Last Thursday, the day she turned 106, Ollie Moton sat quietly, straight and still, in the den of the house off Beatties Ford Road where she has lived since 1954.
Her gray hair is thin, but it is pulled back in a neat ponytail finished with a lavender ribbon, and her fingernails are painted a soft, iridescent pink that matches her pink housecoat and pink striped socks.
Birthday fuss is going on around her. Her grandniece, Doris Boyd, 60, who has lived with Ollie since she was 9, is on the phone discussing which flavor of ice cream cake to get from Dairy Queen. Chocolate and vanilla, she decides. Why should Ollie have to choose?
Katherine Bagby, tall and still blond at 70, comes in and takes Ollie’s hands, so gently. “Hey, Miss Moton,” she calls.
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Ollie Moton worked for Katherine Bagby’s family for more than 30 years, cooking and helping to raise Katherine and her brother and two sisters. Yes, Ollie was “The Help,” in the words of the book and movie. That simple phrase, though, covers so many kinds of relationships.
Katherine Bagby admits to feeling frustrated by how the roles that happened then are so limited by that description now.
“I look at these books and movies and wonder. Mother would have killed me if I’d ever been rude to Ollie.”
Katherine’s mother, Sally, died in 1982. Two years later, her father, S.L. Bagby, the owner of the S.L. Bagby Lighting Co., remarried. Katherine and her sister, Jenks Trotter, say their stepmother was lovely. But Ollie Moton couldn’t get used to working for a different woman in Sally Bagby’s house. She left to work for a family friend.
“In Ollie’s eyes, she was not our mother,” says Jenks.
The Bagbys stayed close to her, though.
“She was such a part of our lives,” Katherine says.
So much of what everyone remembers about Ollie was not what you might expect from a woman of her times. Doris and Katherine both remember that Ollie was always interested in healthy food. She shopped at Berrybrook Farms on East Boulevard in the 1970s. She’d sprinkle flax seed on Doris’ food and give her papaya juice to drink.
“If she fixed chicken, she would bake it,” says Doris. She didn’t fry much or use pork for seasoning. She’d cook collards with vegetable oil.
Doris remembers her sweet potato pie. Katherine remembers her lemon meringue.
How do you interview a woman on her 106th birthday? What do you ask that cuts through so much time?
I ask her about cornbread, to tell me if she remembers how to make it.
At first she says, “You should ask my mother.” But then she begins, slowly. You have your meal. Yellow cornmeal. And egg. Sugar sometimes, sometimes not.
You put it in a baking pan, not a frying pan.
She trails off, and closes her eyes, while Doris and Katherine keep talking about her. She’s not sleeping. She’s listening, very closely.
“She hasn’t missed a word,” Katherine says, smiling.