I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings - Maya Angelou (1993)
The intensity with which young people live demands that they “blank out” as often as possible. I didn’t actually think about facing Mother until the last day of our journey. I was “going to California.” To oranges and sunshine and movie stars and earthquakes and (finally I realized) to Mother. My old guilt came back to me like a much-missed friend. I wondered if Mr. Freeman’s name would be mentioned, or if I would be expected to say something about the situation myself. I certainly couldn’t ask Momma, and Bailey was a zillion miles away.
The agony of wonder made the fuzzy seats hard, soured the boiled eggs, and when I looked at Momma she seemed too big and too black and very old-fashioned. Everything I saw shuttered against me. The little towns, where nobody waved, and the other passengers in the train, with whom I had achieved an almost kinfolk relationship, disappeared into a common strangeness.
I was as unprepared to meet my mother as a sinner is reluctant to meet his Maker. And all too soon she stood before me, smaller than memory would have her but more glorious than any recall. She wore a light-tan suede suit, shoes to match and a mannish hat with a feather in the band, and she patted my face with gloved hands. Except for the lipsticked mouth, white teeth and shining black eyes, she might have just emerged from a dip in a beige bath. My picture of Mother and Momma embracing on the train platform has been darkly retained through the coating of the then embarrassment and the now maturity. Mother was a blithe chick nuzzling around the large, solid dark hen. The sounds they made had a rich inner harmony. Momma’s deep, slow voice lay under my mother’s rapid peeps and chirps like stones under rushing water.
The younger woman kissed and laughed and rushed about collecting our coats and getting our luggage carted off. She easily took care of the details that would have demanded half of a country person’s day. I was struck again by the wonder of her, and for the length of my trance, the greedy uneasinesses were held at bay.
We moved into an apartment, and I slept on a sofa that miraculously transformed itself at night into a large comfortable bed. Mother stayed in Los Angeles long enough to get us settled, then she returned to San Francisco to arrange living accommodations for her abruptly enlarged family.
Momma and Bailey (he joined us a month after our arrival) and I lived in Los Angeles about six months while our permanent living arrangements were being concluded. Daddy Bailey visited occasionally, bringing shopping bags of fruit. He shone like a Sun God, benignly warming and brightening his dark subjects.
Since I was enchanted with the creation of my own world, years had to pass before I reflected on Momma’s remarkable adjustment to that foreign life. An old Southern Negro woman who had lived her life under the left breast of her community learned to deal with white landlords, Mexican neighbors and Negro strangers. She shopped in supermarkets larger than the town she came from. She dealt with accents that must have struck jarringly on her ears. She, who had never been more than fifty miles from her birthplace, learned to traverse the maze of Spanish-named streets in that enigma that is Los Angeles.
She made the same kinds of friends she had always had. On late Sunday afternoons before evening church services, old women who were carbon copies of herself came to the apartment to share leftovers from the Sunday meal and religious talk of a Bright Hereafter.
When the arrangements for our move north were completed, she broke the shattering news that she was going back to Arkansas. She had done her job. She was needed by Uncle Willie. We had our own parents at last. At least we were in the same state.
There were foggy days of unknowing for Bailey and me. It was all well and good to say we would be with our parents, but after all, who were they? Would they be more severe with our didoes than she? That would be bad. Or more lax? Which would be even worse. Would we learn to speak that fast language? I doubted that, and I doubted even more that I would ever find out what they laughed about so loudly and so often.
I would have been willing to return to Stamps even without Bailey. But Momma left for Arkansas without me with her solid air packed around her like cotton.
Mother drove us toward San Francisco over the big white highway that would not have surprised me had it never ended. She talked incessantly and pointed out places of interest. As we passed Capistrano she sang a popular song that I’d heard on the radio: “When the swallows come back to Capistrano.”
She strung humorous stories along the road like a bright wash and tried to captivate us. But her being, and her being our mother, had done the job so successfully that it was a little distracting to see her throwing good energy after good.
The big car was obedient under her one-hand driving, and she pulled on her Lucky Strike so hard that her cheeks were sucked in to make valleys in her face. Nothing could have been more magical than to have found her at last, and have her solely to ourselves in the closed world of a moving car.
Although we were both enraptured, neither Bailey nor I was unaware of her nervousness. The knowledge that we had the power to upset that goddess made us look at each other conspiratorially and smile. It also made her human.
We spent a few dingy months in an Oakland apartment which had a bathtub in the kitchen and was near enough to the Southern Pacific Mole to shake at the arrival and departure of every train. In many ways it was St. Louis revisited—along with Uncles Tommy and Billy—and Grandmother Baxter of the pince-nez and strict carriage was again In Residence, though the mighty Baxter clan had fallen into hard times after the death of Grandfather Baxter some years earlier.
We went to school and no family member questioned the output or quality of our work. We went to a playground which sported a basketball court, a football field and Ping Pong tables under awnings. On Sundays instead of going to church we went to the movies.
I slept with Grandmother Baxter, who was afflicted with chronic bronchitis and smoked heavily. During the day she stubbed out half-finished cigarettes and put them in an ashtray beside her bed. At night when she woke up coughing she fumbled in the dark for a butt (she called them “Willies”) and after a blaze of light she smoked the strengthened tobacco until her irritated throat was deadened with nicotine. For the first weeks of sleeping with her, the shaking bed and scent of tobacco woke me, but I readily became used to it and slept peacefully through the night.
