|Jacquie Easley McGhee with her family and Maya Angelou (second from left) | Submitted photo
Though Maya Angelou is widely regarded as one of the most-quoted English-speaking persons in history, I offer none in my reflection today because I could not bear to choose a favorite.
In 1984, my father, Eddie Easley, accepted a position at Wake Forest University in Winston Salem, N.C. Upon his arrival on campus, he immediately heard tales of a phenomenal colleague named Dr. Maya Angelou. My dad, a business professor, asked my mother, Ruth, who this woman was. My mother pulled out the Pulitzer Prize-nominated poem "Still I Rise" and the television miniseries "Roots" (Maya played Kunta Kinte's African matriarch) to validate her reputation.
My parents were delighted to learn that Maya lived around the corner from them. My then-fiancé, Odell McGhee, and I were thrilled when my parents casually mentioned that we were invited to Thanksgiving dinner at her home. That first holiday experience was much like visiting your most interesting relative. We sat in the kitchen (yes, at the kitchen table) while Maya fussed with the turkey and other mainstay Southern dishes -- cornbread, macaroni and cheese, candied yams, red beans and rice, collard greens and potato salad.
In the beginning, the guests were generally the Wake Forest crowd, mainly international students who couldn't go home for the short vacation and a few other lucky individuals. At the end of the meal, Maya asked her guests to provide the entertainment. Some played the piano, some sang, but the highlight was hearing Maya recite any work. My brothers swear that this occasion sealed the deal for Odell (an associate district judge, who is also an actor and poet in his spare time) in wanting to join our family.
These gatherings became a highly anticipated annual event for us and our family. They were joyfully intimate gatherings with students, neighbors and close friends until 1992.
That was the year Maya ascended to iconic status after she read her original work "On the Pulse of Morning" at the inauguration of fellow Arkansan Bill Clinton. We now categorize our holiday celebrations at Maya's as B.C (before Clinton) and A.C. (after Clinton). The first gathering A.C. debuted with an engraved invitation to dinner. We arrived at her home amid chauffeured automobiles, catering trucks and white tents. The casual entertainment of previous years turned into dramatic presentations by real Broadway actors and more polished musical selections, including the time we all held hands and sang "Reach Out and Touch Somebody," led by the songwriters themselves, Nick Ashford and Valerie Simpson.
And then there was "The Year of the Special Guest." While we were becoming accustomed to Maya's celebrity friends, generally artists who seem to blend into the festivities, one memorable year we were awestruck as we stood face to face with Oprah Winfrey. She was standing alone in a corner of the tent. Odell walked over and meekly asked, "Oprah? " She smiled and said, "Yes, I am," and began an engaging conversation with him that included this exchange:
"Wow, you are the first African-American female tycoon I have met."
"Well, you are the first black prosecutor from Iowa I have met."
In Maya's home, rooms were filled with books and art, the walls were adorned with her many honorary degrees, photos from the epic moments of her life, and those ordinary Kodak moments of her beloved son, Guy, her mother, Vivian Baxter Johnson, and grandson. The centerpiece among those was a stunning life-size tapestry of a younger Maya in traditional African attire, rumored to have been a gift from her dear friend Oprah.
Sadly, our glorious holiday meals came to an end as Maya moved to another neighborhood in Winston-Salem. She told my father she needed to downsize, though he noted her new home was as splendid as her former one. She actually never sold it, using it as a "guest house." My children and I began a new Thanksgiving tradition. Our after-dinner walk included a stop by Maya's home and a wave or chat with the caretaker.
Dr. Angelou became a vivid strand weaving in and out of the tapestry of our lives. Odell's theater troupe would feature her work; my tenure on the Des Moines School Board included a tense moment of controversy as her autobiography "I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings" came under fire as questionable literature, and her periodic visits to Iowa, where she would always say, "I bring greetings from your parents!"
I hope to accompany my mother to the memorial service being planned at Wake Forest (also the site of my father's homegoing in January 2010). We will, no doubt, join many others who will celebrate the life of a quintessential Southern girl who grew to be a formidable woman who stood tall among presidents and kings, who transformed prose into majestic poetic symphonies, who gave the ultimate relevance to the word she-roe, and yet who also cooked in a mean turkey.
OK, I will quote her here: she "put her foot in it!"
Jacqueline Easley McGhee, is director of community services and diversity at Mercy Medical Center - Des Moines and has been active in many community organizations. She has been an advocate for women and minorities and was the first African-American to serve on the Des Moines School Board when she was elected in the 1990s. She was inducted into the Iowa Women's Hall of Fame in 2011, has been named a YWCA Woman of Achievement, a Des Moines Citizen of the Year, the Iowa Junior Chamber of Commerce's Iowan of the Year and a Des Moines Business Record Woman of Influence.