I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings - Maya Angelou (1993)
For nearly a year, I sopped around the house, the Store, the school and the church, like an old biscuit, dirty and inedible. Then I met, or rather got to know, the lady who threw me my first life line.
Mrs. Bertha Flowers was the aristocrat of Black Stamps. She had the grace of control to appear warm in the coldest weather, and on the Arkansas summer days it seemed she had a private breeze which swirled around, cooling her. She was thin without the taut look of wiry people, and her printed voile dresses and flowered hats were as right for her as denim overalls for a farmer. She was our side’s answer to the richest white woman in town.
Her skin was a rich black that would have peeled like a plum if snagged, but then no one would have thought of getting close enough to Mrs. Flowers to ruffle her dress, let alone snag her skin. She didn’t encourage familiarity. She wore gloves too.
I don’t think I ever saw Mrs. Flowers laugh, but she smiled often. A slow widening of her thin black lips to show even, small white teeth, then the slow effortless closing. When she chose to smile on me, I always wanted to thank her. The action was so graceful and inclusively benign.
She was one of the few gentlewomen I have ever known, and has remained throughout my life the measure of what a human being can be.
Momma had a strange relationship with her. Most often when she passed on the road in front of the Store, she spoke to Momma in that soft yet carrying voice, “Good day, Mrs. Henderson.” Momma responded with “How you, Sister Flowers?”
Mrs. Flowers didn’t belong to our church, nor was she Momma’s familiar. Why on earth did she insist on calling her Sister Flowers? Shame made me want to hide my face. Mrs. Flowers deserved better than to be called Sister. Then, Momma left out the verb. Why not ask, “How are you, Mrs. Flowers?” With the unbalanced passion of the young, I hated her for showing her ignorance to Mrs. Flowers. It didn’t occur to me for many years that they were as alike as sisters, separated only by formal education.
Although I was upset, neither of the women was in the least shaken by what I thought an unceremonious greeting. Mrs. Flowers would continue her easy gait up the hill to her little bungalow, and Momma kept on shelling peas or doing whatever had brought her to the front porch.
Occasionally, though, Mrs. Flowers would drift off the road and down to the Store and Momma would say to me, “Sister, you go on and play.” As I left I would hear the beginning of an intimate conversation. Momma persistently using the wrong verb, or none at all.
“Brother and Sister Wilcox is sho’ly the meanest—” “Is,” Momma? “Is”? Oh, please, not “is,” Momma, for two or more. But they talked, and from the side of the building where I waited for the ground to open up and swallow me, I heard the soft-voiced Mrs. Flowers and the textured voice of my grandmother merging and melting. They were interrupted from time to time by giggles that must have come from Mrs. Flowers (Momma never giggled in her life). Then she was gone.
She appealed to me because she was like people I had never met personally. Like women in English novels who walked the moors (whatever they were) with their loyal dogs racing at a respectful distance. Like the women who sat in front of roaring fireplaces, drinking tea incessantly from silver trays full of scones and crumpets. Women who walked over the “heath” and read morocco-bound books and had two last names divided by a hyphen. It would be safe to say that she made me proud to be Negro, just by being herself.
She acted just as refined as whitefolks in the movies and books and she was more beautiful, for none of them could have come near that warm color without looking gray by comparison.
It was fortunate that I never saw her in the company of powhitefolks. For since they tend to think of their whiteness as an evenizer, I’m certain that I would have had to hear her spoken to commonly as Bertha, and my image of her would have been shattered like the unmendable Humpty-Dumpty.
One summer afternoon, sweet-milk fresh in my memory, she stopped at the Store to buy provisions. Another Negro woman of her health and age would have been expected to carry the paper sacks home in one hand, but Momma said, “Sister Flowers, I’ll send Bailey up to your house with these things.”
She smiled that slow dragging smile, “Thank you, Mrs. Henderson. I’d prefer Marguerite, though.” My name was beautiful when she said it. “I’ve been meaning to talk to her, anyway.” They gave each other age-group looks.
Momma said, “Well, that’s all right then. Sister, go and change your dress. You going to Sister Flowers’s.”
The chifforobe was a maze. What on earth did one put on to go to Mrs. Flowers’ house? I knew I shouldn’t put on a Sunday dress. It might be sacrilegious. Certainly not a house dress, since I was already wearing a fresh one. I chose a school dress, naturally. It was formal without suggesting that going to Mrs. Flowers’ house was equivalent to attending church.
I trusted myself back into the Store.
“Now, don’t you look nice.” I had chosen the right thing, for once.
“Mrs. Henderson, you make most of the children’s clothes, don’t you?”
“Yes, ma’am. Sure do. Store-bought clothes ain’t hardly worth the thread it take to stitch them.”
“I’ll say you do a lovely job, though, so neat. That dress looks professional.”
