Yesterdays passing of Maya Angelou saddened me, not only was she a fine strong feisty independent woman, but she reminded me of my Aunt Rose, strong, proud, union activist,, Glasgow City Councillor and stand-in mum of my dad and uncles and surrogate Grandmother to all of their kids including me and all my cousins.
Maya, lived a life and a half, from childhood poverty, prostitution, being raped, touring Europe as a dancer, experiencing life and writing about it. She became a voice for the black and female under-classes of America, a true states-woman and voice of the people, activist for civil rights with Martin Luther King Jnr and Malcolm X, her opinion was requested and respected by various presidents.
I was first introduced to Maya’s work as a child, when my Aunt Rose came back from working as a Nanny in the States bringing home Maya’s book “I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings”. It sat on her beside cabinet or on the book-shelf with the set of encyclopaedias that us grand-kids used to read from cover to cover with wondrous awe.
With such an enigmatic title I asked Rose to explain what it meant and she told me Maya’s story of poverty and her rise against adversity, missing out the parts that a child needn’t know.
Rose, was aged 12 when her mother left my Grandfather running away with a married man, heading south to England, not to be seen and largely unheard of for the next 42 years and as a child we never knew this woman and I can’t call her Gran because it would be disrespectful to my other Gran who was there for us, doing all the things that grannies do.
When she left, my Grandfather, was stationed overseas as there happened to be a war on at the time, so Rose was left to look after my dad (10) and my uncles Mick (8) and Eddie(2).
What kind of woman does that? Leaves her 4 kids including a baby aged under 2? When she finally came back in the 90s we found out, but that’s a different story.
Rose, was a matriarch, mother to her brothers and becoming surrogate Grand-mother to their kids.
As a young adult, she worked in various small jobs, leaving for America to work as a nanny for a few years and coming home when we were kids. She became an inspector in the Rolls Royce factory in Hillington, Glasgow verifying the quality of the Aero-Engines parts that were manufactured. Rose realised that she was paid much less than the men doing the same work, that was her beginning as a campaigner for women’s rights.
Rose became a union activist, fighting for equality both in and out the work-place. She often won her argument, because she was clear, concise and her arguments were irrefutable and her personality was irresistible. She was a fiery red head and she wouldn’t back down just because you were a man.
Family legend tells the story of Rose going to football at Celtic park or Ibrox with her brothers, back in those days stadiums were largely grubby, dank places and men only. She campaigned and won her argument to have woman’s toilets introduced.
Rose joined the Labour party, becoming a Councillor for her home area of South Nitshill, sitting on various committees and serving the people of her area with very little monetary reward. She fought for better social housing and when said houses were built a street was named in her honour.
As a child, Rose was there for all of us grand-kids, we spent regular Saturday nights at her house were we would be tossed in the bath and warned that we’d better be scrubbed from head to foot or she would come in and do it with the scrubbing brush and you really didn’t want that!
Back in the those days, she was a very glamorous woman, we used to watch her getting red to go out, those were the late 60s, early 70s and days of big hair, long dresses and cleavage on display.
Big Rose she was known as, a big-hearted, big boobed, tell it as it is woman and you dare not mess with her or she’d sort you right out!
Rose was a singer, she’d often sing at family parties, as everyone did back then, She sang with soul from Ella Fitzgerald’s Someone To Watch Over Me, to the traditional Danny Boy.
Rose and my Auntie Tricia were a couple of single woman, going to dances, then turning up at our house at 11am for a cup of tea and to call a taxi, She’d come in and we’d be sitting on the couch watching tv, Rose and Tricia would sit on our knees, squashing us and ask for kisses, smothering us kids in big wet ones as we laughed and tried to fight them off
Growing up, Rose was a foil for any argument you had, frankly I remember being an arse with some daft ideas, but Rose soon put them in place and we learned from her.
I learned that If you wanted to argue with her you’d better have your facts straight and you’d better not be selfish or she’d gently tear a hole in you.
Somewhere back in my 20s as the eldest grand-child, we became friends as well as family, speaking about life and growing up and again I learned from her.
Somewhere in the mists I came across the poem “Phenomenal Woman” by Maya Angelou and its lines about being a woman, maybe not the prettiest, but strong, feisty and desirable made me think of her.
Over the years, I’ve read many works by Maya Angelou, finding them inspirational and educational, particularly “I Rise”, appreciating what it was like to be an under-class within an under-class., a black woman in a white man’s world.
Maya had humble beginnings and a fantastic life, as did my Auntie Rose, both of them faced adversity and overcame.
Do you know why the caged bird sings?
They sing because their spirit cannot be broken by the mental chains or walls that surround them.