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Oprah: And when you got to the phone, you said, "Baby? What is it, baby?" Not "You've just interrupted me, I was in the middle of speaking," but "What is it, baby?" When I heard that, I went, "Aaaaagh! I need your heeeelp!" Who was able to be that kind of loving person for you?

Maya: My mother, Vivian Baxter. There are great parents of small children—they keep their little hair in bows—but those parents are not always good parents of young adults. As soon as their children get up to some size, it's "Shut up, sit down, you talk too much, keep your distance, I'll send you to Europe!" My mom was a terrible parent of small children but a great parent of young adults. She'd talk to me as if I had some sense.

Oprah: I always thought that I would be that way. I don't know what to do with babies.

Maya: Yes. When I was 16, I told my stepdad that I was pregnant, and he asked me how far along I was. "I have three weeks," I said. He thought I said I was three weeks pregnant, so he phoned my mom up in Alaska [to tell her]. When she came down, she looked at me and said, "You're more than any three weeks pregnant." I said, "No, I'm going to have the baby in three weeks." She said, "Draw me a bath, please." And I drew a bath. She got in the bathtub and said, "Come in—and bring the cigarettes." It was the first time I had seen her naked. "Would you like a cigarette?" she asked me. "Yes," I said. "Then have it." And she sat back in her bath.

Oprah: This was your mother's reaction to your pregnancy?

Maya: Exactly. She said, "Do you love the boy?" I said no. She said, "Does he love you?" I said no. She said, "Then there's no reason to ruin three lives! We're going to have a baby." That's Vivian Baxter. From then on, she was just incredible as a parent.

Oprah: And this was in the fifties?

Maya: The forties. She taught me so much. And then, because I had two jobs and my son, and I was living in a room with cooking privileges, my mom would invite me over once a month so she could cook these fantastic meals for me—I wouldn't take any money from anybody. And once, we walked down to the pickle factory at the foot of the hill, where the air was redolent with mustard and vinegar—"Baby, you know something?" my mother said to me. "I think you're the greatest woman I've ever met—and I'm not including my mother or Mrs. Eleanor Roosevelt in that."

Oprah: How old were you?

Maya: Maybe 23. This was all during my birthing period. And Mom had on silver fox furs arched up over her back. She had on big diamond earrings and lots of lipstick. She said, "You are very intelligent and you're very kind, and those two qualities do not often go together. Give me a kiss." And I kissed her. Then she went across the street and got in her car, and I went the other way down to the streetcar. When I got on, I went to the very back and sat there. I thought, "Suppose she's right. She's intelligent—and she's too mean to lie." You see, a parent has the chance—and maybe the responsibility—to liberate her child. And my mom had liberated me when I was 17. When I moved out, she had said, "All right, you've been raised, so don't let anybody else raise you. You know the difference between right and wrong. Do right. And remember—you can always come home." And she continued to liberate me until she died.

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