My earliest recollection of Dr. Maya Angelou was when I was about 8 years old. My family had moved to Winston-Salem, a small college town in North Carolina in the United States. My father had recently been appointed to a position at Wake Forest University – the same university where Dr. Angelou taught as a professor of American Studies. At such a young age, I had no context for who Dr. Angelou was other than the fact that she was a beautifully tall woman with a voice that could command any room. She connected with my family based on our shared experiences in West Africa (she had lived in Ghana for three years and my grandmother had strong roots in Ghana where she was raised and of course, we were from Nigeria – the neighbor next door). Dr. Angelou soon became “Aunty Maya” – a family friend and neighbor whom we visited often.
For me, Thanksgivings were the most memorable of these visits. In the beginning, we would gather in her home with other guests and marvel at the culinary spread often prepared by Aunty herself. The guests at Thanksgiving continued to grow and we soon spilled out of her dining room and into a tent in her backyard where we would gather for years to come.
We eventually moved back to Nigeria for a few years and during that time, we remained in touch with Aunty who would send thoughtful, handwritten letters asking about the family. Up until then, I still only knew her as my graceful and warm American aunty who threw fabulous dinner parties. It wasn’t until 1993 when I saw her on TV delivering her poem – “On the Pulse of the Morning” at Bill Clinton’s inauguration did it dawn on me that she was a public figure. I was amazed. I soon discovered her works and read (in one day) I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings and memorized her poems “Phenomenal Woman” and “Still I Rise.”
We would later move back to the U.S. and back to North Carolina where my dad returned to Wake Forest University. Aunty was once again there and waiting with her warm embrace and a strong motherly presence. She reminded us that when she met my grandmother – who’d passed away during our time back in Nigeria – she’d promised her she would take care of my father as if he were her own. This is exactly what she did. She was a woman of her word.
When I received my admission to New York University for my graduate studies, I called Aunty to let her know. A few months later, I received a call from her assistant letting me know Aunty wanted me to spend a night with her at her Harlem brownstone. I remember feeling lucky that she’d somehow had the time in her busy schedule to personally host my 21-year old self. I would later realize that she didn’t have the time, she made the time. The day I arrived at her beautiful jewel box of a home, I found her sitting by the kitchen island where she was overseeing the preparation of lunch. I joined her there and we ate and talked about my plans and to this day, I remember vividly how interested she was in everything I had to say. The next day, she told me that I would be escorting her to an event and so we got dressed and I soon found myself in a room surrounded by faces I’d only seen in magazines and on TV. She introduced me as her “niece”. I’ll never, ever forget that weekend.
On May 28, 2014 – Aunty Maya passed away at the age of 86. I got the news alert as I was sitting in a hair salon. I burst into tears. I cried for days. I felt the loss deeply. For me, the only silver lining of that day was the recollection that my father had visited Aunty just a few weeks prior and she had requested that he call each of us since she hadn’t seen us as much since we graduated and moved to different cities. I remember telling her “I love you!” to which she responded, “I love you too”. Those were our last words to each other. She’d made time.
On June 7th, we all gathered for her homegoing memorial at Wait Chapel on Wake Forest’s campus. My sister, who was particularly close to Aunty Maya, was deeply affected by her passing. You see, Aunty had not only made time for me. She’d made time for my sister, my father, my mother, my brother. We all had these personal moments we’d shared with her. She always remembered what was going on with each of us, our joys and our worries. She always made time.
As I sat in the Chapel that day, I listened as each dignitary approached the podium to share their memories and reflections. As each person spoke, a theme started to emerge. From Cicely Tyson who spoke about how Aunty had traveled miles by road to surprise her at a show (even though walking had become difficult for her) to Oprah Winfrey who shared how Aunty would always pick up her calls when she needed some words of encouragement or advice; everyone had a story of her giving them the gift of time. I realized at that moment that I’d never considered the fact that Aunty had done what she’d done for my family for countless others. “How did she do it? How?” I kept asking myself.
As we walked out of the Chapel that day, I remember feeling that even in her passing, Aunty had somehow managed to teach one last lesson. For me, her legacy reaches far beyond her literary works. For me, her greatest legacy was her ability to gift so many of us her time – the most precious commodity. Aunty never allowed her celebrity to diminish her connections with those around her. She intentionally found a way to create time and room for countless people in her heart and in her mind. She made sure so many of us felt seen and heard. This is what I’ll always remember about her. This is the part of her I’ll always carry with me.
Since her passing, I often find myself challenging myself to do better with making time for those in my life. I learned to practice mindful listening and have grown to have a genuine interest in the stories and journeys of others. I’m nowhere close to the mastery I witnessed in Aunty – I still have a long list of people I know I need to call and see. But here’s the thing: because of Aunty Maya, I’m reminded that I can and must be better. I’m reminded that I must continue to find ways to make sure those around me feel seen and heard. Thank you, Aunty, for making time. Thank you for the gift. Thank you for the lesson. You were – without question – a truly phenomenal woman.
Tosin Durotoye is a social enterprise leader, technology executive and consultant with more than 16 years of professional experience in both the public and private sectors. She has extensive experience leading digital transformations within companies, establishing and managing social impact programs, crafting and executing partnerships and public engagement strategies and managing grants totalling over $10M. Tosin is passionate about the intersections between public and private partnerships and investments and economic development. She is a committed gender equity advocate and is the founder of The Bloom Africa – a platform and community where ambitious African women gather, connect and grow.