Like many readers with eclectic literary tastes, I have encountered Maya Angelou a number of times, mostly through her poetry and through her first and perhaps most famous prose title, I KNOW WHY THE CAGED BIRD SINGS. Prior to delving into MOM & ME & MOM, I even knew that she had written more than one personal portrait in that unique way she has of fusing memoir and autobiography. But to learn that she has now written seven stories of her journey through 80-plus years was startling, to say the least.
MOM & ME & MOM bears poignant testimony to why one of the world’s most gifted artists --- a woman who chose to boldly yet humbly excel in every performing medium she embraced --- can never really finish her life story. It gives deep truth to the almost clichéd phrase of the work-in-progress. A big part of that work deals with acceptance, transcendence and reconciliation; this latest personal sharing explores the complex and sometimes tortuous terrain of the mother-daughter relationship.
For Angelou, especially during childhood, there was never a “normal” family system with clearly defined lines of affection, loyalty, responsibility, authority or accountability. As youngsters, Angelou and elder brother Bailey (who tragically succumbed to drug addiction as a troubled adult) were sent to live with grandparents in Arkansas when their divorced mother, the late Vivian Baxter, chose to abdicate parenthood.
"With its gripping honesty, insight and glimpses into fragile fragments of childhood memory, MOM & ME & MOM presents one extraordinary woman’s unvarnished revelation of life in a 'broken' African-American family. It abounds with adventure, surprise, joy, anger, chaos, tragedy, sadness, fear and confusion --- a mosaic of what so many anonymous families face day in and day out."
You’d think the pain of growing to adulthood haunted by a perpetual sense of being abandoned and discarded would remain an unhealed and resentful wound; any loving concern for the delinquent parent should be far down on one’s list of priorities. Angelou frankly expresses how she experienced all that and more while struggling to find her own identity. She journeyed through an astonishing variety of professions and many strata of society, moving back and forth from the extremes of poverty and despair to the heights of success and recognition.
Yet through it all, as the title of MOM & ME & MOM bravely declares, she repeatedly found herself emotionally, socially and geographically “sandwiched” between the many reinventions and relationships that made up the chameleon who was Vivian Baxter.
With infinite patience, respect, and sometimes sheer emotional drive, Angelou recounts and explores a woman who in myriad ways was an utter failure at mothering, yet somehow came up with moments of strength and understanding that made everything else insignificant by comparison. And often as not, the truant mother received the same spontaneous generosity of spirit from a daughter who could be forgiven for ignoring her completely; Angelou couldn’t, and didn’t.
In fact, it’s often hard to decide whether this latest autobiographical work is more about Vivian Baxter or Maya Angelou. Is the title trying to tell us that Mom should have top billing? If so, Angelou is the essential catalyst in bringing to life the glorious imperfections of someone whose life would be totally obscured otherwise. Yet in being that catalyst, she can’t help but reveal even greater depths and facets of her own psyche.
With its gripping honesty, insight and glimpses into fragile fragments of childhood memory, MOM & ME & MOM presents one extraordinary woman’s unvarnished revelation of life in a “broken” African-American family. It abounds with adventure, surprise, joy, anger, chaos, tragedy, sadness, fear and confusion --- a mosaic of what so many anonymous families face day in and day out.
There is no Dick and Jane normality in Maya Angelou’s world, but hard-won and infinite love perseveres and seeps through every crack in the picture. Everyone with “family” is sure to be moved and shaken by this unique double portrait.
Reviewed by Pauline Finch on April 18, 2013