“To describe my mother would be to write about a hurricane in its perfect power,” Maya Angelou wrote in her 1969 memoir, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. Now, six memoirs later, Angelou takes us straight into the eye of the storm.
Mom & Me & Mom chronicles Angelou’s relationship with her mother, Vivian Baxter, a woman who knocked down doors, literal and figurative, whether breaking into an apartment to rescue a beaten Angelou from an abusive boyfriend or becoming a seaman late in life to force the union to let in women of color.
Angelou was raised by her mother and father until she was 3, when, during a period of personal upheaval, they sent her and her older brother, Bailey, to live with their paternal grandparents in Stamps, Ark. The siblings stayed in Stamps until their grandparents realized they weren’t equipped to raise teenagers, and sent Angelou, then 13, and Bailey to live with their mother in California.
The transition was difficult. Angelou and her mother often locked horns — one night, Angelou came home at 1 a.m. after eating tacos and tamales in San Francisco’s Mission District with friends, and Baxter bloodied her face with a fistful of keys. But they eventually came to appreciate each other’s strength, leading to a fierce bond of mutual support and love.
Angelou found herself pregnant at 17, after having sex with a neighbor to prove to herself she wasn’t a lesbian; when she broke the news to her mother three weeks before giving birth, Baxter said, “We — you and I — and this family are going to have a wonderful baby. That’s all there is to that.”
When Angelou later decided to striptease at the Bonne Nuit Dance Club, Baxter helped her sew sequins, beads and feathers onto her bras and G-strings. On her mother’s deathbed, Angelou told her, “You were a terrible mother of small children, but there has never been anyone greater than you as a mother of a young adult.”
Whenever Baxter had something serious to discuss, she would tell her daughter, “Sit down, I have something to say.” This book has a similar feel, as if Angelou is sitting the reader down at her kitchen table and sharing family stories. The book lacks some of the vivid and poetic detail of her earlier memoirs and feels somewhat hastily written. But it carries the power of oral storytelling — especially if you can conjure up Angelou’s deep, resonant voice as you read — and contains some stunning tales, such as when Angelou, who had never driven before, had to maneuver her drunken father’s car across the Mexican border.
Angelou leaves some surprising holes in the narrative — in I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, she writes about living with her mother in St. Louis for several devastating months when she was 7, but in Mom & Me & Mom, it sounds as if Angelou didn’t see her mother once between the ages of 3 and 13.
Perhaps Angelou is counting on the reader to have read her previous memoirs to fill in the blanks; a reader new to Angelou’s work may find aspects of the book — such as the glossed-over evolution of her writing life — a bit unsatisfying. Die-hard fans, however, will be thrilled by this new offering from Angelou, ever her mother’s daughter, a force of nature unto herself.
Gayle Brandeis reviewed this book for The San Francisco Chronicle.