I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, p.5Part #1 of Maya Angelou's Autobiography series by Maya Angelou
1 5 LB. CAN OF POWDERED EGGS IS WORTH $1.00 IN TRADE
10 #2 CANS OF MACKEREL IS WORTH $1.00 IN TRADE.”
And so on. Momma kept her store going. Our customers didn’t even have to take their slated provisions home. They’d pick them up from the welfare center downtown and drop them off at the Store. If they didn’t want an exchange at the moment they’d put down in one of the big gray ledgers the amount of credit coming to them. We were among the few Negro families not on relief, but Bailey and I were the only children in the town proper that we knew who ate powdered eggs every day and drank the powdered milk.
Our playmates’ families exchanged their unwanted food for sugar, coal oil, spices, potted meat, Vienna sausage, peanut butter, soda crackers, toilet soap and even laundry soap. We were always given enough to eat, but we both hated the lumpy milk and mushy eggs, and sometimes we’d stop off at the house of one of the poorer families to get some peanut butter and crackers. Stamps was as slow coming out of the Depression as it had been getting into it. World War II was well along before there was a noticeable change in the economy of that near-forgotten hamlet.
One Christmas we received gifts from our mother and father, who lived separately in a heaven called California, where we were told they could have all the oranges they could eat. And the sun shone all the time. I was sure that wasn’t so. I couldn’t believe that our mother would laugh and eat oranges in the sunshine without her children. Until that Christmas when we received the gifts I had been confident that they were both dead. I could cry anytime I wanted by picturing my mother (I didn’t quite know what she looked like) lying in her coffin. Her hair, which was black, was spread out on a tiny little white pillow and her body was covered with a sheet. The face was brown, like a big O, and since I couldn’t fill in the features I printed M O T H E R across the O, and tears would fall down my cheeks like warm milk.
Then came that terrible Christmas with its awful presents when our father, with the vanity I was to find typical, sent his photograph. My gift from Mother was a tea set—a teapot, four cups and saucers and tiny spoons—and a doll with blue eyes and rosy cheeks and yellow hair painted on her head. I didn’t know what Bailey received, but after I opened my boxes I went out to the backyard behind the chinaberry tree. The day was cold and the air as clear as water. Frost was still on the bench but I sat down and cried. I looked up and Bailey was coming from the outhouse, wiping his eyes. He had been crying too. I didn’t know if he had also told himself they were dead and had been rudely awakened to the truth or whether he was just feeling lonely. The gifts opened the door to questions that neither of us wanted to ask. Why did they send us away? and What did we do so wrong? So Wrong? Why, at three and four, did we have tags put on our arms to be sent by train alone from Long Beach, California, to Stamps, Arkansas, with only the porter to look after us? (Besides, he got off in Arizona.)
Bailey sat down beside me, and that time didn’t admonish me not to cry. So I wept and he sniffed a little, but we didn’t talk until Momma called us back in the house.
Momma stood in front of the tree that we had decorated with silver ropes and pretty colored balls and said, “You children is the most ungrateful things I ever did see. You think your momma and poppa went to all the trouble to send you these nice play pretties to make you go out in the cold and cry?”
Neither of us said a word. Momma continued, “Sister, I know you tender-hearted, but Bailey Junior, there’s no reason for you to set out mewing like a pussy cat, just ’cause you got something from Vivian and Big Bailey.” When we still didn’t force ourselves to answer, she asked, “You want me to tell Santa Claus to take these things back?” A wretched feeling of being torn engulfed me. I wanted to scream, “Yes. Tell him to take them back.” But I didn’t move.
Later Bailey and I talked. He said if the things really did come from Mother maybe it meant that she was getting ready to come and get us. Maybe she had just been angry at something we had done, but was forgiving us and would send for us soon. Bailey and I tore the stuffing out of the doll the day after Christmas, but he warned me that I had to keep the tea set in good condition because any day or night she might come riding up.
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 h
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.
Grandmother Baxter was a quadroon or an octoroon, or in any case she was nearly white. She had been raised by a German family in Cairo, Illinois, and had come to St. Louis at the turn of the century to study nursing. While she was working at Homer G. Phillips Hospital she met and married Grandfather Baxter. She was white (having no features that could even loosely be called Negroid) and he was Black. While she spoke with a throaty German accent until her death, he had the choppy spouting speech of the West Indians.
Their marriage was a happy one. Grandfather had a famous saying that caused great pride in his family: “Bah Jesus, I live for my wife, my children and my dog.” He took extreme care to prove that statement true by taking the word of his family even in the face of contradictory evidence.
The Negro section of St. Louis in the mid-thirties had all the finesse of a gold-rush town. Prohibition, gambling and their related vocations were so obviously practiced that it was hard for me to believe that they were against the law. Bailey and I, as newcomers, were quickly told by our schoolmates who the men on the street corners were as we passed. I was sure that they had taken their names from Wild West Books (Hard-hitting Jimmy, Two Gun, Sweet Man, Poker Pete), and to prove me right, they hung around i
We met the numbers runners, gamblers, lottery takers and whiskey salesmen not only in the loud streets but in our orderly living room as well. They were often there when we returned from school, sitting with hats in their hands, as we had done upon our arrival in the big city. They waited silently for Grandmother Baxter.
Her white skin and the pince-nez that she dramatically took from her nose and let hang free on a chain pinned to her dress were factors that brought her a great deal of respect. Moreover, the reputation of her six mean children and the fact that she was a precinct captain compounded her power and gave her the leverage to deal with even the lowest crook without fear. She had pull with the police department, so the men in their flashy suits and fleshy scars sat with churchlike decorum and waited to ask favors from her. If Grandmother raised the heat off their gambling parlors, or said the word that reduced the bail of a friend waiting in jail, they knew what would be expected of them. Come election, they were to bring in the votes from their neighborhood. She most often got them leniency, and they always brought in the vote.
St. Louis also introduced me to thin-sliced ham (I thought it a delicacy), jelly beans and peanuts mixed, lettuce on sandwich bread, Victrolas and family loyalty. In Arkansas, where we cured our own meat, we ate half-inch slabs of ham for breakfast, but in St. Louis we bought the paper-thin slices in a strange-smelling German store and ate them in sandwiches. If Grandmother never lost her German accent, she also never lost her taste for the thick black German Brot, which we bought unsliced. In Stamps, lettuce was used only to make a bed for potato salad or slaw, and peanuts were brought in raw from the field and roasted in the bottom of the oven on cold nights. The rich scents used to fill the house and we were always expected to eat too many. But that was a Stamps custom. In St. Louis, peanuts were bought in paper bags and mixed with jelly beans, which meant that we ate the salt and sugar together and I found them a delicious treat. The best thing the big town had to offer.
I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou / History & Fiction have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes