I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, p.9Part #1 of Maya Angelou's Autobiography series by Maya Angelou
“Have a seat, Marguerite. Over there by the table.” She carried a platter covered with a tea towel. Although she warned that she hadn’t tried her hand at baking sweets for some time, I was certain that like everything else about her the cookies would be perfect.
They were flat round wafers, slightly browned on the edges and butter-yellow in the center. With the cold lemonade they were sufficient for childhood’s lifelong diet. Remembering my manners, I took nice little lady-like bites off the edges. She said she had made them expressly for me and that she had a few in the kitchen that I could take home to my brother. So I jammed one whole cake in my mouth and the rough crumbs scratched the insides of my jaws, and if I hadn’t had to swallow, it would have been a dream come true.
As I ate she began the first of what we later called “my lessons in living.” She said that I must always be intolerant of ignorance but understanding of illiteracy. That some people, unable to go to school, were more educated and even more intelligent than college professors. She encouraged me to listen carefully to what country people called mother wit. That in those homely sayings was couched the collective wisdom of generations.
When I finished the cookies she brushed off the table and brought a thick, small book from the bookcase. I had read A Tale of Two Cities and found it up to my standards as a romantic novel. She opened the first page and I heard poetry for the first time in my life.
“It was the best of times and the worst of times …” Her voice slid in and curved down through and over the words. She was nearly singing. I wanted to look at the pages. Were they the same that I had read? Or were there notes, music, lined on the pages, as in a hymn book? Her sounds began cascading gently. I knew from listening to a thousand preachers that she was nearing the end of her reading, and I hadn’t really heard, heard to understand, a single word.
“How do you like that?”
It occurred to me that she expected a response. The sweet vanilla flavor was still on my tongue and her reading was a wonder in my ears. I had to speak.
I said, “Yes, ma’am.” It was the least I could do, but it was the most also.
“There’s one more thing. Take this book of poems and memorize one for me. Next time you pay me a visit, I want you to recite.”
I have tried often to search behind the sophistication of years for the enchantment I so easily found in those gifts. The essence escapes but its aura remains. To be allowed, no, invited, into the private lives of strangers, and to share their joys and fears, was a chance to exchange the Southern bitter wormwood for a cup of mead with Beowulf or a hot cup of tea and milk with Oliver Twist. When I said aloud, “It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done …” tears of love filled my eyes at my selflessness.
On that first day, I ran down the hill and into the road (few cars ever came along it) and had the good sense to stop running before I reached the Store.
I was liked, and what a difference it made. I was respected not as Mrs. Henderson’s grandchild or Bailey’s sister but for just being Marguerite Johnson.
Childhood’s logic never asks to be proved (all conclusions are absolute). I didn’t question why Mrs. Flowers had singled me out for attention, nor did it occur to me that Momma might have asked her to give me a little talking to. All I cared about was that she had made tea cookies for me and read to me from her favorite book. It was enough to prove that she liked me.
Momma and Bailey were waiting inside the Store. He said, “My, what did she give you?” He had seen the books, but I held the paper sack with his cookies in my arms shielded by the poems.
Momma said, “Sister, I know you acted like a little lady. That do my heart good to see settled people take to you all. I’m trying my best, the Lord knows, but these days …” Her voice trailed off. “Go on in and change your dress.”
In the bedroom it was going to be a joy to see Bailey receive his cookies. I said, “By the way, Bailey, Mrs. Flowers sent you some tea cookies—”
Momma shouted, “What did you say, Sister? You, Sister, what did you say?” Hot anger was crackling in her voice.
Bailey said, “She said Mrs. Flowers sent me some—”
“I ain’t talking to you, Ju.” I heard the heavy feet walk across the floor toward our bedroom. “Sister, you heard me. What’s that you said?” She swelled to fill the doorway.
Bailey said, “Momma.” His pacifying voice—“Momma, she—”
“You shut up, Ju. I’m talking to your sister.”
