The time had come for Grandmother to return to Stamps. My heart beat so loudly, I thought I would burst. I had been with her so long I couldn’t imagine the sun rising without my grandmother putting Vas- eline on my arms and brushing my hair. But we were at the train station, Lady, Bailey, and me. We hugged Grandmother on the platform and Bailey walked her onto the train car carrying her suitcase. Through the window I watched him bend over her as the wheels began to turn slowly. I ran to the door shouting, “Bailey, the train is leaving!”
I started up the steps and my mother caught my coat sleeve. “Get off that train. Now.” Bailey came to the door and easily leapt from the train steps to the platform.
He grinned. “Here I am.” He turned toward the train as it was picking up speed. He waved.
“Bye, Momma! Have a good trip!” He turned to Mother for approval, and she smiled.
He took my hand. “Come on, My. We’re near the house, aren’t we?”
I said, “Yeah.”
He said, “We’ll see you at home, Mother. We’re walking. See you at home.”
She said, “Okay.”
He did call her Mother but he was walking home with me. I was used to doing whatever Bailey wanted me to do, and I knew she had to get used to Bailey having his way.
He began to run and I followed him. I was glad that I had my brother and a woman whom I was be- ginning to like, and maybe even to love. Perhaps life was going to be all right after all.
Mother called us out of our rooms and we sat in the upstairs kitchen. I was to learn that whenever she had anything important to say, she would first ask us to sit down, and then say, “I have something to say.” Later, when we were not in her hearing, Bailey would imitate her: “Sit down, I have something to say.”
She always had something to say. She had brought soft drinks up from the downstairs refrigerator. She asked me to fill two glasses with ice and told Bailey to go downstairs and tell Papa Ford that she wanted a drink and Bailey should bring it to her.
Papa Ford was the houseman and cook who lived with us.
Without speaking to me, she filled our glasses with colas. When Bailey returned with her drink of whiskey on the rocks, she clicked our glasses and said, “Now you say, ‘Skoal.’ ” We did so.
Then she sat. “Clidell Jackson is from Slayton, Texas. He went to the third grade in school. He can read and write, just barely, but he is considered one of the best gamblers on the West Coast. Also, he never cheats and he never allows a cheater in any of his gambling houses. He is a kind man, someone I ad- mire and want around my children.
“Remember this: Your reputation is the most im- portant thing you’ll ever have. Not clothes, nor money, not the big cars you may drive. If your repu- tation is good, you can achieve anything you want in the world. I know your Grandmother Henderson told you that—maybe not in the same words I’m using, but I’m sure as you live here with me, and Daddy Clidell, you will learn that we do not lie, and we do not cheat, and we do laugh a lot. At ourselves first, and then at each other.
“Papa Ford cleans and cooks and sends clothes to the laundry and cleaners. You will clean your own rooms and you will respect him. He is a worker, not a slave.”
I was liking her.
Daddy Clidell, Papa Ford, Bailey, and I were standing at the kitchen table, waiting for Mother. She came to the door and announced, “Everyone please come into the dining room.” Bailey and I looked at each other, puzzled. We only sat in the dining room on Sundays or when we had guests.
“Come in, I have something to say.”
Daddy Clidell sat down, and the rest of us sat at our places, which as usual were set.
Mother waved away the hands that were waiting for the ritual of blessing the table.
“No, not that,” she said. “I have learned that Maya doesn’t want to call me Mother. She has an- other name for me. It seems like I don’t fit her image of a mother.” Everyone looked at me disapprovingly, even Bailey. “She wants to call me ‘Lady.’ ” She waited a second, then said, “And I like it. She said I’m beau- tiful and kind, so I resemble a true lady. From now on, Junior, you can call me Lady. In fact, I’m going to introduce myself to people as Lady Jackson. You all feel free to call me Lady. Everybody has the right to be called anything he wants to be called. I want to be called Lady.”
Bailey jumped into her speech. “Then I want to be called Bailey. I hate Junior. I am no little boy.”
There were a few seconds of quiet.
“Then that’s what you’ll be called. Clidell, what about you?”
“I’ll go on being Daddy Clidell.”
Papa Ford said, “I’ll go on being called Papa Ford. Having said that, can I call you all to dinner at the kitchen table? It’s ready to be called Dinner.”
I smiled at “Lady.” She handled introducing her new name to the family with grace. It was difficult to resist her.
Extracted from Mom & Me & Mom published by Virago, R220. Copyright © 2013 Maya Angelou. The book is one of AERODROME’s WinterReads.