Many people will remember Maya Angelou for her phenomenal career. She was a true renaissance woman–an author, teacher, dancer, performer, radio personality and a producer. I will remember her as a sister friend, and a wise “auntie” who didn’t mind pulling your coat. She was a generous spirit who made time for virtually any who asked, a gentle and kind spirit.
If you dropped by when a meal was being served, she asked you to sit down and enjoy the assembled company. If you came and it was not the meal hour, she never hesitated to offer a cup of tea and a snack. She knew before you did that you needed a hug and an encouraging word. I’ve seen her take the hat off her head and give it to someone who admired it.
She shared her work. It was not unusual to sit at her working table and listen to a poem or some wisdom she was sharing. Sitting at her table one day, I decided to put some of her words in my cell phone, thinking that I’d like to review them one day. She very gently took the phone from me and told me, “Just listen. You don’t have to write everything down. I am giving you my undivided attention and I want the same from you.” Properly chastened, I left the phone on the table for the rest of the visit.
Sister Maya loved people, genuinely and unconditionally. When asked about the greatest virtue, she said that it was courage, the courage to love. She loved everyone, the pauper and the princess. She would often list the way she loved, mentioning the Black and White, the Asian and Latino, a one-eyed man and the woman who is missing a leg. And if you had the privilege of attending her Thanksgiving dinner, you saw exactly that–a rainbow of the people she loved.
Each year that I served as president of Bennett College in North Carolina, she visited the campus and gave a lecture to students. Once, I asked her to spend time with the honor students and she told me, sharply. “I would rather spend time with the students at the bottom. They are the ones who need encouragement.”
She opened her home, the sculpture garden, and the pool to a group of pre-teens from the Southeast Tennis and Learning Center in Washington, D.C. Escorted by Cora Masters Berry, the former first lady of Washington, the girls could not stop talking about her generosity and the words she shared with them. I wondered how a woman whom most consider an icon would take the time to entertain five 11 year olds for a couple of hours.
That was Maya.
The first time I remember sharing a meal with her was in 1989 when the women who appeared in Brian Laske’s “I Dream a World” were gathered for a reception. When two women I accompanied left as soon as the program was over, Auntie Maya (which she asked me to call her) graciously invited me to dine with her friends. My 30-something self basked in the attention.