I didn’t know what sacred cow I had bumped, but it was better to find out than to hang like a thread over an open fire. I repeated, “I said, ‘Bailey, by the way, Mrs. Flowers sent you—’”
“That’s what I thought you said. Go on and take off your dress. I’m going to get a switch.”
At first I thought she was playing. Maybe some heavy joke that would end with “You sure she didn’t send me something?” but in a minute she was back in the room with a long, ropy, peach-tree switch, the juice smelling bitter at having been torn loose. She said, “Get down on your knees. Bailey, Junior, you come on, too.”
The three of us knelt as she began, “Our Father, you know the tribulations of your humble servant. I have with your help raised two grown boys. Many’s the day I thought I wouldn’t be able to go on, but you gave me the strength to see my way clear. Now, Lord, look down on this heavy heart today. I’m trying to raise my son’s children in the way they should go, but, oh, Lord, the Devil try to hinder me on every hand. I never thought I’d live to hear cursing under this roof, what I try to keep dedicated to the glorification of God. And cursing out of the mouths of babes. But you said, in the last days brother would turn against brother, and children against their parents. That there would be a gnashing of teeth and a rendering of flesh. Father, forgive this child, I beg you, on bended knee.”
I was crying loudly now. Momma’s voice had risen to a shouting pitch, and I knew that whatever wrong I had committed was extremely serious. She had even left the Store untended to take up my case with God. When she finished we were all crying. She pulled me to her with one hand and hit me only a few times with the switch. The shock of my sin and the emotional release of her prayer had exhausted her.
Momma wouldn’t talk right then, but later in the evening I found that my violation lay in using the phrase “by the way.” Momma explained that “Jesus was the Way, the Truth and the Light,” and anyone who says “by the way” is really saying, “by Jesus,” or “by God” and the Lord’s name would not be taken in vain in her house.
When Bailey tried to interpret the words with: “Whitefolks use ‘by the way’ to mean while we’re on the subject,” Momma reminded us that “whitefolks’ mouths were most in general loose and their words were an abomination before Christ.”
Recently a white woman from Texas, who would quickly describe herself as a liberal, asked me about my hometown. When I told her that in Stamps my grandmother had owned the only Negro general merchandise store since the turn of the century, she exclaimed, “Why, you were a debutante.” Ridiculous and even ludicrous. But Negro girls in small Southern towns, whether poverty-stricken or just munching along on a few of life’s necessities, were given as extensive and irrelevant preparations for adulthood as rich white girls shown in magazines. Admittedly the training was not the same. While white girls learned to waltz and sit gracefully with a tea cup balanced on their knees, we were lagging behind, learning the mid-Victorian values with very little money to indulge them. (Come and see Edna Lomax spending the money she made picking cotton on five balls of ecru tatting thread. Her fingers are bound to snag the work and she’ll have to repeat the stitches time and time again. But she knows that when she buys the thread.)
We were required to embroider and I had trunkfuls of colorful dishtowels, pillowcases, runners and handkerchiefs to my credit. I mastered the art of crocheting and tatting, and there was a lifetime’s supply of dainty doilies that would never be used in sacheted dresser d
Mrs. Viola Cullinan was a plump woman who lived in a three-bedroom house somewhere behind the post office. She was singularly unattractive until she smiled, and then the lines around her eyes and mouth which made her look perpetually dirty disappeared, and her face looked like the mask of an impish elf. She usually rested her smile until late afternoon when her women friends dropped in and Miss Glory, the cook, served them cold drinks on the closed-in porch.
The exactness of her house was inhuman. This glass went here and only here. That cup had its place and it was an act of impudent rebellion to place it anywhere else. At twelve o’clock the table was set. At 12:15 Mrs. Cullinan sat down to dinner (whether her husband had arrived or not). At 12:16 Miss Glory brought out the food.
It took me a week to learn the difference between a salad plate, a bread plate and a dessert plate.
