If your mother liberated you to think big, what gifts did your grandmother give you?
She gave me so many gifts. Confidence that I was loved. She taught me not to lie to myself or anyone else and not to boast. She taught me to admit that, to me, the emperor has no clothes. He may be dressed in the finery of the ages to everybody else, but if I don’t see it, to admit that I don’t see it. Because of her, I think, I have remained a very simple woman. What you see is all there is. I have no subterfuge. And she taught me not to complain.
My grandmother had one thing that she would do for me about twice a year. Shall I tell you? [She laughs loudly.] Momma would see a whiner, a complainer come down the hill. And she would call me in. She’d say, “Sister, Sister, come out here.” I’d go and look up the hill and a complainer was trudging. And the man or woman would come into the store, and my grandmother would ask, “How you feel today?”
“Ah, Sister Henderson, I tell you I just hate the winter. It makes my face crack and my shins burn.”
And Momma’d just say, “Uh-huh,” and then look at me. And as soon as the person would leave, my grandmother would say, “Sister, come here.” I’d stand right in front of her. She’d say, “There are people all over the world who went to sleep last night who did not wake again. Their beds have become their cooling boards, their blankets have become their winding sheets. They would give anything for just five minutes of what she was complaining about.”
Did you write during your childhood?
Well, I’ve always written. There’s a journal which I kept from about 9 years old. The man who gave it to me lived across the street from the store and kept it when my grandmother’s papers were destroyed. I’d written some essays. I loved poetry, still do. But I really, really loved it then. I would write some—of course it was terrible—but I’d always written something down.
I read that you wrote the inaugural poem, “On the Pulse of Morning,” in a hotel room. Were you on the road when you composed it?
I keep a hotel room here in Winston when I’m writing. I take a room for about a month. And I try to be in the room by 6 a.m., so I get up, make coffee and keep a thermos and I go out to the hotel. I would have had everything removed from the room, wall hangings and all that stuff. It’s just a bed, a table and a chair, Roget’s Thesaurus, a dictionary, a bottle of sherry, a yellow pad and pens, and I go to work. And I work ’til about twelve or one; one if it’s going well, twelve if it isn’t. Then I come home and pretend to operate in the familiar, you know?
Where does writing rank in your accomplishments?