Throughout her career, Maya Angelou has had few qualms writing about the extremely personal — her childhood rape, feelings on race, upbringing in the rural South, struggles for feminism. But she refused to reveal much about her relationship with her mother, until now, in Mom & Me & Mom.
Her hesitance is understandable. Most of us acknowledge the sacredness of the mother-child bond (why else would “your mom” jokes hit so hard?), but it’s no secret that it can be a complicated one. Angelou has a particularly fraught time of it, struggling with abandonment issues yet worshipping her mother as a kind of heroine and savior. Mom & Me & Mom profiles these extremes, often in soap operatic fashion.
Vivian “Lady” Baxter, Angelou’s mother, was not ready for children when she had them. Her marriage was volatile, passions self-centered, and maternal instincts nonexistent. She sent her young son and daughter to live with their grandmother in Arkansas, receiving them back after a decade, when this narrative picks up.
Time has not turned Lady into a soft, sweet, mom-type. She is a force in San Francisco, running casinos, socializing in the most interesting circles, and frequently toting a .38 revolver. Initially, Angelou refuses Lady as a mother-figure. She resents the abandonment, but Lady wins her over with feats that earn her hero-status, such as following, by car, the train on which Angelou works to ensure no foul play, and supporting Angelou when she gets pregnant at 17.
Though admirable, these stories are not always interesting. Lady is painted with an “always wise” quality that feels righteous and saccharin. Meanwhile, Angelou tends to be self-congratulatory about her acceptance and love of her mother’s wisdom. It’s a strange combination. Consequently, the highlights of Me & Mom & Me are not sentimental tales, but colorful and strange details. One of the best chapters in the book chronicles Lady’s frustration when her last husband waits too long after a stroke to have sex with her again. Don’t worry, Angelou steps in and saves the day. (Weird? Weird.)
Lady frequently says,“I have something to say,” preceding frequent proclamations — sometimes confrontational, sometimes apologetic — that are more fiery than they are soothing. But Lady’s cooking allows her softest, most nurturing qualities to shine through. Angelou describes a particular feast of chicken, red rice and beans, noting that each and every grain of rice is forever imprinted on her memory.
Angelou writes, “A mother is really important…not just because she feeds and also loves and cuddles and even mollycoddles a child, but because in an interesting and maybe an eerie and unworldly way, she stands in the gap. She stands between the unknown and the known.” Food is an expression of the known and the loving, in this book and, of course, beyond.
Every summer, my own mom spends hours in the kitchen making homemade, seasonal jams. The somewhat ritualistic process exemplifies the calm, patience, love, and dedication that she has always given to her children. And it results in the most beautiful, fragrant, jewel-like jam in the world! These days, Mama Halpern and I live two thousand miles apart, but I receive frequent shipments from home — boxes full of apricot, blackberry, raspberry, strawberry rhubarb, and peach jam — always arriving when I need them the most.
This life-saving, belly-hugging jam deserves the right canvas, so I took to one of the great classic cookbooks, Good Housekeeping, to find something perfect in its simplicity. Here’s a recipe for delicious, fluffy, versatile muffins that are comforting, full of love, and uncomplicated.
For the recipe, visit PAPER/PLATES.
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