Mrs. Cullinan kept up the tradition of her wealthy parents. She was from Virginia. Miss Glory, who was a descendant of slaves that had worked for the Cullinans, told me her history. She had married beneath her (according to Miss Glory). Her husband’s family hadn’t had their money very long and what they had “didn’t ’mount to much.”
As ugly as she was, I thought privately, she was lucky to get a husband above or beneath her station. But Miss Glory wouldn’t let me say a thing against her mistress. She was very patient with me, however, over the housework. She explained the dishware, silverware and servants’ bells. The large round bowl in which soup was served wasn’t a soup bowl, it was a tureen. There were goblets, sherbet glasses, ice-cream glasses, wine glasses, green glass coffee cups with matching saucers, and water glasses. I had a glass to drink from, and it sat with Miss Glory’s on a separate shelf from the others. Soup spoons, gravy boat, butter knives, salad forks and carving platter were additions to my vocabulary and in fact almost represented a new language. I was fascinated with the novelty, with the fluttering Mrs. Cullinan and her Alice-in-Wonderland house.
Her husband remains, in my memory, undefined. I lumped him with all the other white men that I had ever seen and tried not to see.
On our way home one evening, Miss Glory told me that Mrs. Cullinan couldn’t have children. She said that she was too delicate-boned. It was hard to imagine bones at all under those layers of fat. Miss Glory went on to say that the doctor had taken out all her lady organs. I reasoned that a pig’s organs included the lungs, heart and liver, so if Mrs. Cullinan was walking around without those essentials, it explained why she drank alcohol out of unmarked bottles. She was keeping herself embalmed.
When I spoke to Bailey about it, he agreed that I was right, but he also informed me that Mr. Cullinan had two daughters by a colored lady and that I knew them very well. He added that the girls were the spitting image of their father. I was unable to remember what he looked like, although I had just left him a few hours before, but I thought of the Coleman girls. They were very light-skinned and certainly didn’t look very much like their mother (no one ever mentioned Mr. Coleman).
My pity for Mrs. Cullinan preceded me the next morning like the Cheshire cat’s smile. Those girls, who could have been her daughters, were beautiful. They didn’t have to straighten their hair. Even when they were caught in the rain, their braids still hung down straight like tamed snakes. Their mouths were pouty little cupid’s bows. Mrs. Cullinan didn’t know what she missed. Or maybe she did. Poor Mrs. Cullinan.
For weeks after, I arrived early, left late and tried very hard to make up for her barrenness. If she had had her own children, she wouldn’t have had to ask me to run a thousand errands from her back door to the back door of her friends. Poor old Mrs. Cullinan.
Then one evening Miss Glory told me to serve the ladies on the porch. After I set the tray down and turned toward the kitchen, one of the women asked, “What’s your name, girl?” It was the speckled-faced one. Mrs. Cullinan said, “She doesn’t talk much. Her name’s Margaret.”
“Is she dumb?”
“No. As I understand it, she can talk when she wants to but she’s usually quiet as a little mouse. Aren’t you, Margaret?”
I smiled at her. Poor thing. No organs and couldn’t even pronounce my name correctly.
“She’s a sweet little thing, though.”
“Well, that may be, but the name’s too long. I’d never bother myself. I’d call her Mary if I was you.”
I fumed into the kitchen. That horrible woman would never have the chance to call me Mary because if I was starving I’d never work for her. I decided I wouldn’t pee on her if her heart was on fire. Giggles drifted in off the porch and into Miss Glory’s pots. I wondered what they could be laughing about.
Whitefolks were so strange. Could they be talking about me? Everybody knew that they stuck together better than the Negroes did. It was possible that Mrs. Cullinan had friends in St. Louis who heard about a girl from Stamps being in court and wrote to tell her. Maybe she knew about Mr. Freeman.
My lunch was in my mouth a second time and I went outside and relieved myself on the bed of four-o’clocks. Miss Glory thought I might be coming down with something and told me to go on home, that Momma would give me some herb tea, and she’d explain to her mistress.
