The Laughter Barrel

This chapter from Buechner's book The Yellow Leavesdescribes his relationship with the late Maya Angelou.

My first meeting with Maya Angelou took place at the Trinity Institute in New York City where we had both been invited to come and in effect tell our stories before a large audience of Episcopal clergy who were there more or less to have their batteries recharged. I no longer remember how it was I went about it-I think I may have read from one of my books-but one way or another I described something of my background and told how despite having grown up in a family without any interest in religion in general or church in particular I found myself little by little so drawn to the Christian faith I lmew almost nothing about that in my middle twenties I enrolled at Union Theological Seminary in its heyday and was eventually, to nobody's surprise more than my own, ordained as a Presbyterian minister.

After I finished, the same man who had introduced me proceeded to introduce Maya Angelou. They would now hear from her, he said, a very different story from the one they had just heard from me, and he had every reason to believe such would be the case. She was a woman, and I was a man. She was black, and I was white.

Though my family was often hard pressed for money those Depression years, in comparison with her I had grown up in the lap of luxury, always living in pleasant places and going to good schools whereas she had been brought up by her grandmother in the rear of the black people's store she ran in Stamps, Arkansas, during the worst days of redneck racism. But even as Fred Burnham was saying how different our two stories had been, I could see her shaking her head from side to side, and when she took her place at the lectern the first thing she did was say that he was wrong.

"No," she said, "Frederick Buechner and I have exactly the same story."

She was right, of course. At the deepest level the story of any one of us is the story of all of us. We all have the same dreams, the same doubts, the same fears in the night. Her words brought sudden tears to my eyes.

And then she went on with her talk whose title if I remember rightly was "The Accessibility of God," and I remember the way she drew the word "accessibility" out to its full length so that each of its six syllables got its full due.

She was an extraordinary woman to behold, larger than life, with a smile that lit up the room and the dignity of a queen.

Elegantly dressed with strings of beads around her neck and on her head a turban of brightly dyed African cloth, she made it clear right away that she was going to go wherever her heart took her. If it seemed the right thing to do, she would suddenly break into a scrap of song or spiritual in a voice that welled up out of the deepest truth of who she was. Sometimes, if she thought it fitted in, she would tell a story or recite a poem. At one point she told us something about slavery days that I had never come across before.

On certain plantations, she said, it was forbidden for slaves to laugh as they worked, presumably because the masters were afraid that if it ever turned into laughter at them, the whole system might start to crumble.

But if they couldn't contain themselves, she said, what they would do was go over to some barrel that was standing around and under the pretext of looking for something reach down into it as far as they could and let great peals ring out where nobody could hear them.

At the opening worship service earlier in the day there had been a procession of church dignitaries, and she continued by saying that as they had come parading down the aisle rigged out in their most elaborate ecclesiastical vestments and regalia, she had had an almost irresistible urge to duck off into some out-of-the-way corner somewhere-and at that point she interrupted herself by bending over double and letting fly with a cascade of laughter that no one who heard her is ever likely to forget.

Years later I stayed with her for a few days in WinstonSalem, North Carolina, where she had a many-roomed house filled with art she had collected or been given over the years together with photographs of friends like Nelson Mandela and James Baldwin and Oprah Winfrey, and shelf after shelf of books. She also had a number of other African Americans helping run things for her there, but never for an instant did she treat them like servants, addressing them always as Mrs. Thomas, Miss Stuckey, Mr. Miles, just as they always addressed her as Dr. Angelou. It was as if they were all of them trying to make it up to each other for all the years they had been treated like dirt.

Toward the end of the day I was thinking of going to my room for a nap before dinner but somehow or other found myself instead sitting with her in a little gazebo overlooking her garden, and with the spring afternoon soft and fragrant about us, I listened to her talk as randomly and easily as she had at the Trinity Institute while we sipped the scotch that Mrs. Thomas kept us supplied with. She is as good a listener as she is a talker, but I kept mostly silent so as not to interrupt her wonderful, lazy progress from one thing to another. She seems able to quote by memory from virtually everything she has ever read, and somewhere along the way, apropos of I've no idea what, she recited a poem by Edna St. Vincent Millay, titled "Conscientious Objector," which moved me deeply.

And then, "I believe I'll have just one more, Mrs. Thomas," she said, "only this time don't bother with the ice and water, dear," and heaven only knows what she turned to next, or what I did, though I do remember that at some point she said in a slow, pensive way as if it was only then occurring to her that she believed that, given the chance, we could be real friends. I replied that I thought we were that already, but she said, "No, I mean real friends," and if we didn't live so many miles apart, and if she wasn't so busy being a celebrity and I being whatever I am, I think she may have been right.

In any case as we sat there I had the feeling that even if we never set eyes on each other again, in some soft, shadowy way we had left a lasting mark on each other. For a few moments, with the dusk beginning to gather, our two stories merged like raindrops on a window pane.