The Nicest Thing a Mother (or Anybody) Can Say
By Maya Angelou
By the time I was twenty-two, I was living in San Francisco. I had a five-year-old son, two jobs, and two rented rooms, with cooking privileges down the hall. My landlady, Mrs. Jefferson, was kind and grandmotherly. She was a ready babysitter and insisted on providing dinner for her tenants. Her ways were so tender and her personality so sweet that no one was mean enough to discourage her disastrous culinary exploits. Spaghetti at her table, which was offered at least three times a week, was a mysterious red, white, and brown concoction. We would occasionally encounter an unidentifiable piece of meat hidden among the pasta. There was no money in my budget for restaurant food, so I and my son, Guy, were always loyal, if often unhappy, diners at Chez Jefferson.
My mother had moved into another large Victorian house, on Fulton Street, which she again filled with Gothic, heavily carved furniture. The upholstery on the sofa and occasional chairs was red-wine-colored mohair. Oriental rugs were placed throughout the house. She had a live-in employee, Poppa, who cleaned the house and sometimes filled in as cook helper.
Mother picked up Guy twice a week and took him to her house, where she fed him peaches and cream and hot dogs, but I only went to Fulton Street once a month and at an agreed-upon time.
She understood and encouraged my self-reliance and I looked forward eagerly to our standing appointment. On the occasion, she would cook one of my favorite dishes. One lunch date stands out in my mind. I call it Vivian’s Red Rice Day.
When I arrived at the Fulton Street house my mother was dressed beautifully. Her makeup was perfect and she wore good jewelry. After we embraced, I washed my hands and we walked through her formal, dark dining room and into the large, bright kitchen.
Much of lunch was already on the kitchen table.
Vivian Baxter was very serious about her delicious meals.
On that long-ago Red Rice Day, my mother had offered me a crispy, dry-roasted capon, no dressing or gravy, and a simple lettuce salad, no tomatoes or cucumbers. A wide-mouthed bowl covered with a platter sat next to her plate.
She fervently blessed the food with a brief prayer and put her left hand on the platter and her right on the bowl. She turned the dishes over and gently loosened the bowl from its contents and revealed a tall mound of glistening red rice (my favorite food in the entire world) decorated with finely minced parsley and green stalks of scallions.
The chicken and salad do not feature so prominently in my tastebuds’ memory, but each grain of red rice is emblazoned on the surface of my tongue forever.
“Gluttonous” and “greedy” negatively describe the hearty eater offered the seduction of her favorite food.
Two large portions of rice sated my appetite, but the deliciousness of the dish made me long for a larger stomach so that I could eat two more helpings.
My mother had plans for the rest of her afternoon, so she gathered her wraps and we left the house together.
We reached the middle of the block and were enveloped in the stinging acid aroma of vinegar from the pickle factory on the corner of Fillmore and Fulton streets. I had walked ahead. My mother stopped me and said, “Baby.”
I walked back to her.
“Baby, I’ve been thinking and now I am sure. You are the greatest woman I’ve ever met.”
I looked down at the pretty little woman, with her perfect makeup and diamond earrings, and a silver fox scarf. She was admired by most people in San Francisco’s black community and even some whites liked and respected her.
She continued. “You are very kind and very intelligent and those elements are not always found together. Mrs. Eleanor Roosevelt, Dr. Mary McLeod Bethune, and my mother—yes, you belong in that category. Here, give me a kiss.”
She kissed me on the lips and turned and jaywalked across the street to her beige and brown Pontiac. I pulled myself together and walked down to Fillmore Street. I crossed there and waited for the number 22 streetcar.
My policy of independence would not allow me to accept money or even a ride from my mother, but I welcomed her and her wisdom. Now I thought of what she had said. I thought, “Suppose she is right? She’s very intelligent and often said she didn’t fear anyone enough to lie. Suppose I really am going to become somebody. Imagine.”
At that moment, when I could still taste the red rice, I decided the time had come to stop my dangerous habits like smoking, drinking, and cursing. Imagine. I might really become somebody. Someday.