Midrash, or the rabbinical interpretation of Old Testament writings, repeats certain phrases and scenes as a way to help the devout learn sacred texts. The technique may help explain why Maya Angelou seems to be repeating herself throughout her new memoir, Mom & Me & Mom.
Before you unleash your outraged cries, I mean to say only that we’ve met these Moms before: One is Angelou’s fascinating and complicated mother, Vivian “Lady” Baxter, a figure well known to readers of her searing 1969 memoir, I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings. The other is Angelou’s devout and iron-willed grandmother, Annie Johnson Henderson, who was forced to raise 5-year-old Maya and her 4-year-old brother, Bailey, when Lady dumped them on her doorstep in 1931.
As Caged Bird made so unsentimentally clear, Lady abandoned her children only to reappear in their lives years later. Now, eight decades on, Angelou is clearly still processing the trauma of those early events.
This dynamic gives Mom & Me & Mom a wrenching if familiar feel. In the course of a long life (she turned 85 last month) Angelou has assembled many fragments of her past, and we watch in awe as she fits them into a coherent whole. While some scenes are newly rendered – notably a harrowing passage in which a thirtysomething Maya is beaten, thrown into the trunk of her “boyfriend’s” car, and driven around St. Louis until being rescued by Lady – others will be recognizable to Caged Bird fans.
Don’t get me wrong: The sentiments are fresh and raw. The prose is spare and lean. Indeed, readers accustomed to the lush voice of Maya Angelou the poet will find its stark inverse here: a streamlined narrative that builds feeling through fact.
The reason it works is because this time Angelou’s telling her story from its end. Her final words to Lady will send you running for your phone – or fleeing it in terror – this Mother’s Day:
“I’ve been told some people need to be given permission to leave. I don’t know if you are waiting, but I can say you may have done all you came here to do… You were a terrible mother of young children, but there has never been anyone greater than you as the mother of a young adult.”