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“Sister Flowers” by Maya Angelou
Maya Angelou is an American author, actress, civil-rights activist, poet, and professor. She has written multiple volumes of poetry and a series of popular autobiographical works, including Wouldn’t Take Nothing for My Journey Now (1993). This essay is a chapter from her first autobiographical volume, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings (1969). Recent books include Phenomenal Woman (2000) and Elder Grace (2000).
For nearly a year, I sopped around the house, the Store, the school and the church, like an old biscuit, dirty and inedible. Then I met, or rather got to know, the lady who threw me my first life line.
Mrs. Bertha Flowers was the aristocrat of Black Stamps. She had the grace of control to appear warm in the coldest weather, and on the Arkansas summer days it seemed she had a private breeze which swirled around, cooling her. She was thin without the taut look of wiry people, and her printed voile dresses and flowered hats were as right for her as denim overalls for a farmer. She was our side’s answer to the richest white woman in town.
Her skin was a rich black that would have peeled like a plum if snagged, but then no one would have thought of getting close enough to Mrs. Flowers to ruffle her dress, let alone snag her skin. She didn’t encourage familiarity. She wore gloves too.
I don’t think I ever saw Mrs. Flowers laugh, but she smiled often. A slow widening of her thin black lips to show even, small white teeth, then the slow effortless closing. When she chose to smile on me, I always wanted to thank her. The action was so graceful and inclusively benign.
She was one of the few gentlewomen I have ever known, and has remained throughout my life the measure of what a human being can be.
Momma had a strange relationship with her. Most often when she passed on the road in front of the Store, she spoke to Momma in that soft yet carrying voice, “Good day, Mrs. Henderson.” Momma responded with “How you, Sister Flowers?”
Mrs. Flowers didn’t belong to our church, nor was she Momma’s familiar. Why on earth did she insist on calling her Sister Flowers? Shame made me want to hide my face. Mrs. Flowers deserved better than to be called Sister. Then, Momma left out the verb. Why not ask, “How are you, Mrs. Flowers?” With the unbalanced passion of the young, I hated her for showing her ignorance to Mrs. Flowers. It didn’t occur to me for many years that they were as alike as sisters, separated only by formal education.
Although I was upset, neither of the women was in the least shaken by what I thought an unceremonious greeting. Mrs. Flowers would continue her easy gait up the hill to her little bungalow, and Momma kept on shelling peas or doing whatever had brought her to the front porch.
Occasionally, though, Mrs. Flowers would drift off the road and down to the Store and Momma would say to me, “Sister, you go on and play.” As she left I would hear the beginning of an intimate conversation. Momma persistently using the wrong verb, or none at all.
“Brother and Sister Wilcox is sholy the meanest—“ “Is,” Momma? “Is?” Oh, please, not “is,” Momma, for two or more. But they talked, and from the side of the building where I waited for the ground to open up and swallow me, I heard the soft-voiced Mrs. Flowers and the textured voice of my grandmother merging and melting. They were interrupted from time to time by giggles that must have come from Mrs. Flowers (Momma never giggled in her life). Then she was gone.
She appealed to me because she was like people I had never met personally. Like women in English novels who walked the moors (whatever they were) with their loyal dogs racing at a respectful distance. Like the women who sat in front of roaring fireplaces, drinking tea incessantly from silver trays full of scones and crumpets. Women who walked over the heaths and read morocco-bound books and had two last names divided by a hyphen. It would be safe to say that she made me proud
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