Jamie Mayes, AOE

Archive for June, 2014|Monthly archive page

Journey for a Day, Impact for Life

In Uncategorized on June 1, 2014 at 6:13 am


Today was life altering…even more profoundly, it was life changing. The woman who was my first inspiration to write therapeutically passed last week and I found myself deeply saddened that one of my dreams had not and would not ever be fulfilled- meeting Maya Angelou. For months I had talked about visiting her childhood home and getting a visual connection with the place I had heard and read about that transformed her life. I figured over and over that I had time to go, that not only would Stamps be there, Maya Angelou would be alive when one of the most grand moments of my life occurred. I took into light consideration that she was approaching a delicate phase in life and that there was only a matter of time before my dream would fade with her. Yet, reality struck last week and I suddenly felt the urge to make my visit happen immediately. I felt wounded, even broken hearted, that fate had brought about a situation that I could not fix nor change. And Stamps, Arkansas was the closest that my budget and body could get to Ms. Angelou.

I am not sure what I was looking for by going to Stamps. I was not sure what I would get when I got there, nor was I sure of what the traveling experience beheld. I thought others would think that my journey was a little crazy, so I shied away from telling people what I wanted to do and instead shared what I needed and I why I needed it with only a few people who wouldn’t question my motives whether they understood them or not. I got more than I bargained for when Breonda agreed to travel with me and Mrs. Whitfield was eager to go.  We took to the road early today with tribute balloons to be released in Maya Angelou’s honor waving wildly in the back seat of the truck. Excitement made this short journey seem long, but each mile did not seem to matter as we got closer to our destination. However, a lingering question loomed in my mind: what would we do when we got there?

This question would fulfill itself in a capacity that I never imagined. As we passed a beautiful scenic lake we came to the end of a road with only two directions to turn. The GPS said we had arrived in Stamps, Arkansas. To our right were a church and some houses on a country road and to the left was what appeared to be a highway. After mistakenly turning right onto the country road, I turned around in a stranger’s yard just past a white church sitting on a V road. We headed towards a highway which passed the back of the lake, over the railroad into the middle of Stamps, Arkansas. A few people were outside, and I was indeed nervous about what we should do next. The truck led us to the downtown area, which like any Southern country town, was dead on a Saturday afternoon. But, there was a single boutique open, with a young black woman and a middle aged man standing inside. “Forget it,” I said aloud, “This is the country. Let’s ask questions.” I parked and exited the car. We approached the young woman and the man, inquiring about any place in Stamps that honored or recognized Angelou. She told us that unfortunately, there was no street named after her, no landmark, not even a local plaque with her name on it. The town barely showed any recognition for this woman, but she knew someone who could show us the store that her aunt and uncle ran if we had time to wait. She made a phone call and we casually browsed the beautiful shop lending our patronage, partially for her beautiful items and partially for her kind help. Within minutes, a man and woman entered the shop and introduced themselves as Jerry and Dora, former residents of Stamps.

Jerry was much too young to have known Maya Angelou personally, but he did know her Uncle Willie who was still running the local store when he was a kid. The store was gone and so was Uncle Willie, but he could show us where the store and the home were located. He could also tell us a little about her visit to Stamps in the late 70’s when he was 12 years old, but he had some ladies who could tell us more information than he could. My eyes lit up; the trip was already beginning to be more than I had expected. We smiled and told him that anything he and Dora could offer would be a delight to us. I felt like we had hit the jackpot!

We followed Jerry back in the direction that we had come from. The familiar route led us to a house facing the road towards the church and country road where we had made the “wrong” turn only minutes ago. We pulled into the yard of a small and neatly trimmed white house. As Jerry and Dora spoke with the woman on the porch, I surveyed the area. At the church across the street three small puppies rolled in the grass. One puppy dragged his two legs behind him and crawled only on his front paws because he had been hit by a car nearly a month ago. (I’m still working on a way to get that puppy here and find him a home.) Still, the all of the puppies looked peaceful and happy and played in front of the church happily. On the church door was a wreath and a few feet from the front door was a large wooden Easter cross and a young tree with a black bow tied around it.

