Harper Lee and saying goodbye

TKAM 3

Today Harper Lee died. In a way I feel like my mother, who died in September of last year, was lost all over again.

The emotions and memories that tie me to my mama have deep roots in the world of Harper Lee. My childhood, and hers, was very much like the one Lee described in To Kill A Mockingbird. I have always loved this description of Maycomb, it was the world of my mama and her mama, it was my young life’s rhythm:

Maycomb was a tired old town, even in 1932 when I first knew it. Somehow, it was hotter then. Men’s stiff collars wilted by nine in the morning. Ladies bathed before noon after their three o’clock naps. And by nightfall were like soft teacakes with frosting from sweating and sweet talcum. The day was twenty-four hours long, but it seemed longer. There’s no hurry, for there’s nowhere to go and nothing to buy…and no money to buy it with.

My childhood was lived to the cadence of my mother’s voice reading. From the time I was tiny until I left for college mama read to us. She read to inspire, to educate, to challenge, to infuse our world with beauty. There were hard years and rough places in our relationship, but words endured. Even after I’d left home and had my own family mama and I would read the same books and discuss them together.

The summer I was 17 she read To Kill A Mockingbird to us. I think it was actually my brother’s summer reading assignment for school, but she read it aloud to all of us. I stretched out at the foot of her oak sleigh bed and listened to her voice carry us to a different time. The window AC unit beat back the heat and dried the sweat collecting in the creases of our knees and elbows. It was an oasis.

I have to pause in the writing of this post because my middle school son just came downstairs and asked me to come read to him. Mama would be pleased the tradition of loving books lives on in my family.

As I was saying, her voice transported us to another place. I met some of the most important people I’ve known in Mockingbird’s pages. Scout, the curious barefoot girl who came alive as she saw the world through the eyes of others; Atticus, the father who didn’t know he was a hero to all of us; and Boo, the mockingbird who saw what no one else saw, and sang what no one else sang.

We all have our favorites in the story. I think mama’s was Atticus. He was the father she didn’t have. The father she wished she’d had. The father she adopted and needed. My brother and sister can speak to their favorites. My favorite is Boo. I hadn’t thought about it until now but I’ve been looking for Boo ever since. The mockingbirds of our society who don’t hurt a thing but often don’t fit in, and sadly, too often, are wounded.

A friend told me once that mockingbirds sometimes sing at midnight. One night I heard it, the strangest, sweetest sound in the pitch black. You can only hear a mockingbird sing at midnight if you wake up, and listen. The world too often sleeps through the song.

When the world said goodbye to Harper Lee today part of me said goodbye to mama, all over again.

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