April 4, 2013 at 8:25 AM ET
Maya Angelou was only 3 years old when she and her brother were sent to live with their grandmother. She reunited with her mom 10 years later, beginning a complicated journey that would eventually develop into a rich and loving relationship.
“I didn't really like her very much. I wouldn’t call her mother,” the legendary writer told TODAY’s Jenna Bush Hager in an interview that aired Thursday, on the writer's 85th birthday.
“I called her ‘Lady,’ and she asked me why. I said, ‘Because you don't look like a mother, and you're very pretty and you act like a lady. So she said, ‘All right,’ and she took that. And I liked her for that.”
Angelou makes her mother the focus of her newest book, “Mom & Me & Mom.” In talking with TODAY, she recalled her struggle to overcome her tough transition to life with a mother she barely knew, and how she came to love the woman whose energy she likened to a constantly running motor.
Among the gifts Angelou's mother provided were words of encouragement, coupled with tough love. She once told her daughter she believed her to be “the greatest women I’ve ever met,” Angelou recalled, who was 22 years old at the time.
“I sat there thinking, ‘She’s very intelligent. She's too mean to lie. Maybe I am going to be somebody,’” the author told TODAY.
Angelou first had to overcome various personal struggles, some of which she famously described in her 1969 memoir, “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.”
Becoming a mother herself at the age of 17 also helped provide Angelou with perspective. She said that raising her son as a single mother gave her much-needed wisdom and patience.
“The greatest gift I’ve ever been given was my son,” she said.
By the time Angelou’s mother passed away from lung cancer, the two had grown quite close.
“I remember telling her, ‘You were a piss-poor mother of small children. But there has never been anybody greater than you as a parent of a teenager and young adult,’” she said. “’If it's time for you to go, I'm thankful to God that he let you give me birth. And that I have you for my mother.’”