“One lump of sugar or two, dear?” My nana would gently call out from the kitchen corridor to the dining room table where her eager grandchildren awaited the arrival of tea-time. The answer was always two lumps, of course. And before those sugar cubes could dissolve within the piping hot tea, my nana would be right next to me handing out beautifully decorated tea cups on top of perfectly placed saucers. I always thought it was a luxury to be able to use her finest tea set, because my five-year-old self had grown rather accustomed to dinnerware of the less-breakable, plastic variety.
Life around Nana’s table was always a special event. And every event needed the finest of china even if that meant the occasional accident. My Nana would just smile, sigh and say “Dishes are for breaking, right?” I was never anxious around her. I could do no wrong.
After a never-ending road trip from California to Kansas, my family would fall out of our van into the warmth of her house knowing the moment our feet grazed the plastic carpet mats we would be treated like guests of honor. The secret was, though, everyone was treated as a guest of honor in her house, even if she had seen you the previous day. And every guest of honor, which meant any and everyone who walked through her door, had a seat at her table.
Every week Nana would make extravagant Sunday night dinners of pot roast and Yorkshire pudding, decadent desserts like her famous homemade apple pies, and the most exquisite cup of tea this side of the Atlantic Ocean. Till this day, the passing whiff of a baking apple pie brings me back to these days, back to sitting at my nana’s table.
While all of her extravagant food and drink was a delight to us all, that was not what made my nana’s table special. She made it special. We would all gather around with laughter, joy and the expected family quarrel or two and my nana would beam with excitement. Nothing mattered to her more than having people, her family, around her table. She would sometimes tell stories to her grandchildren in her soft and rather proper British accent but most of the time she was quiet, taking in the sights and sounds that engulfed her small living room. She breathed love into the space.
For my Nana, her table was communion. It was a time where, without even a whisper of a word, she could show the people in her life that they mattered, they were valued, they were important. She had this warmth when her eyes met yours that could take the chill away from any winter’s day.
For my Nana, her table held the cherished moments where everyone belonged, everyone was welcome, everyone ate like royalty. Everyone was royalty for these moments.
I was only able to come to that table for seven short years before this world lost one of its greatest women. Since my nana’s passing, her table has sat physically empty, but always beckoning us to come together once again, reminding us that we all belong to something bigger than our own lives. In those few years that I was able to sit, to eat, to live at her table, my nana taught me that moments of feasting, of mourning, or of celebrating bring us together and that everyone deserves to feel that they belong, that they are special, that they are cared for.
More than anything, though, I knew my life, at Nana’s table, was important. Nana, after working a whole day on a feast, her frail body weak from hours of standing, would sit at the table without asking for any praise, thanks or acknowledgement for we were the most important part of her day. I always imagined her thinking, how lucky I am to have this family, to have this moment, to have this meal. And then she would look at us all with humanly perfect, sacrificial love and we would know that we were loved. We were loved with a love that will always bring us back to the table.
The unknown of you
gives an electricity to every moment
you even try to enter my busy thoughts.
The unknown of you
protects you from complete ruin.
The unknown of you
thats the part I never wish to know.
Right now you are perfect to me
and I wish for you to remain
In that space no other human
has the privilege of residing.
There you find your home.
Maya Angelou is, was and will forever be a unbreakable prophet. She spoke of the day when the “caged bird’s song” would burst open the iron gate that rendered its wings useless dreams. She sang the song of freedom when only captivity and despair seemed present. She was a prophet of song, of verse, of life.
Poetry is more than writing. More than putting pen to paper and hoping for the best. The best of poets, like Angelou, know how to speak into the rhythm of the world, to beckon the human spirit and to call that spirit beyond this present moment to a possible future. Angelou was a poet with both her word and her life.
She spoke of a freedom that surpassed the physical chains that bound so many. A freedom of the mind, the spirit, the essence of humanity. I will never forget the moment I read Angelou’s quote above, “There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.” She knew the goal of every artist, poet, writer, human–to be completely and utterly known.
Such is not an easy task. For to be known one must bear one’s soul for another waiting in helpless silence to hear a response. Most of us never make it to that silence. Fear keeps us living within constant noise so that we are seen through every medium possible, but never truly known. Maya Angelou lived in that silence, recklessly unleashing her soul for her own soul’s freedom.
She lived in the silence of a tomorrow where ever “caged bird” not only sang the dream of freedom but flew in its life-giving wind. May we all seek that silence for the memory of Angelou and for the future for which she so deeply lived her life. A silence that speaks of human vulnerability, acceptance and a told, heard, and known story.
Thank you, Maya Angelou, for singing, dancing, celebrating, persevering and living your freedom story. Not only was your soul unchained by your story and your voice, but, through your life and your work, you helped create a freedom story for so many of us.
Rest in peace, Maya Angelou. May her freedom song continue to tell our unending human story.
Yet if only this young man could conquer the world.
A world that provides the lessons he must learn to survive.
Then maybe, just maybe the classroom would teach his brilliant mind