Jerry walked from the house with a small lady with a mini-blonde afro and glasses we got out of the truck. We were excited! She introduced herself to us as Maurine, not Ms. Maurine, Maurine. She had the energy of a young girl and the sweetness of my grandmother. We introduced ourselves and Mrs. Whitfield told Maurine that I was a writer and a major fan of Maya Angelou.  Her eyes lit up and she embraced me, saying that I looked like someone she had met before. She told us she was a much younger than Maya or as they knew her, Marguerite, but she could show us the land and tell us what she did know. Marguerite had been good friends with her sister, her cousin, and another man named Willie. Many of the others who had been good friends with Marguerite had passed already, and very few people were still around. Maurine told us that Maya Angelou had been to their house for dinner and to hang out just as she got ready to write I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. She told us that if we could walk, the land where their house and the store were located was just down the street. As we walked, we passed the house where I had turned around because we were traveling in the “wrong” direction. Maurine told us the past few days had been crazy with statewide and national news stations coming down to view the town where Angelou spent the most important years of her life and had written about in her autobiography. Her sister had been interviewed and would be appearing in a documentary in the next few weeks. She stopped in front of a trailer with a huge tree in the yard and told us that this was where there house once stood. A few feet from the trailer, she showed us where the general store once operated. She laughed and talked about how Mr. Willie (Maya’s uncle) was handicapped and would allow the children to get their own cookies and candy from the jar. They would load their pockets with goodies they bought, or supposedly bought, with the money that they supposed to use for school lunch. Maurine spoke very highly of Maya’s grandmother. She said she was a tall and graceful lady, who was well-spoken, “like a teacher,” she said. “That’s why Maya was like she was. Her grandmother was always so well-spoken and graceful,” Maurine said. It was instilled her, I thought. She even told us that she did not personally know the teacher who helped Maya come out of her mute stage, but she knew who she was.

Suddenly, it all seemed even more real for me. She had been here- in Stamps; what she had been through to become Maya Angelou was real. I wanted to cry, no really, sit down on the grass and weep, but this was not the time to fall to pieces and have to explain something that I still could not quite put into words. It seemed that images described on paper had now become tangible. The tangibility of these images made the capability of being great more real.  

We continued to talk and a few passer byers waved and one even stopped to welcome us. I told Dora, Jerry, and Maurine about the balloons and they said that they wished they had known I was coming and they would have rounded up the community. But they did not know I was coming and I had no idea I would meet them. We talked about the lack of respect shown to Maya Angelou by the community and even disrespectful remarks made about her by community officials. Dora talked about the hopes of at least getting a street named after her and determination to pursue this for a woman who of deserving of so much more than having her name tattooed to a dusty street.

As we made our way back to the house and prepared for our good-byes and journey to the lake to release ballons, another older, thin lady was walking into the yard. “That’s my sister, Mary B., “ Maurine told us, “she knows more than I do.” Maurine’s sister told us she was Mary B., not Ms. Mary B., Mary B.  Maurine told her of our journey, to which she seemed excited. Mary B. hugged us and reiterating many of the things her sister shared adding details. She talked about how Maya Angelou was no guest at their home; she fixed her own plate and ate to her delight when she visited. She told of how their family member Tessie played the piano and Maya sang gospel songs when she visited before she wrote I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. Mary B. said she had read most of Maya Angelou’s books not because she purchased them, but because she would send a test copy to their dear friend and he would let her read it after he had finished- the raw, uncut scripts. My emotions were so charged, the atmosphere was than I could process at the time and I’m still taking it in. After several more minutes of talking, we told them we had to proceed to the lake for the balloon release so we could start our journey home. However, there was no denial that we did not want to leave and I do not think they were ready for us to.

As we pulled up the beautiful lake, I thought about how it was the perfect place to release the balloons. I took deep breaths and promised that I would be a big girl, no tears. We headed up the walk path to the gazebo on the water and heard some familiar voices behind us. Dora, her granddaughter, Jerry, Maurine, and Mary B. were getting out of the car. They had come for the balloon release ceremony, turning the moment into so much more than I imagined. After organizing the balloons, I shared a short speech about the meaning of each color of the balloons I had chosen. I talked about how much Maya Angelou/ Marguerite Johnson meant to me even though I never knew her personally. I told the women how important they were to such a beautiful story and how our lives intermingle to create history. We prayed and then set the balloons free.  We shared a final round of hugs and kisses, thank you’s, and goodbyes.

I still cannot quite express my feelings in complete words. There are some experiences in life that are bigger than a moment and a day. They are bigger than one or two people. They are bigger than a small town or a big city. They change us; they make us. The help us become who we should be. This experience cannot be defined or completely explained because it is so much bigger than me. Thank you Maya Angelou.

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