Angelou: Chapter 5

Chapter 5: A New Family

One Christmas we received gifts from our mother and father,

who lived separately in a heaven called California. We had been

told that in California they could have all the oranges they could

eat and the sun shone all the time. I was sure that wasn’t true. 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.

Then came that terrible Christmas with its awful presents

when our father, with the pride I later learned was typical, sent

his photograph. My gift from Mother was a tea set and a doll

with blue eyes and rosy cheeks and yellow hair painted on her

head. I don’t know what Bailey received, but after I opened my

boxes I went out to the backyard behind the tree. The day was

cold. Frost was still on the bench, but I sat down and cried. I

looked up and Bailey was coming toward me, wiping his eyes. He

had been crying too. I didn’t know if he had also told himself

they were dead and had been shocked by the truth, or whether

he was just feeling lonely. The gifts opened the door to questions

that neither o f us wanted to ask. Why did they send us away?

What did we do so wrong? Why, at three and four, were we sent

by train alone from Long Beach, California, to Stamps, Arkansas,

with notes attached to our arms and only the conductor to look

after us?

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Bailey sat down beside me, and that time didn’t tell me not to

cry. So I cried, but we didn’t talk until Momma called us back in

the house.

“You children are the most ungrateful things I ever saw,” she

said. “You think your mother and father took all the trouble to

send you these nice presents to make you go out in the cold

and cry?”

Neither o f us said a word. Momma continued, “Sister, I know

you’re tender-hearted, but Bailey Junior, there’s no reason for you

to be crying just because 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?” I

wanted to scream, “Yes. Tell him to take them back.” But I didn’t

move.

Later Bailey and I talked. He said that 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 insides out o f 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 meet the reality so suddenly. We, or at

least I, had built such strong dreams about him and our

mysterious mother that seeing him tore my inventions apart like

a hard pull on a paper chain. He arrived in front o f the Store in a

clean gray car. (He must have stopped just outside o f town to

wipe it in preparation for the “grand entrance.”) 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 he was almost fat. His clothes were too small too. And he was

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extremely handsome. Momma cried, “Bailey, my baby. Great

God, Bailey.” And Uncle Willie stuttered, “Bu-Buh-Bailey.” My

brother said, “I don’t believe it. It’s him. It’s our daddy.” And my

seven-year-old world fell apart, and would never be put back

together again.

He spoke perfect English, like the school principal, and even

better. He had the attitude o f a man who did not believe what he

heard or what he himself was saying. “So this is Daddy’s little

man? Boy, anybody tell you that you look like me?” He had

Bailey in one arm and me in the other. “And Daddy’s little girl.

You’ve been good children, haven’t you?”

I was so proud o f him that it was hard to wait for the gossip to

get around that he was in town. W ouldn’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 in California. (I later learned that he had been

a doorman at Santa Monica’s fancy Breakers Hotel.) Then the

possibility o f 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, no doubt, but I was an orphan that they

adopted to provide Bailey with company.

For three weeks the Store was filled with people who had

gone to school with him or heard about him. Then one day he

said he had to get back to California. It was a relief. My world

was going to be emptier and less interesting, but the silent threat

of his leaving someday would be gone. I wouldn’t have to

wonder whether I loved him or not, or 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 glad too,

although she had had a good time cooking special things for him

and showing her California son to the poor people o f Arkansas.

But Uncle Willie was suffering from our father’s presence, and

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like a mother bird Momma was more concerned with her

crippled child than the one who could fly away from the nest.

He was going to take us with him! The knowledge swam

through my days and made me both excited and nervous. My

thoughts quickly changed. Now this way now that, now the

other. Should I go with my father? Should I beg Momma to let

me stay with her? Did I have the courage to try life without

Bailey? I couldn’t decide.

Momma cut down a few give-aways that had been traded to

her by white women’s servants, and spent long nights in the

dining room sewing dresses 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?” She

would have been more surprised than I if she’d taken me in her

arms and cried at losing me. Her world was bordered on all sides

by work, duty, religion, and “her place.” I don’t think she ever

knew that a deep love hung over everything she touched. In later

years I asked her if she loved me and she avoided answering by

saying, “God is love. Just worry about whether you’re being a

good girl, then He will love you.”

I sat in the back o f the car, with Dad’s leather suitcases and our

boxes. 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 continue his conversation with Bailey. He

and Bailey told jokes, and Bailey laughed all the time and put out

Dad’s cigarettes.

I was angry with Bailey. There was no doubt he was trying to

be friends with Dad; he even started to laugh like him.

“How are you going to feel seeing your mother? Going to be

happy?” he was asking Bailey, but I understood and was

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c o n c e r n e d . Were we going to see Her? I thought we were going

t o California. I was suddenly afraid. Would she laugh at us the

w a y h e did? How would we feel if she had other children now,

w h o m s h e kept with her? I said, UI want to go back to Stamps.”

D a d l a u g h e d , “You mean you don’t want to go to St. Louis to see

y o u r mother? She’s not going to eat you, you know.”

He turned to Bailey and I looked at the side o f his face; he was

so unreal to me that 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. But Bailey was

quiet for the first time since we left Stamps. I guess he was

thinking about seeing Mother. How could an eight-year-old

contain that much fear? He holds it in his throat, he tightens his

feet and closes the fear between his toes.

