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Nearly a year passes with Maya moping around the house like an " old biscuit, dirty and inedible." Then she meets Mrs. Bertha Flowers. She and Momma are close friends, separated only by refinement and formal education. Mrs. Flowers is an aristocrat among the blacks who inhabit Stamps. She wears printed voile dresses, flowered hats, and white gloves. She is one of the few gentlewomen Maya has ever known and remains a measure of what a human being should be throughout the rest of Maya’s life.
One afternoon Mrs. Flowers asks Maya to walk her home, instead of Bailey. Maya is proud and excited about being her escort. She changes into a dress in order to look presentable for Mrs. Flowers. Seeing the dress, Mrs. Flowers praises Momma’s sewing skills. Momma promptly orders Maya to disrobe in front of Mrs. Flowers so that she can see the inner seams of the dress. Maya is terribly humiliated by having to undress in front of the woman that she greatly respects.
On the way to her house, Mrs. Flowers talks to Maya about the importance of words in people’s lives. She tells her that "language is man’s way of communicating with his fellow man and it is language, alone which separates him from the lower animals." She also tells Maya that reading is good, but words alone are not good enough. "It takes the human voice to infuse them with the shades of deeper meaning." She offers to lend Maya some of her books to read and encourages her to read them out loud.
Inside Mrs. Flowers’ house, Maya is greeted by the scent of vanilla. She is surprised by the smell, for she has never associated Mrs. Flowers with common experiences, like cooking. But Mrs. Flowers has made cookies and lemonade for Maya. While she eats them, Mrs. Flowers presents her "lessons in living" to Maya. She explains that experience is just as important as education. She also advises Maya to listen carefully to what country people call "mother wit."
After leaving the home of Mrs. Flowers, Maya runs home and is greeted by Momma and Bailey. She eagerly tells Bailey that Mrs. Flowers has sent cookies for him. She also listens as Momma, seeming somewhat angry, asks questions about what was said at Mrs. Flowers’ house.
When Maya says "by the way." Momma considers them blasphemous words. She immediately kneels down and prays to the Lord to forgive Maya. When Bailey tells her that white folks use the phrase all the time, Momma tells them both that white folks’ words are often loose and, therefore, an abomination before Christ.
The meeting with Mrs. Flowers marks the beginning of a transformation in Maya. Through Mrs. Flowers, her academic and spiritual awakening begin.
Although Momma humiliates Maya by making her disrobe in front of the refined Mrs. Flowers, she still enjoys her visit with her kind new friend. She listens carefully as Mrs. Flowers explains the importance of oral communication. She also hears all of her advice about living.
It is a sad irony that on a day when Maya is given a new lease on life, Momma punishes her for an accidental error. Maya uses the phrase "by the way," which she has picked up from the white folks. Momma, the fundamentalist, considers only Christ to be "the way." Therefore, anything else that is "by the way" is blasphemous to her, and she will not tolerate her grandmother talking in such a manner.