I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings - Maya Angelou (1993)

Chapter 9

A year later our father came to Stamps without warning. It was awful for Bailey and me to encounter the reality one abrupt morning. We, or at any rate I, had built such elaborate fantasies about him and the illusory mother that seeing him in the flesh shredded my inventions like a hard yank on a paper chain. He arrived in front of the Store in a clean gray car (he must have stopped just outside of town to wipe it in preparation for the “grand entrance”). Bailey, who knew such things, said it was a De Soto. His bigness shocked me. His shoulders were so wide I thought he’d have trouble getting in the door. He was taller than anyone I had seen, and if he wasn’t fat, which I knew he wasn’t, then he was fat-like. His clothes were too small too. They were tighter and woolier than was customary in Stamps. And he was blindingly handsome. Momma cried, “Bailey, my baby. Great God, Bailey.” And Uncle Willie stuttered, “Bu-Buh-Bailey.” My brother said, “Hot dog and damn. It’s him. It’s our daddy.” And my seven-year-old world humpty-dumptied, never to be put back together again.

His voice rang like a metal dipper hitting a bucket and he spoke English. Proper English, like the school principal, and even better. Our father sprinkled ers and even errers in his sentences as liberally as he gave out his twisted-mouth smiles. His lips pulled not down, like Uncle Willie’s, but to the side, and his head lay on one side or the other, but never straight on the end of his neck. He had the air of a man who did not believe what he heard or what he himself was saying. He was the first cynic I had met. “So er this is Daddy’s er little man? Boy, anybody tell you errer that you er look like me?” He had Bailey in one arm and me in the other. “And Daddy’s baby girl. You’ve errer been good children, er haven’t you? Or er I guess I would have er heard about it er from Santa Claus.” I was so proud of him it was hard to wait for the gossip to get around that he was in town. Wouldn’t the kids be surprised at how handsome our daddy was? And that he loved us enough to come down to Stamps to visit? Everyone could tell from the way he talked and from the car and clothes that he was rich and maybe had a castle out in California. (I later learned that he had been a doorman at Santa Monica’s plush Breakers Hotel). Then the possibility of being compared with him occurred to me, and I didn’t want anyone to see him. Maybe he wasn’t my real father. Bailey was his son, true enough, but I was an orphan that they picked up to provide Bailey with company.

I was always afraid when I found him watching me, and wished I could grow small like Tiny Tim. Sitting at the table one day, I held the fork in my left hand and pierced a piece of fried chicken. I put the knife through the second tine, as we had been strictly taught, and began to saw against the bone. My father laughed a rich rolling laugh, and I looked up. He imitated me, both elbows going up and down. “Is Daddy’s baby going to fly away?” Momma laughed, and Uncle Willie too, and even Bailey snickered a little. Our father was proud of his sense of humor.

For three weeks the Store was filled with people who had gone to school with him or heard about him. The curious and envious milled around and he strutted, throwing ers and errers all over the place and under the sad eyes of Uncle Willie. Then one day he said he had to get back to California. I was relieved. My world was going to be emptier and dryer, but the agony of having him intrude into every private second would be gone. And the silent threat that had hung in the air since his arrival, the threat of his leaving someday, would be gone. I wouldn’t have to wonder whether I loved him or not, or have to answer “Does Daddy’s baby want to go to California with Daddy?” Bailey had told him that he wanted to go, but I had kept quiet. Momma was relieved too, although she had had a good time cooking special things for him and showing her California son off to the peasants of Arkansas. But Uncle Willie was suffering under our father’s bombastic pressure, and in mother-bird fashion Momma was more concerned with her crippled offspring than the one who could fly away from the nest.

He was going to take us with him! The knowledge buzzed through my days and made me jump unexpectedly like a jack-in-the-box. Each day I found some time to walk to the pond where people went to catch sun perch and striped bass. The hours I chose to go were too early or late for fishermen, so I had the area to myself. I stood on the bank of the green dark water, and my thoughts skidded like the water spiders. Now this way, now that, now the other. Should I go with my father? Should I throw myself into the pond, and not being able to swim, join the body of L.C., the boy who drowned last summer? Should I beg Momma to let me stay with her? I could tell her that I’d take over Bailey’s chores and do my own as well. Did I have the nerve to try life without Bailey? I couldn’t decide on any move, so I recited a few Bible verses, and went home.

Momma cut down a few give-aways that had been traded to her by white women’s maids and sat long nights in the dining room sewing jumpers and skirts for me. She looked pretty sad, but each time I found her watching me she’d say, as if I had already disobeyed, “You be a good girl now. You hear? Don’t you make people think I didn’t raise you right. You hear?” She would have been more surprised than I had she taken me in her arms and wept at losing me. Her world was bordered on all sides with work, duty, religion and “her place.” I don’t think she ever knew that a deep-brooding love hung over everything she touched. In later years I asked her if she loved me and she brushed me off with: “God is love. Just worry about whether you’re being a good girl, then He will love you.”

