We meet Helene Sabat, who was born in a brothel called the Sundown House to a "Creole whore who worked there" (1920.1). Helene's grandmother, Cecile, takes her far away from Sundown and raises her in a house where she's always being watched by a statue of the Virgin Mary. (Subtle, right?) Cecile tells the young Helene "to be constantly on guard for any sign of her mother's wild blood" (1920.1). Cecile is terrified that Helene will become a working girl like her mom.
Wiley Wright is Cecile's great nephew. When he visits Cecile he develops a little crush on Helene and eventually asks her to marry him. (Apparently both Helene and Cecile prod him a little.) So, yes, Cecile's great nephew marries her granddaughter, and yes, they are related.
Wiley and Helene move to Medallion, and Helene has a baby girl, whom they name Nel. Helene loves being a mom because it gives her "comfort and purpose" (1920.4). But she isn't the most warm and fuzzy mom we've ever come across. She thinks Nel is plain looking, which makes her happy since this will mean less trouble in the future. (We can assume she's worried about Nel taking after her grandmother, the "Creole whore.") And she doesn't indulge any of Nel's childlike "enthusiasms" (1920.5), which means that she doesn't let her act like a kid.
We learn that Helene is kind of a big deal in Medallion, that she "[holds] sway" (1920.6). She's always judging people and is completely confident in her right to do so. But no matter what she does, the people around her won't call her Helene. They call her Helen instead, which seems like a subtle way to bring her down a peg.
In November, Helene gets a letter that her grandmother is dying. She hasn't been back home since she left with Wiley, and she isn't thrilled about going back, since she feels she's "come [so] far" (1920.7). But she decides to go and takes Nel with her.
Next we get a look at segregation and racial discrimination. When Helene and Nel board the train that will take them to see Cecile, they accidentally step into the car meant for "whites only." Helene quickly realizes what's happened, but she keeps walking through the car to get to the "colored only" car (1920.14).
They've almost made it to the second car when they're approached by a white conductor, who barks at Helene, "What you think you doin' gal?" (1920.14). The word "gal" makes Helene's "hands tremble" (1920.16). It's meant to make her feel small and inadequate, and it does.
Nel looks up at her mom and suddenly sees her smile. It's hard to tell what's behind Helene's smile. It could be a sign of defiance or of resignation; Nel seems to think it's the latter. She notices a couple of black soldiers who look really angry at Helene when they see her smile at the conductor. She starts to think of her mom as "custard" (1920.24): soft and flimsy.
Something changes in Nel at that moment and she decides "to be on guard – always" (1920.25), so that no one can ever look at her with the same hatred that the soldiers directed at Helene. Nel doesn't ever want to be "custard" like her mom.
By the time Helene and Nel make it to Cecile's, she has already died. Someone is at the house getting ready for the funeral, but otherwise it seems empty except for the "sweet odor of gardenias" (1920.36).
We soon learn that the smell of gardenias is coming from Rochelle, Helene's mother and Nel's grandmother. Rochelle is the woman Cecile tried to keep Helene away from as a child. She enters the room dressed in yellow, "with the softness and glare of a canary" (1920.41).
This is the first time Rochelle has seen Helene in years and the first time she has ever seen Nel. She comments on how pretty Nel is and asks for her name in Creole, which Nel doesn't understand. Helene translates for her, reminding us that she was born to a Creole mother and speaks the language.
The conversation is brief and impersonal. No sooner does Rochelle enter the room than she tells them she must leave. She checks herself in a mirror, fixes her hair and makeup, and prepares to depart. As Helene and Nel watch Rochelle fix herself up, Helene is "in a rage" (1920.54), angry that she didn't get to Cecile in time and that she's "seeing instead that painted canary who never said a word of greeting or affection" (1920.54).
The relationship between the two women is clearly strained, but suddenly Rochelle grabs Nel and gives her "a quick embrace tighter and harder than one would have imagined her thin soft arms capable of" (1920.58). Then she leaves.
After Rochelle has left, Nel comments on the softness of her skin. Helene responds with the insult that "Much handled things are always soft" (1920.62), reminding us that Rochelle was once a prostitute (and maybe still is, since we learn that she is only forty-eight.)
Nel asks Helene what "voir" means, which is what Rochelle said when leaving them. Helene pretends that she doesn't know Creole (even though she was able to translate earlier) and reminds Nel, "And neither do you" (1920.63). Once again, Helene tries hard to distance herself from her past and to make sure that Nel does the same.
Helene and Nel return to Medallion, and Nel has been changed forever. She keeps thinking about the train trip, the soldiers on the train, Cecile's funeral, and Rochelle. She has suddenly gained a new self-identity because "she had gone on a real trip" (1920.67). She declares, "I'm me. I'm not their daughter. I'm not Nel. I'm me. Me" (1920.70). She starts to feel "a gathering in her like power, like joy, like fear" (1920.71), and she resolves to one day get out of Medallion. (We learn in this chapter that she never actually does.)
In the throes of this newfound power, Nel becomes friends with Sula. Helene has always warned Nel about playing with Sula because "Sula's mother was sooty" (1920.74), but Nel decides to ignore her mother's warnings.
Although Helene intensely dislikes Sula's mother, Hannah, she likes Sula, since she "seemed to have none of her mother's slackness" (1920.75). Sula appreciates how tidy and clean Nel's house is. Sula's house is the total opposite: cluttered, noisy, messy, and busy. And Nel likes Sula's grandma, Eva, who "handed you goobers from deep inside her pockets or read you a dream" (1920.75). Hannah and Eva are everything Helene is not, and Nel finds this refreshing.