuage the guilt of having not honored all of the others.
Questionable motives aside, there is much practical insight to be found in the words of Oseola McCarty. Amongst my favorites is the following “There’s a lot of talk about self esteem these days. It seems pretty basic to me. If you want to feel proud of yourself, you’ve got to do things you can be proud of. Feelings follow actions.” These words and her intense devotion to the work of washing clothes whether originating out of personal desire or a life proscribed from all other possibility offer us an opportunity to learn of family, frugality and simplicity. If we can embody these three concepts, while accessing all of the exploratory space available to us in the present day, I think we can know the full meaning of the richness McCarty invested in her own life.