Before Linda and I flew to North Carolina to interview Dr. Maya Angelo, Oprah advised us in a way that told us she was speaking from experience, “Don’t call her Maya unless she gives you permission.” We followed her advice, which was easy to do. She was as gracious as she was grounded. Her smile and her presence were huge. As we began asking her our carefully prepared questions about the power of the heart, we could see her shift into a more thoughtful, involved place than she might have expected to be. At the end of our time together, she us gave a copy of one of her books and inscribed it, “Gary & Linda, My New Heart Throbs, Joy! Maya Angelou 11/14/2011.”
We left with her still in our hearts, and we thought about her and discussed her for two weeks. Then she called us one weekend! “I have been thinking about you since you left,” she said. We were elated, and before our call ended, she suggested, “Let’s talk on Sunday mornings, like a salon.” And so began a joint journey that would take us places we could not have imagined going. On one of those calls she told us, “Call me Maya!” When her son invited us to his mother’s annual Thanksgiving gathering, we accepted, and the journey was on!
For the next two and a half years Linda and I traveled to Winston Salem twice each year – once in the spring for her birthday and once for the Thanksgiving gathering – to be with her and her remarkable family. I had never been in the company of black female professors, black male professors, black theater producers, black physicians (especially dear to me was Levi Watkins, cardiac surgeon, Johns Hopkins, and inventor of the defibrillator), as well as black musicians and dancers, or been introduced to so many black historians, poets, and activists. My world exploded into new realms of awe and appreciation. Through all of this, Maya’s regal yet warm and nurturing presence, brilliance, earthiness, and love of people infused everything we did together, everyone each of us met for the first time, and everyone each of us delighted in seeing again. She was a master family maker.
Linda and I were at Harvard for my 50th reunion when news of her passing came to us. I felt like a great tree had fallen, as she had written in one of her poems, one like I would never see again. The time that Linda and I spent with Maya was a Camelot to me. The great King Author, who came to be recognized by his ability to do what others could not do, gathered his family (knights) of connected hearts, great bravery, and love for the common good around his table. Maya Angelou, who also came to be recognized by her ability to do what others could not do, gathered her family of connected hearts, great bravery, and love for the common good around her table – where the fragrance of Southern-cooked food came over the counter from the kitchen, and conversation flowed like a never-ending great feast.
Thank you, Maya, for the gifts you have given to me and Linda and the millions of people whose lives are deeper, richer, more meaningful, more courageous, and more loving because you were in the world with us.