The mom & me bond

2013-05-13 14:20

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American author and poet Maya Angelou inspires many people around the world. In her most recent memoir, Me & Mom & Me, she further explores her complicated relationship with her mother.

Maya Angelou was three years old and her brother Bailey was five when her separated parents sent them to Arkansas to live with their paternal Grandmother Henderson.

Ten years later, Maya’s glamorous mother, Vivian, eventually asks her estranged children to live with her in California.

Their relationship is unsteady at first, but over time Maya learns to love and appreciate the woman she initially calls Lady.

After falling pregnant at 16 and giving birth to her son, Guy, Maya grows even closer to her unorthodox mother.

‘I walked away and was back in my bedroom before I heard my own words echoing in my mind. I had called Lady “Mother”. I knew she had noticed but we never ever mentioned the incident.

I was aware that after the birth of my son and the decision to move and get a place for just the two of us, I thought of Vivian Baxter as my mother.

On the odd occasion and out of habit, sometimes I called her Lady, but her treatment of me and her love for my baby earned her the right to be called Mother.

On the day we moved from her house, Mother liberated me by letting me know she was on my side.

I realised that I had grown close to her and that she had liberated me. She liberated me from a society that would have had me think of myself as the lower of the low. She liberated me to life.

And from that time to this time, I have taken life by the lapels and I have said, “I’m with you, kid.”’

As adults Maya and her mother share an extremely close bond.

Already a successful playwright and poet, Maya sends for Vivian while she is working in Stockholm, Sweden.

A screenplay of hers is being filmed – and the movie stars on set are not being co-operative.

‘My smart, glamorous, sophisticated mother sat back in her stool. As usual she was in charge. She turned around and faced me directly. “Baby, let me tell you something: a horse needs a tail more than one season.”

What on earth did that mean? I sent for her because I needed her desperately and she arrived with this completely befuddling wisdom. I asked, “Please say that again.”

“A horse needs a tail more than one season. You see, a horse that thinks once summer is over it can get rid of the appendage stuck on the back of its butt, which it doesn’t even have to look at, is a damned fool.

If the horse lives, spring will come and the flies will be back, and the flies will begin worrying the horse. When the flies aggravate the horse’s eyes and the ears, the horse would give anything for just a minute’s peace.

“Baby, now they are treating you as if you are a horse’s ass. Let me tell you something. All you have to do is get your work done. If these people live, they will come back to you. They may have forgotten how badly they treated you, or they may pretend that they have forgotten. But watch: they will come back to you. In the meantime, Mother is here. I will look after you and I will look after anybody you say needs to be looked after, any way you say. I am here. I brought my whole self to you. I am your mother.”

I sublet an apartment so that we could be comfortable. My mother stayed with me for the entire shooting of the movie.

Each morning I went to the location to braid the star’s hair [as none of the Swedish beauticians knew how to plait cornrows].

And each morning, until I finished, the crew would hold up action. They would not hang lights nor arrange cameras.

The director and the actors stood together in silence until I left. For the first few days after Mother’s arrival, I used all my control to hold back the tears.

Slowly, I allowed my mother’s presence to strengthen me. And as I crossed the little lawn adjacent to our building, I would see my mother standing in the window with a cup in her hand and a big smile on her face.

I would take the glass elevator up to her floor, and my mother would greet me with a steaming hot cup of coffee.

She said the same thing every morning, “Hi, baby, come in. Here’s some coffee and a kiss for you.”

Having her there kissing me, offering me coffee, made me feel like a little girl, like allowing me to sit in her lap. She stroked my shoulders and stroked my back and murmured to me.

I stopped feeling sorry for myself.

Mother learned where the shops were. Sometimes she would ask me to accompany her. She found her way around the area. She asked if there were any likable cast members. When I said yes, she said I could invite them.

My mother made fried chicken, mashed potatoes, greens, cabbage or kale. She would always buy a dessert.

The bar was always stocked. She was a raconteur and would entertain my friends as if they were her friends. My mother was irresistible (when she wanted to be) and everyone fell in love with her when she wanted them to.

I noticed after a while, on the set, people started treating me differently. At first it was a little off-putting. The star began to smile more frequently at me when I was braiding her hair.

The man who had threatened to run away, to leave us in a lurch, was back saying what a great writer I was and how honoired he was. I began to wonder what made them change. I had not done anything unusual for them.

Their salaries had not been increased, and the time they owed to the shooting of the film had not been decreased.

One morning as I was leaving, the director said I didn’t have to leave the set any more.

What happened? Why did they change their ways of treating me? I came to the realisation that it was because I had a mother.

My mother spoke highly of me, and to me. But more important, whether they met her or simply heard about her, she was there with me.

She had my back, supported me. This is the role of the mother, and in that visit I really saw clearly, and for the first time, why a mother is really important.

Not just because she feeds and also loves and cuddles and even mollycoddles a child, but because in an interesting and maybe an eerie and unworldly way, she stands in the gap.

She stands between the unknown and the known. In Stockholm, my mother shed her protective love down around me and without knowing why people sensed that I had value.

I never stayed at the shoot after I finished braiding the star’s hair. I counted on luck giving me another chance to learn moviemaking.

Mother understood. She said, “You’re my daughter. Don’t take tea for the fever. You are your own woman.”’

Copyright © Maya Angelou 2013, extracted from Mom & Me & Mom (R220, Virago)

About the author

Poet, writer, performer, teacher and director Maya Angelou, 85, was raised in Stamps, Arkansas, before moving to San Francisco. In addition to her bestselling autobiographies, beginning with 1969’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, she has written five poetry collections and two cookbooks. She now lives in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. Her son, Guy Johnson, is also a poet.

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