I sat in the back of the car, with Dad’s leather suitcases, and our cardboard boxes. Although the windows were rolled down, the smell of fried chicken and sweet potato pie lay unmoving, and there wasn’t enough room to stretch. Whenever he thought about it, Dad asked, “Are you comfortable back there, Daddy’s baby?” He never waited to hear my answer, which was “Yes, sir,” before he’d resume his conversation with Bailey. He and Bailey told jokes, and Bailey laughed all the time, put out Dad’s cigarettes and held one hand on the steering wheel when Dad said, “Come on, boy, help me drive this thing.”

After I got tired of passing through the same towns over and over, and seeing the empty-looking houses, small and unfriendly, I closed myself off to everything but the kissing sounds of the tires on the pavement and the steady moan of the motor. I was certainly very vexed with Bailey. There was no doubt that he was trying to butter up Dad; he even started to laugh like him, a Santa Claus, Jr., with his “Ho, ho, ho.”

“How are you going to feel seeing your mother? Going to be happy?” he was asking Bailey, but it penetrated the foam I had packed around my senses. Were we going to see Her? I thought we were going to California. I was suddenly terrified. Suppose she laughed at us the way he did? What if she had other children now, whom she kept with her? I said, “I want to go back to Stamps.” Dad laughed, “You mean Daddy’s baby doesn’t want to go to St. Louis to see her mother? She’s not going to eat you up, you know.”

He turned to Bailey and I looked at the side of his face; he was so unreal to me I felt as if I were watching a doll talk. “Bailey, Junior, ask your sister why she wants to go back to Stamps.” He sounded more like a white man than a Negro. Maybe he was the only brown-skinned white man in the world. It would be just my luck that the only one would turn out to be my father. But Bailey was quiet for the first time since we left Stamps. I guess he was thinking too about seeing Mother. How could an eight-year-old contain that much fear? He swallows and holds it behind his tonsils, he tightens his feet and closes the fear between his toes, he contracts his buttock and pushes it up behind the prostate gland.

“Junior, cat’s got your tongue? What do you think your mother will say, when I tell her her children didn’t want to see her?” The thought that he would tell her shook me and Bailey at the same time. He leaned over the back of the seat—“My, it’s Mother Dear. You know you want to see Mother Dear. Don’t cry.” Dad laughed and pitched in his seat and asked himself, I guess, “What will she say to that?”

I stopped crying since there was no chance to get back to Stamps and Momma. Bailey wasn’t going to back me up, I could tell, so I decided to shut up and dry up and wait for whatever seeing Mother Dear was going to bring.

St. Louis was a new kind of hot and a new kind of dirty. My memory had no pictures of the crowded-together soot-covered buildings. For all I knew, we were being driven to Hell and our father was the delivering devil.

Only in strict emergencies did Bailey allow me to speak Pig Latin to him in front of adults, but I had to take the chance that afternoon. We had spun around the same corner, I was sure, about fifty times. I asked Bailey, “Ooday ooyay inkthay isthay is our atherfay, or ooday ooyay inkthay atthay eeway are eeingbay idkay appednay?” Bailey said, “My, we’re in St. Louis, and we’re going to see Mother Dear. Don’t worry.” Dad chuckled and said, “Oohay oodway antway ootay idkay appnay ooyay? Ooday ooyay inkthay ooyay are indlay ergbay ildrenchay?” I thought that my brother and his friends had created Pig Latin. Hearing my father speak it didn’t startle me so much as it angered. It was simply another case of the trickiness of adults where children were concerned. Another case in point of the Grownups’ Betrayal.

To describe my mother would be to write about a hurricane in its perfect power. Or the climbing, falling colors of a rainbow. We had been received by her mother and had waited on the edge of our seats in the overfurnished living room (Dad talked easily with our grandmother, as whitefolks talk to Blacks, unembarrassed and unapologetic). We were both fearful of Mother’s coming and impatient at her delay. It is remarkable how much truth there is in the two expressions: “struck dumb” and “love at first sight.” My mother’s beauty literally assailed me. Her red lips (Momma said it was a sin to wear lipstick) split to show even white teeth and her fresh-butter color looked see-through clean. Her smile widened her mouth beyond her cheeks beyond her ears and seemingly through the walls to the street outside. I was struck dumb. I knew immediately why she had sent me away. She was too beautiful to have children. I had never seen a woman as pretty as she who was called “Mother.” Bailey on his part fell instantly and forever in love. I saw his eyes shining like hers; he had forgotten the loneliness and the nights when we had cried together because we were “unwanted children.” He had never left her warm side or shared the icy wind of solitude with me. She was his Mother Dear and I resigned myself to his condition. They were more alike than she and I, or even he and I. They both had physical beauty and personality, so I figured it figured.

Our father left St. Louis a few days later for California, and I was neither glad nor sorry. He was a stranger, and if he chose to leave us with a stranger, it was all of one piece.