Tuesday, June 3, 2014
Maya Angelou was 64 years old when I drove to Winston-Salem in December, 1993, to sit with her at her kitchen table and talk with her about her life for a book I was compiling about Southern writers. Sunshine spilled into every corner of the house on Valley Drive, gilding the bouquet of fresh flowers in the living room and burnishing the African masks on the wall.
The conversation covered art, marriage, motherhood and the hotel room where Angelou said she went each morning at 5 to write.
I told Angelou I was surprised she wrote so sweetly and admiringly about the mother who abandoned her during her childhood. Here's what she said:
"You see, I have a theory that there is a parent who can be a great parent of small people, of infants and toddlers. They're the cutest little things, and doodley-doodle. ...But as soon as that person gets to be about twelve or thirteen, they don't know what to do with them. So they say, 'Shut up! Sit down! ... Get out! You want to go to Europe? Here, go!'
"Then there are parents who are great parents of young adults. My mom was in the latter group. I am so grateful that I got sent (early) to my grandmother, who just flooded me with love and lessons. But my ma, once I was able to talk to her, and she saw that I had some sense, and that I was going to be a good woman... .
"We'd walk out and down the San Francisco hills, and she had... Do you remember silver fox furs? Where the mouths of one reach over the tail of the other? She had that, and she had diamonds and makeup. She was a little woman. And we got to the corner, and she said, 'Baby, you know, I think you're the greatest woman I've ever known.'
"I looked down at this pretty little woman with her diamonds and her furs, and she said, 'You're very intelligent. And you're very kind. And those two virtues don't always go together. Give me a kiss.'
"So I gave her a kiss on the lips. She walked across the street that way and got into her beige and brown Pontiac. And I went across the street that way, and got onto the Number 22 streetcar. And I remember it as if it was today. I remember the sun on the streetcar. I remember where I sat. I remember everything. And I thought, 'Suppose she's right? Suppose I really am somebody. Just suppose... She's very intelligent, my mother, and she's too mean to lie.' "