My Dinner With Maya Angelou
So one night, one of my college friends asked me if I’d like to go have dinner with his close personal friend, Maya.
I said, “Sure, sounds like fun!”
“You’ve just gotta promise me you won’t fanboy out over her works or her poems,” he said. “She doesn’t really like being interrogated unless she’s at an event specifically for that purpose.”
“Oh,” I replied, nonplussed, “Is your friend Maya a writer?”
“Well, yeah,” he said with a chuckle, “she is Maya Angelou.”
After promising I’d be the epitome of gentlemanliness and politeness, we set out for Ms. Angelou’s house. Regal and grandiose, it was much like the old houses you’d see in Historic Raleigh.
We were greeted by Ms. Angelou’s personal aide and caretaker, who welcomed us into the foyer and informed us that our host would be with us shortly. I recall the interior decorated in a fancy Southern rustic sort of way, but with plenty of poetry and artwork also hanging from the walls.
And that’s when I met her. Ms. Maya Angelou greeted me with gentle, scrunched-up eyes and a warm smile. She reminded me of the kindly older ladies you see in films, but she had this air about her that seemed to say “I’m in charge here, and you will respect that.” And I did! She was a very respectable woman with courtesy and noble manners. I appreciated how, even at her age, she took command of the room and ran with it; that she was so willful and passionate–but not so much that she was haughty or power-tripping. In fact, she reminded me of the strength of my own mother and grandmother. Phenomenal woman.
“Let me have my assistant prepare you boys some glasses of my sweet tea,” she said with a smile. “It’s my own secret recipe, and it’s the best you’ll ever have, I guarantee it!”
Now, I am no fan of sweet tea, and truth be told, I absolutely cannot stand the stuff. But when the one and only Maya Angelou offers you a glass of her homemade sweet tea in the comfort of her very own home, you do NOT say no. I almost laughed, though, watching as she moved like a force of nature about her house, all the while her nurse scrambling to keep up with her. She seemed quite old and wizened, and yet strong, and powerful. That she seemed much like my own grandmother helped me be more at ease with this legend of the literary community.
When the nurse returned with the tray of glasses and I took my own, I took a furtive sip, to be polite. I have never had anything quite like what was in that glass. Words cannot even adequately describe how it tasted. Especially since she claimed the recipe was a secret (so don’t ask). The best that I can say is that, for sweet tea, it tasted nothing like iced tea. It was sweet, yes, but the texture was silky smooth, as if someone had liquefied velvet to the consistency of spring water, and the flavor! It was subtle, but also pronounced, as though it had been laced with traces of lavender and saffron. And yet the drink itself looked very much like a Bahama Mama, with very much the same consistency. Needless to say, I will never look at sweet tea the same again.
We did talk about her work, briefly, of her own prompting, but mostly she wanted to know about me and what I was doing with my life at university, and how my friend was doing with his studies, as it was through him that we had met. She seemed quite fond of him, and so very proud her young friend was following in her footsteps as a writer and a poet. We even discussed some of his work in our school’s literary magazine and how impressed we were with his works.
After much discussion of literature and of our lives in school, we adjourned to the dining room for dinner. The walls were sepia tone with classical paintings upon the walls. It even had one of those long, long tables you stereotypically see in mansions, adorned with a chandelier overhead. I don’t remember too much of the dinner itself, but I do remember the main course–buffalo tail. As in the tail of a water buffalo! In case you’re wondering how that tastes, I’ll tell you. It was delicious. The meat was tender and marinated in such a creamy sauce. Wow.
After dinner, we took a short walk through the grounds, which were decorated with stone walkways that swirled and spiraled intricately between giant trees and statues. It was like something straight out of one of Tolkien’s books. She told us about the big parties she held there with high profile names and faces she’d entertain there. But mostly she wished to express how happy she was for the company and conversation, and how good it was to see her protégé again, that she missed him often. It was very sweet.
I, like many other young students, had studied Ms. Angelou’s works in grade school, learned about the importance of her work for American Literature and for two communities once so greatly schismed by inequality. Ms. Angelou is an impressive artist and scholar, and it was an honor to be given the opportunity to stand in her presence. But to me, it was that much more special to get to know the person behind the pen, if just a little, to be able see this woman for the beautiful soul that led her to create such great works. I am also aware that Ms. Angelou passed away recently. I hope this insight honors her memory for those who knew her, and that maybe, just maybe, somewhere, I do her justice for the great and inspiring artist that she was. And the caring and compassionate person who she was. She was wonderful.