Momma was enjoying the seldom-received compliments. Since everyone we knew (except Mrs. Flowers, of course) could sew competently, praise was rarely handed out for the commonly practiced craft.
“I try, with the help of the Lord, Sister Flowers, to finish the inside just like I does the outside. Come here, Sister.”
I had buttoned up the collar and tied the belt, apronlike, in back. Momma told me to turn around. With one hand she pulled the strings and the belt fell free at both sides of my waist. Then her large hands were at my neck, opening the button loops. I was terrified. What was happening?
“Take it off, Sister.” She had her hands on the hem of the dress.
“I don’t need to see the inside, Mrs. Henderson, I can tell …” But the dress was over my head and my arms were stuck in the sleeves. Momma said, “That’ll do. See here, Sister Flowers, I French-seams around the armholes.” Through the cloth film, I saw the shadow approach. “That makes it last longer. Children these days would bust out of sheet-metal clothes. They so rough.”
“That is a very good job, Mrs. Henderson. You should be proud. You can put your dress back on, Marguerite.”
“No ma’am. Pride is a sin. And ’cording to the Good Book, it goeth before a fall.”
“That’s right. So the Bible says. It’s a good thing to keep in mind.”
I wouldn’t look at either of them. Momma hadn’t thought that taking off my dress in front of Mrs. Flowers would kill me stone dead. If I had refused, she would have thought I was trying to be “womanish” and might have remembered St. Louis. Mrs. Flowers had known that I would be embarrassed and that was even worse. I picked up the groceries and went out to wait in the hot sunshine. It would be fitting if I got a sunstroke and died before they came outside. Just dropped dead on the slanting porch.
There was a little path beside the rocky road, and Mrs. Flowers walked in front swinging her arms and picking her way over the stones.
She said, without turning her head, to me, “I hear you’re doing very good school work, Marguerite, but that it’s all written. The teachers report that they have trouble getting you to talk in class.” We passed the triangular farm on our left and the path widened to allow us to walk together. I hung back in the separate unasked and unanswerable questions.
“Come and walk along with me, Marguerite.” I couldn’t have refused even if I wanted to. She pronounced my name so nicely. Or more correctly, she spoke each word with such clarity that I was certain a foreigner who didn’t understand English could have understood her.
“Now no one is going to make you talk—possibly no one can. But bear in mind, language is man’s way of communicating with his fellow man and it is language alone which separates him from the lower animals.” That was a totally new idea to me, and I would need time to think about it.
“Your grandmother says you read a lot. Every chance you get. That’s good, but not good enough. Words mean more than what is set down on paper. It takes the human voice to infuse them with the shades of deeper meaning.”
I memorized the part about the human voice infusing words. It seemed so valid and poetic.
She said she was going to give me some books and that I not only must read them, I must read them aloud. She suggested that I try to make a sentence sound in as many different ways as possible.
“I’ll accept no excuse if you return a book to me that has been badly handled.” My imagination boggled at the punishment I would deserve if in fact I did abuse a book of Mrs. Flowers’. Death would be too kind and brief.
The odors in the house surprised me. Somehow I had never connected Mrs. Flowers with food or eating or any other common experience of common people. There must have been an outhouse, too, but my mind never recorded it.
The sweet scent of vanilla had met us as she opened the door.
“I made tea cookies this morning. You see, I had planned to invite you for cookies and lemonade so we could have this little chat. The lemonade is in the icebox.”
It followed that Mrs. Flowers would have ice on an ordinary day, when most families in our town bought ice late on Saturdays only a few times during the summer to be used in the wooden ice-cream freezers.
She took the bags from me and disappeared through the kitchen door. I looked around the room that I had never in my wildest fantasies imagined I would see. Browned photographs leered or threatened from the walls and the white, freshly done curtains pushed against themselves and against the wind. I wanted to gobble up the room entire and take it to Bailey, who would help me analyze and enjoy it.
“Have a seat, Marguerite. Over there by the table.” She carried a platter covered with a tea towel. Although she warned that she hadn’t tried her hand at baking sweets for some time, I was certain that like everything else about her the cookies would be perfect.
They were flat round wafers, slightly browned on the edges and butter-yellow in the center. With the cold lemonade they were sufficient for childhood’s lifelong diet. Remembering my manners, I took nice little lady-like bites off the edges. She said she had made them expressly for me and that she had a few in the kitchen that I could take home to my brother. So I jammed one whole cake in my mouth and the rough crumbs scratched the insides of my jaws, and if I hadn’t had to swallow, it would have been a dream come true.
As I ate she began the first of what we later called “my lessons in living.” She said that I must always be intolerant of ignorance but understanding of illiteracy. That some people, unable to go to school, were more educated and even more intelligent than college professors. She encouraged me to listen carefully to what country people called mother wit. That in those homely sayings was couched the collective wisdom of generations.
