Maya Angelou: Christmas 1989
Maya Angelou and I had many interesting encounters and many mutual connections; a few are included here.
When Karl Pribram and I left Stanford University in 1989, we barely had time to cross the country and get to Virginia with our pets, unload the moving van with our 26,000 pounds of books, papers, equipment, clothes (but no furniture!) – then hit the tracks again to northern Germany for a year-long conference of “Mind and Brain.”
Upon our return to Virginia, and Radford University – where Karl had been appointed Distinguished Professor and Eminent Scholar of the Commonwealth of Virginia (he insisted that everyone henceforth address him as “Your Eminence”) – we learned that Karl’s fellow Distinguished Prof was the famous poet, playwright, and personality, Maya Angelou. I was already well acquainted with Maya’s work, having done my postgraduate studies in the literature of Black authors, so over lunch one day, when Maya told me that she liked reading in bed, I gave her a copy of my recently-published first novel (The Eight, 1988). When she admitted that her favorite bedside material for relaxing was cookbooks, I said, “That’s okay; there’s lots of cooking in my book. I’ll even send you the recipes!”
Maya commuted each week from Virginia to her home in North Carolina, so I didn’t see her often. One night near the holidays, several months after that last encounter, I picked up a mysterious phone call from an unlisted number, and was greeted by that dramatic, operatic voice with its perfect elocution:
“Hello, my dear one, this Maya… I’ve been reading your book, and I have an important personal question: why do all those important events in your story take place on the ‘Fourth Day of the Fourth Month’ – why that day in particular?” “Well, actually, that’s my birthday…” I began, but Maya interrupted: “Ah! It’s my birthday, too!” There followed a long pause, when we soon realized that we were both thinking the same thing.
Finally, Maya asked me, “What were you doing on that day?” For, as we both knew, on that date in 1968, Dr Martin Luther King, Jr was killed. It marked a date that proved to be the turning point in each of our lives.
So shortly after meeting Maya, we journeyed at Christmas to her home in Winston-Salem and spent the weekend with her family and fellow authors including Jessica (Decca) Mitford and her husband Robert Treuhaft. (More of these interesting figures later.) We all played a fascinating poetry game and Maya cooked food for an army: ‘proof in the pudding’ that the best friendships are often based upon breaking bread and enjoying great meals together.
Maya only spent that one year at the university in Virginia, and we had no more time for lunches or holiday feasts. But for decades afterwards, until just a few years before her death, she and Karl and I would phone briefly on “our” birthday or have our mutual publisher send one another our most recent books. (She wrote a lot more books than I ever will, so I now possess quite a stack!) My last package to Maya, I recall, contained a copy of my recent book, The Fire, sequel to The Eight, accompanied by a set of recordings that I’d found for her, of the complete works of one of our other mutual inspirations, Louis Armstrong!