I realized how foolish I was being before I reached the pond. Of course Mrs. Cullinan didn’t know. Otherwise she wouldn’t have given me the two nice dresses that Momma cut down, and she certainly wouldn’t have called me a “sweet little thing.” My stomach felt fine, and I didn’t mention anything to Momma.
That evening I decided to write a poem on being white, fat, old and without children. It was going to be a tragic ballad. I would have to watch her carefully to capture the essence of her loneliness and pain.
The very next day, she called me by the wrong name. Miss Glory and I were washing up the lunch dishes when Mrs. Cullinan came to the doorway. “Mary?”
Miss Glory asked, “Who?”
Mrs. Cullinan, sagging a little, knew and I knew. “I want Mary to go down to Mrs. Randall’s and take her some soup. She’s not been feeling well for a few days.”
Miss Glory’s face was a wonder to see. “You mean Margaret, ma’am. Her name’s Margaret.”
“That’s too long. She’s Mary from now on. Heat that soup from last night and put it in the china tureen and, Mary, I want you to carry it carefully.”
Every person I knew had a hellish horror of being “called out of his name.” It was a dangerous practice to call a Negro anything that could be loosely construed as insulting because of the centuries of their having been called niggers, jigs, dinges, blackbirds, crows, boots and spooks.
Miss Glory had a fleeting second of feeling sorry for me. Then as she handed me the hot tureen she said, “Don’t mind, don’t pay that no mind. Sticks and stones may break your bones, but words … You know, I been working for her for twenty years.”
She held the back door open for me. “Twenty years. I wasn’t much older than you. My name used to be Hallelujah. That’s what Ma named me, but my mistress give me ‘Glory,’ and it stuck. I likes it better too.”
I was in the little path that ran behind the houses when Miss Glory shouted, “It’s shorter too.”
For a few seconds it was a tossup over whether I would laugh (imagine being named Hallelujah) or cry (imagine letting some white woman rename you for her convenience). My anger saved me from either outburst. I had to quit the job, but the problem was going to be how to do it. Momma wouldn’t allow me to quit for just any reason.
“She’s a peach. That woman is a real peach.” Mrs. Randall’s maid was talking as she took the soup from me, and I wondered what her name used to be and what she answered to now.
For a week I looked into Mrs. Cullina
Then Bailey solved my dilemma. He had me describe the contents of the cupboard and the particular plates she liked best. Her favorite piece was a casserole shaped like a fish and the green glass coffee cups. I kept his instructions in mind, so on the next day when Miss Glory was hanging out clothes and I had again been told to serve the old biddies on the porch, I dropped the empty serving tray. When I heard Mrs. Cullinan scream, “Mary!” I picked up the casserole and two of the green glass cups in readiness. As she rounded the kitchen door I let them fall on the tiled floor.
I could never absolutely describe to Bailey what happened next, because each time I got to the part where she fell on the floor and screwed up her ugly face to cry, we burst out laughing. She actually wobbled around on the floor and picked up shards of the cups and cried, “Oh, Momma. Oh, dear Gawd. It’s Momma’s china from Virginia. Oh, Momma, I sorry.”
Miss Glory came running in from the yard and the women from the porch crowded around. Miss Glory was almost as broken up as her mistress. “You mean to say she broke our Virginia dishes? What we gone do?”
Mrs. Cullinan cried louder, “That clumsy nigger. Clumsy little black nigger.”
Old speckled-face leaned down and asked, “Who did it, Viola? Was it Mary? Who did it?”
Everything was happening so fast I can’t remember whether her action preceded her words, but I know that Mrs. Cullinan said, “Her name’s Margaret, goddamn it, her name’s Margaret.” And she threw a wedge of the broken plate at me. It could have been the hysteria which put her aim off, but the flying crockery caught Miss Glory right over her ear and she started screaming.
I left the front door wide open so all the neighbors could hear.
Mrs. Cullinan was right about one thing. My name wasn’t Mary.
I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou / History & Fiction have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes