The author’s new memoir, Child, turns an eye on her relationship with her family’s live-in domestic worker, a Black woman named Mattie Culp.
by Wiley Cash | photography by Mallory Cash
I met author Judy Kurtz Goldman the summer of 2013 while seated next to her at a dinner sponsored by a local bookstore in Spartanburg, South Carolina. I can remember her elegant Southern accent, her self-deprecating humor, and her teasing me that calling her “ma’am” made her feel old.
But Southerners like Judy know that the conventions you were raised under are hard to buck, regardless of whether they are based on something as benign as manners or as oppressive as prejudice.
According to the late Pat Conroy, Judy Goldman is a writer of “great luminous beauty” — and I happen to agree with him. She’s published memoirs, novels, and collections of poetry, and she has won both the Sir Walter Raleigh Award for Fiction and the Hobson Prize for Distinguished Achievement in Arts and Letters. Her new memoir, Child, confronts the horrible legacy of the Jim Crow South while coming to terms with the fact that the customs and laws born from that era delivered one of the most meaningful and long-lasting relationships of her life. It explores the years she shared with her family’s live-in domestic worker, a Black woman named Mattie Culp, who came to live with and work for the Kurtz family in Rock Hill, South Carolina, when she was 26 and Judy was 3.
From the moment of Mattie’s arrival, she and Judy were close physically and emotionally. They shared a bedroom and a bed. Judy and Mattie also shared one another’s love, and that love would cement their bond up until Mattie’s death in 2007 at age 89.
There is an old saying that writers write because we have questions. Judy has spent much of her adult life pondering the era and place in which she was raised. She came of age in the 1940s and ’50s, and although she has spent decades living and raising a family in Charlotte, Rock Hill is the defining landscape of her literature.
“Rock Hill is in every book I’ve ever written,” she says. “It’s a love affair.” But love, as Judy makes clear in writing about her relationship with Mattie, is a complicated emotion. While Judy’s childhood in Rock Hill was blissful on the surface, she now looks back on her life with a discerning eye. This act of remembering brings a whiplash of honest realizations to the memoir.
For example, as a child, Judy was proud of the beautiful school with the new playground that she and other white children attended. She did not know that Mattie, who regularly walked Judy to school, walked her home, and took her to play on the playground, had attended a Rosenwald School built for Black children in 1925 in the countryside 10 miles outside of Rock Hill. Judy only learned this information while writing her memoir, and she was able to find old photographs of the school: a two-room building with an outhouse, a far cry from where Judy had spent her own school days.
As she grew older, Judy would wonder why Mattie and her boyfriend would sit in his car in the Kurtz’s driveway and chat instead of going out on dates like regular couples did. “I wondered why they never went anywhere,” she writes. “But I know now that there was no place for those two Black people to go in Rock Hill at the time.”
The irregular ground of Judy’s childhood was laid by her parents. For example: her father owned a clothing store and went against local custom in the 1950s by hiring a Black saleswoman named Thelma to serve the all-white customers. Judy’s mother kept the books at the store. And while Judy claims that her mother “couldn’t boil water,” she never missed an opportunity to celebrate any holiday, meaning that the Jewish Kurtz family hid Easter eggs and put up a Christmas tree every year.
These irregularities — going against local custom and religious practice — are somewhat easy to explain, considering that Judy describes her father as fair and her mother as someone who loved joy. But there were other, harder to explain inconsistencies. The Kurtzes were a progressive family, so how could they employ a live-in domestic worker who never shared meals with them? Judy, the youngest child in the family, was being raised by a Black woman who, when just a child herself, had given birth to a daughter of her own, named Minnie. Why wasn’t Mattie raising her?
Judy has spent much of her life pondering these questions, and she decided that taking them to the page was the best way to try to answer them — but the answers would not be easy to find. “Can we trust anything inside the system we were brought up in?” she writes.
Judy and I are standing at the dining room table in the third-floor apartment she shares with her husband Henry, near Queens University in Charlotte. Family photographs are scattered on the table in front of us. I look down at the photos of Mattie and recognize her from the photograph on the cover of Together. In that photo, a newly married Henry and Judy are coming down the steps of her parents’ home while smiling friends toss rice into the air. Mattie stands in the background, smiling as if her own youngest child has just gotten hitched.
I ask Judy what, after a lifetime of knowing Mattie, made her want to publish a memoir about her now.
“I think it felt right to publish it when I turned 80,” she says. “I thought, if I don’t do it now, I’m not going to do it, it won’t get done.” She pauses, looks down at the photographs. One of them, a portrait of Mattie taken around 1944, which was when she came to work for the Kurtz family, stares back at us.
“I never thought I had the right to tell this story,” she says. “A privileged white child in the Jim Crow South talking about her Black live-in maid. The more details you hear, the worse it sounds.”
But over the years, Judy came to understand that her and Mattie’s story differed from the stories some of Judy’s friends and acquaintances would tell about the hired women who had raised them.
Judy often came away from those conversations with the full understanding that many of those people had not truly examined the inequity of those childhood relationships. They chose instead to focus only on the love Black women had shown their white charges, not what the price of that love might have been.
“I don’t want to join them in that,” Judy says. “If my book did not really examine that situation with Mattie and me, then I wasn’t going to publish it.”
This article originally appeared in the May 2022 issue of WALTER Magazine