“There is always tomorrow,” wrote Maya Angelou (1928 – 2014) when she was 80. “Today I am blessed.” Her vigorous energy coupled with the question repeatedly asked of her—”How did you become Maya Angelou?”—prompted the last of her seven autobiographies, Mom & Me & Mom.
This book has been written to examine some of the ways love heals and helps a person to climb impossible heights and rise from immeasurable depths.
When she was five, Maya Angelou and her brother went to live with her paternal grandmother in Stamps, Arkansas. Her mother couldn’t cope with raising children. When the children became teenagers, Angelou’s grandmother felt the South was too dangerous, and they returned to San Francisco. To live with a woman they barely knew.
After a few weeks, it became clear that I was not using any title when I spoke to her. In fact, I rarely started conversations. […]
She asked me to join her. ‘Maya, I am your mother. Despite the fact that I left you for years. I am your mother. You know that, don’t you?’
I said, ‘Yes, ma’am.’ I had been answering her briefly with a few words since my arrival in California.
‘You don’t have to say “ma’am” to me. You’re not in Arkansas.’
‘No, ma’am. I mean no.’
‘You don’t want to call me “Mother,” do you?’
I remained silent.
The love and support of Vivian Baxter towards her daughter jumps off the page, from protecting Maya as she worked as a nightly trolley conductor to climbing on the delivery table to catch (and cradle and love) Angelou’s son as he is born.
Through experience and armloads of time, the two develop and nurture the relationship given to them by nature.1
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.
Angelou’s memories of what once was are wonderfully gifted to us from the grace of age. They are luminous, well-narrated, and emotionally catching as any of Angelou’s works. This book is how Angelou came to be liberated and inspired by her mother. It is also how her own mother became a mother through the need, vulnerability, and inspiration of Angelou.
I will look after you, and I will look after anybody you say needs to be looked after, anyway you say. I am here. I brought my whole self to you. I am your mother.
Stories of motherhood are long, long tales of becoming, not being. Read Mom & Me & Mom alongside Joan Didion’s breathless story of the life-altering loss of a daughter, or Max Porter’s Grief Is a Thing with Feathers about the ‘hung-empty’ space left by a mother’s death. Angelou’s first autobiography tells more of her grandmother, a woman who never kissed her but left Angelou in no doubt of her admiration and love.