Maya Angelou is one of the great writers of our time, and to date she has written six autobiographies chronicling various chapters of her life. Her illuminating writing and undying optimism are what make her books so readable, and almost anyone who picks up I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings or The Heart of a Woman is able to connect with her characters and stories even if they’ve never shared any similar experiences.
As we approach Mother’s Day, we’re all thinking about the important women in our lives. Maya Angelou’s newest autobiography touches on what is arguably one of life’s most important relationships: the one we share with our mother. In Mom & Me & Mom, Angelou finally tackles the part of her life that she has written little about—what it was like to be sent away to live with her grandparents, and, years later, how difficult it was to reconcile with the mother who’d left her.
Ultimately, Mom & Me & Mom is a story about love and forgiveness. Angelou paints a colorful portrait of the mother she only came to understand as an adult, and uses both bright and dark moments from her experience to illustrate the power and complexities of the mother-daughter bond.
Below is an excerpt from the beginning of the book, where Angelou meets her mother, Vivian Baxter, for the first time in 10 years. At age 13, she refers to her mother by name and her grandmother, whom she had been living with for the past decade, as “Momma.”
When we descended the train steps, I looked for someone who could be my mother. When I heard my grandmother’s voice call out, I followed the voice and I knew she had made a mistake, but the pretty little woman with red lips and high heels came running to my grandmother.
“Mother Annie! Mother Annie!”
Grandmother opened her arms and embraced the woman. When Momma’s arms fell, the woman asked, “Where is my baby?”
She looked around and saw me. I wanted to sink into the ground. I wasn’t pretty or even cute. That woman who looked like a movie star deserved a better-looking daughter than me. I knew it and was sure she would know it as soon as she saw me.
“Maya, Marguerite, my baby.” Suddenly I was wrapped in her arms and in her perfume. She pushed away and looked at me. “Oh baby, you’re beautiful and so tall. You look like your daddy and me. I’m so glad to see you.”
She kissed me. I had not received one kiss in all the years in Arkansas. Often my grandmother would call me and show me off to her visitors. “This is my grandbaby.” She would stroke me and smile. That was the closest I had come to being kissed. Now Vivian Baxter was kissing my cheeks and my lips and my hands. Since I didn’t know what to do, I did nothing.
Her home, which was a boardinghouse, was filled with heavy and very uncomfortable furniture. She showed me a room and said it was mine. I told her I wanted to sleep with Momma. Vivian said, “I suppose you slept with your grandmother in Stamps, but she will be going home soon and you need to get used to sleeping in your own room.”
My grandmother stayed in California, watching me and everything that happened around me. And when she decided that everything was all right, she was happy. I was not. She began to talk about going home, and wondering aloud how her crippled son was getting along. I was afraid to let her leave me, but she said, “You are with your mother now and your brother will be coming soon. Trust me, but more than that trust the Lord. He will look after you.”
Grandmother smiled when my mother played jazz and blues very loudly on her record player. Sometimes she would dance just because she felt like it, alone, by herself, in the middle of the floor. While Grandmother accepted behavior so different, I just couldn’t get used to it.
My mother watched me without saying much for about two weeks. Then we had what was to become familiar as “a sit-down talk-to.”
She said, “Maya, you disapprove of me because I am not like your grandmother. That’s true. I am not. But I am your mother and I am working some part of my anatomy off to pay for this roof over your head. When you go to school, the teacher will smile at you and you will smile back. Students you don’t even know will smile and you will smile. But on the other hand, I am your mother. If you can force one smile on your face for strangers, do it for me. I promise you I will appreciate it.”
She put her hand on my cheek and smiled. “Come on, baby, smile for Mother. Come on. Be charitable.”
She made a funny face and against my will, I smiled. She kissed me on my lips and started to cry. “That’s the first time I have seen you smile. It is a beautiful smile. Mother’s beautiful daughter can smile.”
I was not used to being called beautiful.
To learn more about Maya Angelou, visit mayaangelou.com.