Six weeks after I interviewed Dr. Maya Angelou, I was talking with my friend on my cell phone. At that time, we still had a land line, and it was still on an answering machine — gasp! ‘member those? — where you could listen to the message as it was being recorded.
The land line rang. “The machine will get it,” I said. I continued our conversation.
Then my friend interrupted me. “Who’s leaving a message? Who is that?”
I stopped to listen.
Yeah, it was just Maya Angelou. Y’know. LEAVING A MESSAGE FOR ME. “…and it’s quiet and no one is here,” she was saying. “So I thought, ‘I’ll call that Kate Reilly. We had a wonderful conversation before.’” She left her number and said, “Please call when you can.”
At this point, my friend was screaming, “HANG UP THE PHONE RIGHT NOW AND CALL HER BACK!” and I was all, “bluh huh huh dur dur bloo bloo wahh?” because I couldn’t believe someone like Maya Angelou (a) could be bored or lonely and (b) would even remember my name, let alone have me on the list of people to call when (a) happened.
So after considering a few shots of whiskey to settle my nerves (I skipped ‘em), and sending the kids outside with the garden hose and an entire bucket of Popsicles to keep them entertained, I returned the call.
And we chatted. And she said again, “You should come visit. Bring your family.”
FYI: When someone like Maya Angelou suggests you come visit a first time, she might just be being polite. When she asks you a second time? YOU ARE A POOR SCHMUCK FOOL OF A HUMAN IF YOU DON’T GET IN YOUR VEHICLE AND GO.
So, we picked a day and a time.
In the meantime, I got my sons a couple of Maya’s children’s books, including My Painted House, My Friendly Chicken, and Me, which introduces kids to a little girl and her home as viewed through the girl’s eyes. It was their first introduction to Maya Angelou, and they were hooked.
Two weeks later, my youngest son was sick and there was a tropical storm descending on my side of the state, but I had my husband stay home with our four-year old while my oldest son and I got in the truck and drove off to Winston-Salem in the rain.
Maya was sitting at the head of her long dining table when we arrived, along with two companions who promptly jumped up and let me take one of their seats beside her. My son had made (and illustrated and bound; homeschool geeks, what can I say?) his response to My Painted House — a story introducing Maya to his life, including his guinea pigs, his dog, his bike, and other things that were appealing to his six-year old self, like the 20 red crawler worms that ate our garbage (vermicomposting, lest you think poorly of my housekeeping).
When he presented her with his book, she was delighted. She read it aloud while he stood beside her chair, equally as delighted. Then she had one of her friends fetch a copy of her book, Life Doesn’t Frighten Me, which she read/sang to him before signing it for him. These were days before smartphones, otherwise you bet I’d be sharing that with you!
Since he was only six, and a squirmy boy, I’d brought a sticker book about dogs for him to play with while we talked. He sat on the floor beside her chair, going through his book. At one point, Maya looked over and commented about her favorite breed of dog, the Airedale terrier, and then we kept talking.
My son popped up a few minutes later and presented her with a sticker he’d found of an Airedale, which she graciously accepted and stuck to the corner of her tea saucer. He then went around, presenting stickers to her friends and her housekeeper. When he reached me and gave me mine, I automatically did what moms instinctively do when their kid presents them with a sticker — I stuck it on my shirt.
Maya saw this.
Immediately, she reached for her sticker, plucked it off the saucer, and stuck it to the front of her shirt. Her friends promptly followed suit.
So here I am, thinking, I am sitting with the great Maya Angelou and we both have dog stickers on our shirts and omgomgomgomgomg…when the doorbell rings. It was one of her neighbors, who had been to the farmer’s market and had brought her fresh eggs.
Maya introduced us, and after introducing my son, said in her calm, clear voice, “And you’ll never guess what creature he has for pets. He has twenty of them.”
My son looked up, eyes dancing. Would the neighbor guess?
“Uh,” the neighbor said, “dogs?”
My son jumped up and stood beside Maya, both of them looking at the poor man, knowing he’d never guess.
“Cats? Horses? Birds?” He scratched his jaw and then snapped his fingers. “Rabbits!”
Maya shook her head and held out her hand, palm up, running her index finger around it in her deliberate, dignified way. “I could fit all of them right here in my hand.”
Let me tell you, my kingdom for a camera at that moment! Here were Maya Angelou and my son, with the exact same expression on their faces, a look of delight and anticipation and the joy of an inside secret, seventy years in age separating them and yet here they both were, eyes shining, both absolutely busting with excitement to see if this man could guess.
Finally, the poor guy gave up and the two of them announced gleefully, “Worms!” and I will never, ever, until I leave this earth forget that moment, the way it looked when two very different people were side-by-side, old and young, woman and boy, black and white, wise and innocent, teacher and student, exactly and precisely feeling the exact same simple happiness at the exact same simple moment, not a bit of difference between them.
Anyhoo. That’s the story of when Maya and my kid met. She gave us parting gifts of signed books, and we sent the occasional holiday card, but that was the only time we ever met. The news of her passing last week wasn’t surprising, and it wasn’t completely sad, either. Sad she’s no longer on earth, sure. But how can you be sad when she’s such a monumental example of a life well lived? When you can say, “Now, THAT’S how it’s done!”? All the lives she impacted, all the people she’s influenced — including my young son — still go on. And we’re all changed for the better because of our paths crossing and the simple moments shared.
This story will also be in my upcoming book, I Gave the Tadpole CPR.
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