Was Amelia and her role in your household perceived differently in New Jersey than it had been when your family lived in Tennessee?
In the Northeast there seemed to be some awkwardness around African American maids or domestic help, a misunderstanding of the position combined with an unspoken prejudice. The white families who hired maids were generally considered wealthy. The African American women who worked as maids were not seen for themselves or their skills, but as a kind of luxury.
In the South, these same women were understood to be an important part of running an efficient household and, despite any racial prejudice, the skills and services they provided were valued. A good cook, for example, was highly sought after, while a woman who was particularly good with babies could change jobs frequently and be rehired for successive births.
I don’t believe many of the white, middle class families in New Jersey that came in contact with Amelia knew how to talk to her or even if they should talk to her. Her role was unclear to them.
Why did you choose the title Small Moments?
It was during short, small moments with Amelia that I learned life-long lessons. These were the moments in her room before bedtime, or in the kitchen while she ironed our clothes. They were moments that could be easily forgotten if she had not used them wisely to teach us the lessons of her life. Each lesson Amelia presented was small. Each moment was small. Together they were like pieces of sand on a beach being pushed and pulled by the tides and weathered in the heat of the sun. They were small until they were put together to become a way of life.
In the book, your father comes across as what we would now call a racist. Did his attitudes change as he got older and the world around him changed?
My father’s attitudes and behaviors were a reflection of his upbringing and of the times. While obviously extreme, it is difficult to know whether this was a result of personality or a belief system that was simply contrary to my own. As he got older, he wrestled with the literature that was available from archeologists, scientists, politicians and novelists about the differences and similarities of the races. I don’t know the extent to which his studies changed or reinforced his views.
You mother had a very complex relationship with Amelia. Do you think there was ever a genuine friendship between them?
My mother and Amelia were certainly compatible when they worked side-by-side sharing a common goal like cleaning and peeling potatoes or polishing school shoes. This was obvious in the tone of their voices and their calm manner with each other. But I don’t know that it happened often. Taking care of five children born within six years was a daunting task, and when it was left solely to one or the other, any friendship between the two receded. Obviously, my mother was in a position to leave many of the tasks of daily caregiving to Amelia. And she did. Caregiving was Amelia’s job.
When Amelia began the long days of her illness my mother nursed her without complaint. I believe it was during that time that they did become true friends – sharing stories of their past and confiding in one another. They understood one another and they understood what had been their clearly defined roles in each other’s lives. It could never be a friendship based on equality when Amelia was well and working, but as she lay dying it became a friendship of understanding and sharing.
What detail in the story have you since found to be incorrect?
There is one incorrect detail that for me is glaring. In the first chapter, I initially wrote that Amelia had cooked possum for us to eat on the train. I clearly remember how greasy the brown paper bag was and that was getting all over my dress. I was also fairly certain it was possum and that there had been some talk about it. However, sometime during the editing, I became convinced that it was unlikely that Amelia would have tried to feed us possum, so I acquiesced and wrote that it was fried chicken, which can also be very greasy. Later, after the book was published, my aunt and my mother both recalled that Amelia had fried possum for the trip and kept it in a brown paper bag.
Did you ever meet any of Amelia’s family?
Sadly, no. I know my mother knew about a sister of Amelia’s who lived in Philadelphia and perhaps she was in touch with her on Amelia’s behalf. At least a few of her siblings had already left home when she was born, and others may not have know how to read or write, so it was difficult to keep track of them. Amelia talked about her nephew, Perry Lee, but I don’t remember her saying much about her brothers or sisters.