My mother’s beauty literally assailed me. Her red lips . . . split to show even white teeth and her fresh-butter color looked see-through clean. Her smile widened her mouth beyond her cheeks beyond her ears and seemingly through the walls to the street outside. I was struck dumb. I knew immediately why she had sent me away. She was too beautiful to have children. I had never seen a woman as pretty as she who was called “Mother.”
From the moment Maya sets eyes on Vivian, she is profoundly in awe of her mother’s beauty and how Vivian’s appearance sets her apart from others. Vivian does not look like a typical mother, and she divests herself of this responsibility, leaving Momma to raise Maya and Bailey for much of their youth. They only come to live with Vivian again when they are teenagers and don’t need the intense parenting that children do.
Mother was competent in providing for us. Even if that meant getting someone else to furnish the provisions. Although she was a nurse, she never worked at her profession while we were with her. Mr. Freeman brought in the necessities and she earned extra money cutting poker games in gambling parlors. The straight eight-to-five world simply didn’t have enough glamor for her, and it was twenty years later that I first saw her in a nurse’s uniform.
Here, Maya describes Vivian’s unique approach to both adulthood and motherhood. According to Maya, the only typical maternal quality that Vivian possesses is the ability to provide food and shelter for her children. While Vivian was trained in a respectable profession, she chooses instead to work in establishments that exist on the margins of society. She also capitalizes on her beauty, relying on men captivated by her appearance to sponsor her lifestyle.
I have never known if Momma sent for us, or if the St. Louis family just got fed up with my grim presence. There is nothing more appalling that a constantly morose child.
Maya reveals a lack of understanding regarding who decided where she and Bailey would live. When Maya reports her and Bailey’s return to Stamps, she doesn’t document their mother’s involvement in the decision-making process. Presumably as their guardian, Vivian would make the decision about where her children will live. Yet, Maya makes no mention of such a scenario. Instead, all references to Maya’s post-rape, post-trial existence include the entire family but none are specific to her mother. Vivian seems to play a minimal role in helping her child recover from such a horrific act.
She understands completely. There is a time in every man’s life when he must push off from the wharf of safety into the sea of chance . . . Anyway, she is arranging with a friend of hers in Oakland to get me on the Southern Pacific. Maya, it’s just a start. I’ll begin as a dining-car waiter and then a steward, and when I know all there is to about that, I’ll branch out . . . The future looks good[.]
As Bailey readies himself to embark on his adult life, he lauds Vivian for understanding what he needs and how to help. This description provides a new version of Vivian: the mother who has the ability to help her child grow to his full potential. Vivian sees that her son is going down a dangerous path, dating a white prostitute, and hanging out with gangsters, and she offers him both a escape and a real opportunity.
During this period of strain Mother and I began our first steps on the long path toward mutual adult admiration. She never asked for reports and I didn’t offer any details. But every morning she made breakfast, gave me carfare and lunch money, as if I were going to work.
While Maya pursues her dream of becoming the first black streetcar worker, Vivian offers her unconditional support. The Vivian Maya describes here appears to be a good mother. She knows enough to trust her daughter will make reasonable decisions but remains in the background, available should Maya need anything. This period stands out as significant because in their new way of relating to one another as adults, both women can leave behind the past and appreciate each other’s strength and unconventionality.
Fortunately, Mother was tied up tighter than Dick’s hatband in the weave of her own life. She noticed me, as usual, out of the corner of her existence. As long as I was healthy, clothed and smiling she felt no need to focus her attention on me. As always, her major concern was to live the life given to her, and her children were expected to do the same.
Maya explains how she managed to conceal her pregnancy for almost eight months from her family: Vivian continued her practice of benign neglect. Vivian never looks too closely at her daughter’s life, instead choosing to play a supporting role so she can focus on her own. Wrapped up as always in her own affairs, she fails to see anything amiss, even as Maya’s body changes in perceptible ways that a more observant, engaged mother would likely notice.
Mother whispered, “See, you don’t have to think about doing the right thing. If you’re for the right thing, then you do it without thinking.”
Once Maya becomes a mother, Vivian gifts her with an important lesson when she reassures Maya that she needn’t worry about raising her child as long as she trusts herself and her maternal instincts. This sentiment seems significant coming from Vivian, who has demonstrated questionable mothering practices throughout the book. With this statement, Maya implies that her mother has succeeded as a mother, adding new dimension to the reader’s image of Vivian.