One evening after going to bed normally, I awoke to another kind of shaking. In the blunted light through the window shade I saw my mother kneeling by my bed. She brought her face close to my ear.
“Ritie,” she whispered, “Ritie. Come, but be very quiet.” Then she quietly rose and left the room. Dutifully and in a haze of ponderment I followed. Through the half-open kitchen door the light showed Bailey’s pajamaed legs dangling from the covered bathtub. The clock on the dining-room table said 2:30. I had never been up at that hour.
I looked Bailey a question and he returned a sheepish gaze. I knew immediately that there was nothing to fear. Then I ran my mind through the catalogue of important dates. It wasn’t anybody’s birthday, or April Fool’s Day, or Halloween, but it was something.
Mother closed the kitchen door and told me to sit beside Bailey. She put her hands on her hips and said we had been invited to a party.
Was that enough to wake us in the middle of the night! Neither of us said anything.
She continued, “I am giving a party and you are my honored and only guests.”
She opened the oven and took out a pan of her crispy brown biscuits and showed us a pot of milk chocolate on the back of the stove. There was nothing for it but to laugh at our beautiful and wild mother. When Bailey and I started laughing, she joined in, except that she kept her finger in front of her mouth to try to quiet us.
We were served formally, and she apologized for having no orchestra to play for us but said she’d sing as a substitute. She sang and did the Time Step and the Snake Hips and the Suzy Q. What child can resist a mother who laughs freely and often, especially if the child’s wit is mature enough to catch the sense of the joke?
Mother’s beauty made her powerful and her power made her unflinchingly honest. When we asked her what she did, what her job was, she walked us to Oakland’s Seventh Street, where dusty bars and smoke shops sat in the laps of storefront churches. She pointed out Raincoat’s Pinochle Parlor and Slim Jenkins’ pretentious saloon. Some nights she played pinochle for money or ran a poker game at Mother Smith’s or stopped at Slim’s for a few drinks. She told us that she had never cheated anybody and wasn’t making any preparations to do so. Her work was as honest as the job held by fat Mrs. Walker (a maid), who lived next door to us, and “a damn sight better paid.” She wouldn’t bust suds for anybody nor be anyone’s kitchen bitch. The good Lord gave her a mind and she intended to use it to support her mother and her children. She didn’t need to add “And have a little fun along the way.”
In the street people were genuinely happy to see her. “Hey, baby. What’s the news?”
“Everything’s steady, baby, steady.”
“How you doing, pretty?”
“I can’t win, ’cause of the shape I’m in.” (Said with a laugh that belied the content.)
“You all right, momma?”
“Aw, they tell me the whitefolks still in the lead.” (Said as if that was not quite the whole truth.)
She supported us efficiently with humor and imagination. Occasionally we were taken to Chinese restaurants or Italian pizza parlors. We were introduced to Hungarian goulash and Irish stew. Through food we learned that there were other people in the world.
With all her jollity, Vivian Baxter had no mercy. There was a saying in Oakland at the time which, if she didn’t say it herself, explained her attitude. The saying was, “Sympathy is next to shit in the dictionary, and I can’t even read.” Her temper had not diminished with the passing of time, and when a passionate nature is not eased with moments of compassion, melodrama is likely to take the stage. In each outburst of anger my mother was fair. She had the impartiality of nature, with the same lack of indulgence or clemency.
Before we arrived from Arkansas, an incident took place that left the main actors in jail and in the hospital. Mother had a business partner (who may have been a little more than that) with whom she ran a restaurant cum gambling casino. The partner was not shouldering his portion of the responsibility, according to Mother, and when she confronted him he became haughty and domineering, and he unforgivably called her a bitch. Now, everyone knew that although she cursed as freely as she laughed, no one cursed around her, and certainly no one cursed her. Maybe for the sake of business arrangements she restrained a spontaneous reaction. She told her partner, “I’m going to be one bitch, and I’ve already been that one.” In a foolhardy gesture the man relieved himself of still another “bitch”—and Mother shot him. She had anticipated some trouble when she determined to speak to him and so had taken the precaution to slip a little .32 in her big skirt pocket.
Shot once, the partner stumbled toward her, instead of away, and she said that since she had intended to shoot him (notice: shoot, not kill) she had no reason to run away, so she shot him a second time. It must have been a maddening situation for them. To her, each shot seemed to impel him forward, the reverse of her desire; and for him, the closer he got to her, the more she shot him. She stood her ground until he reached her and flung both arms around her neck, dragging her to the floor. She later said the police had to untwine him before he could be taken to the ambulance. And on the following day, when she was released on bail, she looked in a mirror and “had black eyes down to here.” In throwing his arms around her, he must have struck her. She bruised easily.
The partner lived, though shot twice, and although the partnership was dissolved they retained admiration for each other. He had been shot, true, but in her fairness she had warned him. And he had had the strength to give her two black eyes and then live. Admirable qualities.
World War II started on a Sunday afternoon when I was on my way to the movies. People in the streets shouted, “We’re at war. We’ve declared war on Japan.”
I ran all the way home. Not too sure I wouldn’t be bombed before I reached Bailey and Mother. Grandmother Baxter calmed my anxiety by explaining that America would not be bombed, not as long as Franklin Delano Roosevelt was President. He was, after all, a politician’s politician and he knew what he was doing.
Soon after, Mother married Daddy Clidell, who turned out to be the first father I would know. He was a successful businessman, and he and Mother moved us to San Francisco. Uncle Tommy, Uncle Billy and Grandmother Baxter remained in the big house in Oakland.