April 19, 2013 6:47 pm

A lesson in love

Maya Angelou remembers her bond with a flawed yet charismatic parent

Mom & Me & Mom, by Maya Angelou, Virago, RRP£12.99/Random House, RRP$22, 224 pages

Maya Angelou, right, with her mother Vivian Baxter©Courtesy of Maya Angelou

Maya Angelou, right, with her mother Vivian Baxter

In the years since Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings (1969), writers of varying talents have published a welter of memoirs, each with its tale of hardship and overcoming, or moral failure and redemption. The zeitgeist is personal growth and uplift, and memoir is one of the louder trumpets in its retinue. Life, we are told, arcs inevitably towards betterment and resolution. We may be confused for a while, but we’ll figure it all out! There will be ups! (And downs!) Modern wisdom further has it that we ought to stare down our fears, to leap and nets will appear.

These things may well be true. But it is also true that a net doesn’t always appear and certain of our fears stay with us, their invisible hand squeezing us for many years of our lives. It may be the case that some things become clearer, but others are so complicated that we never really get anywhere with them, so paradoxical that we haven’t any choice but to live with them. One such emotional quagmire, and the subject of Maya Angelou’s newest autobiographical work, Mom & Me & Mom, is the question of how to love a mother who, in more than the usual human ways, disappoints – or in the case of Angelou’s mother, Vivian Baxter, abandons her children at the formative ages when they need her most. And what if, to further complicate matters, that mother is also loving and glamorous and seductive?

More

IN Non-Fiction

Through a series of vignettes, Mom & Me & Mom describes Angelou’s relationship with her mother from its strained early years to their mutual devotion at the time of Baxter’s death in 1991. The book opens with Baxter’s upbringing, then pivots forward to her short-lived, tempestuous marriage to Angelou’s father, Bailey Johnson, their subsequent divorce and Baxter’s decision to send her children to live with their paternal grandmother in Stamps, Arkansas. A decade later, when Angelou was 13, Baxter reclaimed her children and they were reunited in San Francisco.

The reunion was not an easy one. Angelou didn’t like her mother, though she was seduced by Baxter’s prettiness, her heels and red lipstick, city ways and sophistication. So profound were Angelou’s misgivings that she was unable to address Baxter as mother, and instead called her “Lady”. Lady was both impossible to trust, and impossible not to trust. When asked by young Maya and her brother Bailey why she sent them away, Lady replied, “Maya, when you were about two years old, you asked me for something ... and I slapped you off the porch without thinking. It didn’t mean I didn’t love you; it just meant I wasn’t ready to be a mother.” There is remarkable honesty in that answer, but it sure puts a kid between a rock and hard place.

 

Lady was an enormous figure – she flouted convention and insisted upon her independence; she was a free woman in the years before the Civil Rights Movement, when liberty and agency were the exception, not the rule, for black people. Baxter was a licensed nurse, a community activist and a crusader against gender discrimination in the merchant marines. More often than not, Angelou casts Baxter as charmingly eccentric, a tough and charismatic woman who did what needed doing, no matter what.

Baxter owned a string of gambling halls and kept the proceeds, along with whiskey by the case, locked in her house in what she called the “money closet”. Late in the book, after Angelou’s fame is firmly established, she and some friends spent the night at Lady’s house. That same evening, Baxter threatened her married lover with a pistol because he hadn’t left his wife as he had promised. Angelou writes, “Maybe she could have found another time to assert herself and her rights than a night when my illustrious friends were in the house. But she didn’t, and that was Vivian Baxter.”

Of course, these eccentricities sometimes had dire consequences. When 15-year-old Angelou was late for her curfew by several hours, Lady was so angry she beat her daughter about the face with a key ring. Angelou writes, “My eyes were black and my lips were swollen.” At 17, Angelou got pregnant while Baxter was absent for an extended period, looking after her business interests in Alaska.

Lady was as big-hearted as she was volatile. Upon learning of Angelou’s pregnancy she said, “We – you and I – and this family are going to have a wonderful baby.” Angelou writes, “I thought about my mother and knew she was amazing. She never made me feel as if I brought scandal to the family.” One might almost conclude that she’d metabolised her mother’s contradictions with the same ease and breeziness suggested by the memoir’s tone. But the proof, as they say, is in the pudding. Two months after the birth of her son, Angelou left Lady’s house, refusing to accept financial help and visiting her mother only once a week. Angelou doesn’t go into any real depth about why this was the case. Armchair-psychologising might lead us to believe she was disillusioned with her mother, but we might more safely assume that Angelou decided, out of respect for Baxter and for herself, that the messiest of her feelings on the subject are none of our business.

The memoir’s light touch further suggests that some of those feelings remain hard to parse. There are familial loves every bit as dramatic as romantic ones, every bit as epic. How to approach the memory of a figure as towering as Baxter? How to discuss her within the confines of narrative? Angelou’s approach in Mom & Me & Mom verges on mythopoesis. Baxter’s grandeur, and she does have an Auntie Mame immensity, is elevated to supernatural inevitability: Lady is Lady, like the weather is the weather and the gods are the gods. We may not get an explanation for their caprice, but that’s because they are above questioning.

I found this strategy a bit cagey. But Angelou’s book deftly avoids the emotional neatness and easy redemption to which lesser memoirs succumb. Lady and Angelou loved one another tremendously, and Lady failed in vital ways. The latter is unmitigated by the former. If there is a lesson here – and Angelou’s work always offers a lesson – it is that we can choose to be embittered, or we can choose to receive the love extended to us, however difficult that love might be. Upon rushing to Angelou’s aid during a crisis, Baxter said, “I am here. I brought my whole self to you. I am your mother.” Above all else, Angelou, in her infinite wisdom, has decided that Lady’s legacy is love.

Ayana Mathis is author of ‘The Twelve Tribes of Hattie’ (Hutchinson)

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2014. You may share using our article tools.
Please don't cut articles from FT.com and redistribute by email or post to the web.