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BOOKS / SPEED READ

Strong, Proud and Magnificent Maes

September 25, 1997|CONNIE KOENENN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

There is something about adding "Mae" to a name that gives it a special punch.

When Sharony Andrews Green was a child, from time to time an authority figure, usually a teacher, would call her "Sharony Mae," and it meant it was time for her to sit down. "The adding of this name offered a kinship," Green says. "A kinship with all the women who had gone before both her and me. A kinship with a time when almost any adult in the neighborhood, in the absence of your parent, could get you on the road to obedience with a harsh word. Or a good behind-whupping."

But that's not all it means. Green's own life has been filled with Maes, starting with her grandmother Lillie Mae Golden Earven. Mae was a common name for women a couple of generations ago. Today, Green notes, it has become a term of endearment that one might just tack onto a good friend's name, "like giving someone a big hug."

The name Mae makes people feel safe. Nurtured. "I have heard my grandfather drop Lillie from my grandma's name and just say 'Mae.' He does this when he's a little under the weather or when he wants her to fix him a plate of food."

To honor all these qualities, journalist Green has written and illustrated "Cuttin' the Rug Under the Moonlit Sky: Stories and Drawings About a Bunch of Women Named Mae" (Doubleday/Anchor Books), a collection of 45 affectionate portraits celebrating the strength, pride and exuberance of the black women in her life.

Her Maes span the generations from Cora Mae (just out of school and on the phone to her mother to get her grandmother's recipe for sweet potato pie) to Lillie Mae (who visits her husband on weekends but won't join him because "she say the senior citizen building is for old folks and she ain't old.")

The Maes have grit: Lorraine Mae plans to open a restaurant so she won't have to work for white people all her life; Ella Mae, who supports four children, tried washing and ironing but found "the dollars was in dancing"; Dr. Georgia Mae moved her practice from the suburbs to the inner city, where "they needed a doctor with a conscience."

And the Maes are fearless: April May hid out in a cabin in Maine so she could finish the world's greatest novel, and made herself comfortable even though there was nobody her color for miles and miles around. Freda Mae graduated tops in her class in Greenville, Miss., and headed straight for Cambridge so she could scoot up to Montreal or down to the Big Apple when she felt like it. The big city was more to her liking.

It's almost as if the very name Mae gives them some special permission, writes Green.

Although "Cuttin' the Rug" can be read straight through, the author suggests using it as a psychic tonic when you need a little pickup. No matter what kind of pitfall you're digging out of, chances are you'll find somebody named Mae who already has dealt with it.

* Sharony Andrews Green will be reading and signing books at 7 p.m. Wednesday at Eso Won Book Store, 3655 S. La Brea Ave., Los Angeles.

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