“Junior, ask her. What do you think your mother will say,

when I tell her that 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 o f the seat toward me—“You

know you want to see Mother Dear. Don’t cry.” Dad laughed 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 support me, I could

tell, so I decided to shut up, stop crying, and wait for whatever

seeing Mother Dear was going to bring.

T o describe my mother would be to write about a storm in its

perfect power. 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 never apologizing.) We were both

fearful of Mother’s coming and impatient at her delay.

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It is remarkable how much truth there is in the expression

“love at first sight.” My mothers beauty astonished me. Her red

lips (Momma said it was a sin to wear lipstick) split to show even

white teeth. Her smile widened her mouth beyond her cheeks,

beyond her ears, and seemingly through the walls to the street

outside. I was speechless. 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 fell immediately and for ever 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. She was his Mother

Dear and I accepted his condition. They were more alike than

she and I, or even he and I. They both had physical beauty and

personality.

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 made no difference.

Grandmother Baxter was nearly white. She 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

be called Negro) and he was Black. Their marriage was a happy

one.

The Negro section o f St. Louis in the mid-thirties had

everything. Drinking and gambling 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 and outside the bars wery

we passed.

We met the gamblers and whiskey salesmen not only in the

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l o u d streets but in our orderly living room as well. They were

o f t e n there when we returned from school, sitting with hats in

t h e i r hands, as we had done on our arrival in the big city. They

w a i t e d silently for Grandmother Baxter.

Her white skin brought her a great deal o f respect. Moreover,

the reputation o f her six mean children and the fact that she was

in charge o f voting in her district gave her the power to deal with

even the lowest crook without fear. If she helped them, they

knew what would be expected o f them. At election time, they

were expected to bring in the votes from their neighborhood.

And they always did.

St. Louis also introduced me to thin-sliced meat, lettuce on

sandwich bread, and family loyalty. In Arkansas, where we

preserved our own meat, we ate half-inch slices for breakfast, but

in St. Louis we bought paper-thin slices and ate them in

sandwiches. In Stamps, lettuce was used only to make a bed for

potato salad.

When we entered Toussaint L’Ouverture Elementary School,

we were struck by the ignorance o f the other students and the

rudeness o f our teachers. Only the vastness o f the building

impressed us; not even the white school in Stamps was as large.

The students, however, were shockingly behind us in their

skills. Bailey and I did math at an advanced level because o f our

work in the Store, and we read well because in Stamps there

wasn’t anything else to do. We were moved up a grade because

our teachers thought that we country children would make the

other students feel inferior—and we did. We learned to say “Yes”

and “N o ” rather than “Yes, ma’am,” and “No, ma’am.”

Occasionally Mother, whom we seldom saw in the house, told

us to meet her at Louie’s, the bar she worked in. We used to

come in the back door, and the smell o f beer, steam, and boiling

meat made me feel sick. Mother had cut my hair short like hers

and straightened it, so my head felt skinned and the back of my

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neck so bare that I was ashamed to have anyone walk up behind

me.

At Louies we were greeted by Mothers friends as “Bibbies

darling babies” and were given soft drinks and boiled meat. While

we sat on the wooden benches, Mother would dance alone in

front o f us to music from the radio. I loved her most at those

times. She was like a pretty kiss that floated just above my head.

The family was proud o f the Baxter loyalty. Uncle Tommy said

that even the children felt it before they were old enough to be

taught. They told us the story o f Bailey teaching me to walk

when he was less than three. Displeased with my awkward

motions, he was supposed to have said, “This is my sister. I have to

teach her to walk.” They also told me how I got the name “My.”

After Bailey learned definitely that I was his sister, he refused to

call me Marguerite, but addressed me each time as “Mya Sister,”

which was shortened to “My.” In later years it was lengthened to

“Maya.”

We lived in a big house on Caroline Street with our

grandparents for half the year before Mother moved us in with

her. Moving from the house where the family was centered

meant nothing to me. It was just a small pattern in the grand

design of our lives. The new house was not stranger than the

other, except that we were with Mother.

Bailey called her “Mother Dear” until our nearness softened

the phrase’s formality to “M ’Deah.” I could never completely

understand her realness. She was so pretty and so quick that even

when she had just awakened, I thought she was beautiful.

Mother had prepared a place for us, and we went into it

gratefully. We each had a room, plenty to eat, and store-bought

clothes to wear. And after all, she didn’t have to do it. If we

annoyed her or were disobedient, she could always send us back

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to Stamps. The weight of appreciation and the threat, which was

n e v e r spoken, o f a return to Momma were burdens I couldn’t

think about.

Mothers boyfriend, Mr. Freeman, lived with us, or we lived

w i t h him. (I never quite knew which.) He was a Southerner, too,

and big. But a little fat. Even if Mother hadn’t been such a pretty

woman, light-skinned with straight hair, he was lucky to get her,

and he knew it. She was educated, from a well-known family, and

after all, wasn’t she born in St. Louis? She laughed all the time

and made jokes. He was grateful. I think he must have been

many years older than she, but if not, he still had the inferiority of

old men married to younger women. He watched every move

she made, and when she left the room, his eyes didn’t want to let

her go.

Angelou, M. (1969). I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. [http://www.academia.edu/8078608/I_Know_Why_the_Caged_Bird_Sings_-_Full_Text_PDF]. Retrieved from