Goodnight Irene, my “Other Mother”
Irene Deberry, age 76, passed from this life to the next on Friday, July 27.
You likely have no idea who she was, but I do. She helped raise me. For much of my childhood, Irene spent as many hours with me as my mother did. Both my parents worked, and worked hard, so Irene was our “maid.” During work hours, from Monday morning until Friday afternoon, Irene Deberry might as well have been my mother. She loved me, cared for me, and taught me about life and faith.
I saw the movie The Help (3 times). Irene’s place in our home bore zero resemblance to the ugly racism in that movie. Disrespect was not an option. Ever. Once when Irene told me it was time for me to “pick up my room,” I told her that’s what she was paid to do. I immediately regretted it. First, because I could tell that it hurt her feelings. And secondly, because I knew what was probably coming. Sure enough, a few minutes later one of my parents made an unscheduled trip home. Let’s just say that I cleaned the room, tearfully apologized, and found it painful to sit down for the remainder of that day. And I never, ever, showed disrespect to Irene again.
Irene taught me all kinds of things. Like not to walk between the laundry and the television while “her stories” were on. And she taught me an appreciation for a new genre of music: Wilson Pickett, James Brown, Aretha Franklin, Otis Redding. I learned to sing some church songs I’d never heard at First Baptist. I learned to turn off every appliance, stay away from the windows, keep my feet off the floor, and don’t talk during a bad storm. I’m still not sure about the feet and talking part, but Irene said so.
I think the most enduring lesson I learned from her was one my mother told me. She and ‘Rene went to the grocery store together every Friday afternoon. I think it was when ‘Rene got paid. Every Friday, they encountered a lady from a family in whose home she’d previously worked: a “blueblood” family, if there is such a thing in Conway. Every Friday, Irene would politely say, “Hello, Mrs. *******.” And every Friday, Mrs. ******** would refuse to acknowledge that the black lady had spoken to her publicly. She’d just look right past her.
Finally, my mother blurted out, “Why do you keep speaking to that stuck-up old @$#&?!” (You’d have to have known my mother). And here’s what ‘Rene said in response: “Mrs. Childs, the Lord Jesus don’t hold me responsible for what Mrs. ******* do. Just what I do.” Those words still ring in my ears some 40+ years later.
Enjoy Heaven, ‘Rene. Thank you for loving me like I was your own. I’m still trying to live up to the things you taught me. Especially that last part about remembering for what and for whom I answer to Jesus.