I often miss out on time limited events. I am either out of town or have just breezed into another town a day or two too late to take advantage of something. Missing out on things I would have liked to attend brings out a separate category of chagrin. And powerlessness. Missing the event means missing the experience as well as the memories I would have made, along the feelings I imagine I would have had about both. Woe is me!
But this summer fortune and opportunity finally aligned in my life. My husband and I took a road trip to North Carolina. He is partial to the Asheville area because he went to Montreal every summer as a child. And the area is so beautiful that even though I had recently been to Asheville with my girls, I didn’t mind going back with him. After all we wouldn’t be doing the same things.
As a special treat we decided to start off our trip with a weekend in Winston Salem to visit my sister. While on the way I heard on NPR that the last day of Maya Angelou’s estate sale would be held….would be held…. did I dare hope… could it be….. THE SAME DAY I WAS ARRIVING IN WINSTON-SALEM!!!!!!!!
Have mercy. All I had to do was get from Knoxville to Winston-Salem and join in line in time and I would be allowed to enter her home free of charge. Sadly, my sister had to work at the library that day, so I would have to do my best to represent without her. My husband and I left Knoxville that Saturday morning, heading toward Winston Salem at a disconcerting 65 miles per hour. My stomach churned with anxiety as I wondered if my husband knew what a risk he was taking by doing something as absurd as trying to stick so close to the speed limit. This was an eighty mile an hour journey if I ever saw one. Did I want to stop for lunch? No. Did I need to stop to go to the bathroom. No. Did I want anything to drink? No, because then I might need to go to the bathroom. And I was not going to stop.
Eventually we did have to stop for gas and crawl through a traffic jam after a wreck on the interstate before heading straight to Ms. Angelou’s home. Because we were in a tiny Fiat we found a parking space in front of the house. My husband pulled up to the house and I leaped out of the car like a stunt car driver and into the line in her front yard. By the time he parked the car twenty more folks were behind me. Two hours remained of the sale.
For me, part one of the sale was the festive air outside the sale. This was no ordinary estate sale crowd, full of whiskered old men looking for yard tools, or bargain savvy couples looking for a good deal on a barely used mattress. No, we were all pilgrims who had come for the experience more than for whatever artifact might still be available at the end of the sale. Word passed down through the line that there was nothing left but books. Ah, we all nodded, pleased. To leave with a book would suit all of us just fine. About twenty minutes after I joined the line, a policeman walked to the back of the line and closed it. No more pilgrims would be admitted.
Ever so slowly we inched toward the house, chatting with one another to pass the time. Two sisters had driven in from Raleigh for the sale. The couple in front of us had left their baby with a sitter to attend. Bottled water was for sale from several vendors. And this police lady wanted to make friends with my husband. I wonder if Ms. Angelou had found the city as welcoming? I hope so.
And then I was in! The instant camaraderie with my fellow estate sellers was somewhat dampened by the crush of all the seekers who had already gained entrance to the home. I admit that I briefly visualized myself shoving through the crowds, flinging aside fellow book lovers who formed inconvenient bottlenecks in the hallways. But then, there was Dr. Angelou’s gaze upon me almost everywhere I went. In my mind I could hear her say, “Slow down, young lady. we’re civilized in this house.”
Suitably chastened, I made my way through the crowded, overheated rooms.
There really was nothing left except books and expensive art. But mostly books. And oh, what a wonderland of books. This woman was interested in EVERYTHING: poetry, history, fiction, publisher’s proofs, cookbooks, gardening, – heck, she had the entire Dewey Decimal system represented. The senses of spiritual, emotional, and intellectual richness struck me wherever I turned. Why, I lamented, oh why had I not offered my services as a menial helper in order in exchange for access to her books, or even to have had a chance to meet her, while she was still alive? Finally I descended into to her book packed basement which was full of even more seekers avidly browsing the shelves.
I conducted a random poll of facial expressions in the basement and quickly determined that every person there wished the same things I did. It was too late now in this life to meet Dr. Angelou, so we would have to do the next best thing. We would all leave with a book she had owned. If we were fortunate, maybe we would happen upon a book she loved, a book she had held in her hands while her brain arranged some fresh new wisdom to share with the world.
I flipped through book after book but not in the leisurely fashion I would have hoped. Should I purchase books I had already read but loved, knowing that the fact that It had belonged to Dr. Angelou would add an extra level of specialness? Or should I look for something new? And how many books did I need anyway? Shouldn’t I be choosing books for those folks not fortunate enough to be here today?
In the end I think Maya guided my choices. I paid for an armload of books, each of which had Dr. Angelou’s nameplate or signature inside. The sale was arranged so that after one paid, one exited through the house’s lovely grounds. I poked my head into the guest house and lingered on the patio. Each step brought me closer to the gate and the end of my personal glimpse into the life of a remarkable woman.
Once I left her home the experience lived on. My sister Ellen was the first to choose from the books I had purchased, opting for a book about the Harlem Renaissance. The next to choose were my daughter and son in law, who selected The Remains Of The Day and a volume by Thomas Merton. I set aside a book about Scott Joplin for one of my sons. I happily took the remaining book, a biography of a female painter unknown to me. As enjoyable as it had been to briefly own all the books, giving them away was even more so.
As a final unexpected surprise, and I can barely believe this is true, my daughter found an original, hand written poem by Dr. Angelou inside Thomas Merton on Saint Bernard. I realize that I did not find the poem so it’s not really my tale to tell, but I choose to think the poem could have just as well been meant for me. After all, Dr. Angelou, who once thought Shakespeare was a little black girl, did say, “The poetry was written for you. It’s all for you.”
We do all share in the beauty and wisdom of the written word. Such treasures are meant to be shared. If a little black girl in Stamps, Arkansas can feel that Shakespeare spoke to her, I can believe that Maya’s words and her world could be meant for me, a white middle class grandmother whose forebears wouldn’t have let her walk through their front doors. Even if I didn’t get to read the poem, which has been sent to her archives, I feel certain that she would have wanted to speak to me. She would have wanted to share her home, her work, her library and her legacy freely with people who would then pass the gift on to others. May we all be so generous.