Independence is a heady draft, and if you drink it in your youth it can have the same effect on the brain as young wine. It does not matter that its taste is not very appealing, it is addictive and with each drink the consumer wants more.
When I was twenty-two and living in San Francisco, I had a five-year-old son, two jobs, and two rented rooms with cooking privileges down the hall. My landlady, Mrs. Jefferson, was kind and grandmotherly. She was a ready babysitter and insisted on providing dinner for her tenants. Her ways were so tender and her personality so sweet that no one was mean enough to discourage her disastrous culinary exploits. Spaghetti at her table, which was offered at least three times a week, was a mysterious red, white, and brown concoction. We would occasionally encounter an unidentifiable piece of meat hidden among the pasta.
There was no money in my budget for restaurant food, so I and my son Guy, were often loyal, if unhappy diners at Chez Jefferson.
My mother had moved from Post Street into a fourteen-room Victorian house on Fulton Street, which she filled with gothic, heavily carved furniture. The upholstery on the sofa and occasional chairs was red-wine-colored mohair. Oriental rugs were placed throughout the house. She had a live-in employee who cleaned the house and sometimes filled in as cook helper.
Mother picked up Guy twice a week and took him to her house where she fed him peaches and cream and hot dogs, but I only went to her house at our appointed time.
She understood and encouraged my self-reliance. We had a standing appointment, which I looked forward to eagerly. Once a month, she would cook one of my favorite dishes and I would go to her house. One lunch date stands out in my mind. I call it the Vivian’s Red Rice Day.
When I arrived at the Fulton Street house my mother was dressed beautifully, her makeup was perfect, and she wore good jewelry.
After we embraced, I washed my hands and we walked through her formal dark dining room and into the large bright kitchen.
Much of lunch was already on the table. Vivian Baxter was very serious about her delicious meals.
On that long-ago Red Rice Day my mother placed on the table a crispy, dry-roasted capon, no dressing or gravy, a simple lettuce salad, no tomatoes or cucumbers. A wide-mouthed bowl covered with a platter sat next to her plate.
She fervently blessed the food with a brief prayer and put her left hand on the platter and her right on the bowl. She turned the dishes over and gently loosened the bowl from its contents and revealed a tall mound of glistening red rice (my favorite food in all the world) decorated with finely minced parsley and the green stalks of scallions.
The chicken and salad do not feature so prominently on my taste buds memory, but each grain of red rice is emblazoned on the surface of my tongue forever.
Gluttonous and greedy negatively describe the hearty eater offered the seduction of her favorite food.
Two large portions of rice sated my appetite, but the deliciousness of the dish made me long for a larger stomach so that I could eat two more helpings.
My mother had plans for the rest of the afternoon, so she gathered her wraps and we left the house together.
We reached the middle of the block and were enveloped in the stinging acid aroma of vinegar from the pickle factory on the corner of Fillmore and Fulton streets. I had walked ahead. My mother stopped me and said, “Baby.”
I walked back to her.
“Baby, I’ve been thinking and now I am sure. You are the greatest woman I’ve ever met.”
My mother was five feet four inches to my six-foot frame.
I looked down at the pretty little woman, and her perfect makeup and diamond earrings, who owned a hotel and was admired by most people in San Francisco’s black community.
She continued, “You are very kind and very intelligent and those elements are not always found together. Mrs. Eleanor Roosevelt, Dr. Mary McLeod Bethune, and my mother – yes, you belong in that category. Here, give me a kiss.”
She kissed me on the lips and turned and jaywalked across the street to her beige and brown Pontica. I pulled myself together and walked down to Fillmore Street. I crossed there and waited for the number 12 streetcar.
My policy of independence would not allow me to accept money or even a ride from my mother, but I welcomed her wisdom. Now I thought of her statement. I thought, “Suppose she is right. She’s very intelligent and she often said she didn’t fear anyone enough to lie. Suppose I really am going to become somebody. Imagine.”
At that moment, when I could still taste the red rice, I decided the time had come when I should cut down on dangerous habits like smoking, drinking, and cursing.
Imagine. I might really become somebody. Someday.
From “Letter to My Daughter” by Maya Angelou