When I finished the cookies she brushed off the table and brought a thick, small book from the bookcase. I had read A Tale of Two Cities and found it up to my standards as a romantic novel. She opened the first page and I heard poetry for the first time in my life.
“It was the best of times and the worst of times …” Her voice slid in and curved down through and over the words. She was nearly singing. I wanted to look at the pages. Were they the same that I had read? Or were there notes, music, lined on the pages, as in a hymn book? Her sounds began cascading gently. I knew from listening to a thousand preachers that she was nearing the end of her reading, and I hadn’t really heard, heard to understand, a single word.
“How do you like that?”
It occurred to me that she expected a response. The sweet vanilla flavor was still on my tongue and her reading was a wonder in my ears. I had to speak.
I said, “Yes, ma’am.” It was the least I could do, but it was the most also.
“There’s one more thing. Take this book of poems and memorize one for me. Next time you pay me a visit, I want you to recite.”
I have tried often to search behind the sophistication of years for the enchantment I so easily found in those gifts. The essence escapes but its aura remains. To be allowed, no, invited, into the private lives of strangers, and to share their joys and fears, was a chance to exchange the Southern bitter wormwood for a cup of mead with Beowulf or a hot cup of tea and milk with Oliver Twist. When I said aloud, “It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done …” tears of love filled my eyes at my selflessness.
On that first day, I ran down the hill and into the road (few cars ever came along it) and had the good sense to stop running before I reached the Store.
I was liked, and what a difference it made. I was respected not as Mrs. Henderson’s grandchild or Bailey’s sister but for just being Marguerite Johnson.
Childhood’s logic never asks to be proved (all conclusions are absolute). I didn’t question why Mrs. Flowers had singled me out for attention, nor did it occur to me that Momma might have asked her to give me a little talking to. All I cared about was that she had made tea cookies for me and read to me from her favorite book. It was enough to prove that she liked me.
Momma and Bailey were waiting inside the Store. He said, “My, what did she give you?” He had seen the books, but I held the paper sack with his cookies in my arms shielded by the poems.
Momma said, “Sister, I know you acted like a little lady. That do my heart good to see settled people take to you all. I’m trying my best, the Lord knows, but these days …” Her voice trailed off. “Go on in and change your dress.”
In the bedroom it was going to be a joy to see Bailey receive his cookies. I said, “By the way, Bailey, Mrs. Flowers sent you some tea cookies—”
Momma shouted, “What did you say, Sister? You, Sister, what did you say?” Hot anger was crackling in her voice.
Bailey said, “She said Mrs. Flowers sent me some—”
“I ain’t talking to you, Ju.” I heard the heavy feet walk across the floor toward our bedroom. “Sister, you heard me. What’s that you said?” She swelled to fill the doorway.
Bailey said, “Momma.” His pacifying voice—“Momma, she—”
“You shut up, Ju. I’m talking to your sister.”
I didn’t know what sacred cow I had bumped, but it was better to find out than to hang like a thread over an open fire. I repeated, “I said, ‘Bailey, by the way, Mrs. Flowers sent you—’”
“That’s what I thought you said. Go on and take off your dress. I’m going to get a switch.”
At first I thought she was playing. Maybe some heavy joke that would end with “You sure she didn’t send me something?” but in a minute she was back in the room with a long, ropy, peach-tree switch, the juice smelling bitter at having been torn loose. She said, “Get down on your knees. Bailey, Junior, you come on, too.”
The three of us knelt as she began, “Our Father, you know the tribulations of your humble servant. I have with your help raised two grown boys. Many’s the day I thought I wouldn’t be able to go on, but you gave me the strength to see my way clear. Now, Lord, look down on this heavy heart today. I’m trying to raise my son’s children in the way they should go, but, oh, Lord, the Devil try to hinder me on every hand. I never thought I’d live to hear cursing under this roof, what I try to keep dedicated to the glorification of God. And cursing out of the mouths of babes. But you said, in the last days brother would turn against brother, and children against their parents. That there would be a gnashing of teeth and a rendering of flesh. Father, forgive this child, I beg you, on bended knee.”
I was crying loudly now. Momma’s voice had risen to a shouting pitch, and I knew that whatever wrong I had committed was extremely serious. She had even left the Store untended to take up my case with God. When she finished we were all crying. She pulled me to her with one hand and hit me only a few times with the switch. The shock of my sin and the emotional release of her prayer had exhausted her.
Momma wouldn’t talk right then, but later in the evening I found that my violation lay in using the phrase “by the way.” Momma explained that “Jesus was the Way, the Truth and the Light,” and anyone who says “by the way” is really saying, “by Jesus,” or “by God” and the Lord’s name would not be taken in vain in her house.
When Bailey tried to interpret the words with: “Whitefolks use ‘by the way’ to mean while we’re on the subject,” Momma reminded us that “whitefolks’ mouths were most in general loose and their words were an abomination before Christ.”