When I was a grad student at the University of Colorado at Boulder, Maya Angelou came to town one wintry evening in February to read at Macky Auditorium. I was dirt poor at the time, raising a son on a shoestring, working two jobs aside from that of mom and student, and trying my little heart out to merely survive, while I headed for a degree in Comparative Literature. I was so tired and stressed out that day, but I wouldn’t have missed that reading if someone had paid me a million bucks. Besides, all of us grad students, and everyone else for that matter, were in awe of Maya Angelou and not to see her and hear her would have been downright tragic—even if Macky was crowded to bursting, even if everyone was packed in there like sardines, and folks spilled out of the building, hoping to get a glimpse of her. As for us grads, we weren’t satisfied with only a glimpse of her. We were determined to get a really close look at her after the reading.
Unfortunately, the Bigwigs at the University wanted her all to themselves, and they were about to usher her to the Koenig Alumni Center after the reading, where a reception and dinner waited for her. But we were smarter. We raced to Koenig and congregated in the lobby before they got there. The room was soon filled to bursting.
When Maya Angelou walked in, surrounded by her protective entourage, one of the Bigwigs was about to lead her through the crowd of us to a back room, where a long table had been festively set.
“This way, Miss Angelou,” he said, taking her arm to help her through the crowd of us (vermins, I guess) to the reception room.
She came to a dead stop, looked straight at me for some time, smiled, and said to one of the entourage:
“Bring me a table.”
“Oh, no, Miss Angelou, the reception is in the back room.”
“That might be,” she said, “but all these folks here have been waiting for me to autograph their books or their papers, and that is what I will do.”
Did we adore her that moment, even more than we had before?
The Bigwigs were at a loss. Their exquisite plans had just gone up in smoke, and dinner was getting cold. But there was nothing they could do. She was determined to make us grad students happy. Someone pushed in a table and brought a chair, and she sat right down there in that drafty lobby, and she began signing.
What a wonderful human being! She absolutely made our day!
A friend of mine handed me an events flyer, because I had nothing for Maya Angelou to autograph, and I certainly couldn’t afford to buy her book. She took the flyer, and I said that it was wonderful to meet her. She looked at me for a while, shook my hand, and said:
“You have a wonderful face.”
I couldn’t believe it, didn’t know what to say and stammered something about having seen her interview with Bill Moyers that had mentioned her grandmother.
“She must have been a wonderful human being,” I said.
“She was,” Maya Angelou said, smiling, and handed the signed flyer back to me, (phenomenally beautiful handwriting!), shook my hand once again, and said:
“I wish you joy.”
I didn’t walk out of that lobby, I floated on air. Every time I thought of this experience afterwards, I felt like jumping up and kicking my heels.
I’ve thought of her kindness since too many times to count. I still get goose bumps every time I think of it. I had felt so frazzled and stressed and tired all that day in February. Being a student, a mother, and working two jobs just to make ends meet will do this to you. But that night, I felt like a million bucks. I thought: Maya Angelou sees something in me that I don’t see, and I best start looking for it.
But I didn’t. Yet. I worked on that PhD, and I got it, and then I taught for a good many years. Finally, however, thanks in no small measure to Maya Angelou and her having been so kind to me, I began looking within myself to find what she saw in me. And I found writing, which I had buried long ago and dismissed every time the passion and the desire for it came up, because there was no time, and I had to make a living.
A couple of my short stories and essays on Franz Kafka were published in time,
The Good American, a novel, in 2001.
Memories of VMI, a collection of humorous cadet stories, in 2003.
Diary of a Naïve, a novel, in 2010.
The Tenant, a novel, in 2013.
Twelve Quiet Tales, a collection of short stories, in 2013.
Bo on the Fence Post, a children’s story, in 2014.
Not that the books are million dollar bestsellers, but they keep hanging in there. Most importantly, however, I wrote them, and I love them. And, amazingly, so do the people who have read them.
If ever Maya Angelou were to read this, I would like her to know that the Joy she wished me that evening came with the writing.
Sadly, she will not read this now. But maybe she knows, somehow, somewhere, how very grateful I am.