Friday, February 6, 2015

...of ghosts and mockingbirds and Miss Nelle Harper Lee

I lived in Alabama for thirty years. Yet, when people asked where I was "from", I inevitably answered "Georgia". The reason is complex as any discussion of home can be. Many of my ancestors, as well as the settlers of Dublin, Georgia, where I grew up, were Irish. A six-month stint in Ireland was an immersion into the etymology of my southern vocabulary. Words and phrases from my past came to life in conversations there. Ask an Irishman for directions and he'll tell you to "turn left past the fillin' station". Actually he'll tell you to walk past "where Lianna's used to be", then add, "See the "fillin' station down there?" When you nod, he'll say, "Don't go there." Fifteen statements later, he's invited you to drop by his pub, suggested a side trip or three, and told you about the woman who lives across the street ("It's a sad story, for sure, Mary's life is. She's a drinker, you know. As we speak, she's in the church, confessin'."). You may not be any closer to finding the B&B but somehow you don't care.

If I had a potato for every time we encountered that popular southern query, "Where are your people from?", I'd make a big salad and invite you to dinner.  Jane would answer that her grandmother hailed from County Clare and her grandfather from Waterford. Then I would say that I wasn't sure where my grandmother's people lived in Ireland. Heads would cock slightly, an eyebrow would lift a bit. And I would quickly add that they immigrated in the 1820's and records were scarce. Heads would nod in sympathy. "Well, what was the family name?" "Day," I'd reply. The Days, I would learn again and again, were originally O'Days, "but they dropped the "O", don't you know, because of the British." [Insert scowl. At this point, I made a mental note not to call attention to my English ancestors.]

This brings me to To Kill A Mockingbird and the uproar over Harper Lee's to-be-published, Go Set the Watchman. I suppose those who live outside the south see this as either a non-issue or the latest conspiracy theory. But for those of us who grew up in TKAM country, this story is personal at many levels, from racism and poverty to Bear Bryant and Atticus Finch. This is a tale of who we were and who we have become,  a walk through a familiar, personal wilderness that both discomfits and affirms.

I was twelve when I read The Book - the experience a string of Aha! moments and shame - and met my people. The Ewells represented everything I detested about my birthplace. I encounteed Tom Robinson in those pages, knew him more intimately than I could have in real life. Scout and Jem were familiar characters in my world. Almost everyone I knew loved a Boo. Mine was an older distant cousin, a gentle wisp of a woman, brilliant but hidden away in a dark house filled with old history books and newspapers. I loved her sweet, quiet voice, her bookish ways, and knew that most around me missed the essence of her. But not my Daddy. My Atticus. He loved her and taught me to respect her before I'd ever met her. She was set apart in that small community. Depending on the speaker, she was either crazy or a witch. My father said, "She's from another time." Then he added, "And you're going to love each other." He was right. For too few precious meetings, we did. She remains fresh in my memory and even now, in quiet moments, I can see her pale blue eyes and long grey hair pulled loosely back into a chignon of sorts. She wore long, soft dresses of voile and fine lawn and white cotton gowns and told me stories of history and places I longed to see. The bookish nature in me met the bookish nature in her and I felt less alone.

Perhaps southerners are in a stew over this latest book news because this is, for us, a family thing. We've seen our old people taken advantage of by those who prosper from their misfortune and weakness. For every Atticus, there is a wheeler-dealer whose public face and private actions don't match. And then there's Bear Bryant. When we moved to Birmingham, Patrick was fifteen months old. I remember a conversation with his pediatrician who talked about the economic contrast between Georgia and Alabama. With the exception of the bigger cities - Birmingham, Mobile and Huntsville - much of the state had long offered little in the way of a living wage for the majority of its citizens. This, he said, explained the draw of Bear Bryant. Pride. Countless Bama fans never attended university. Many never finished high school. But Bear, the southern Everyman with a good-old-boy swagger, gave Alabama bragging rights. Fans who claimed allegiance to a school they had never attended were lifted from the realm of poor white trash to the ranks of The Elected by association.

For others, Miss Lee's book shouted, "See! We're not all racists." But prejudice exists in all of us, sometimes in dangerously subtle ways. And anger abides in those who yet hold dear the Confederacy. We southerners are, to a degree, the Middle East with a drawl. I've often thought of the significance of the assassination of President Lincoln and wondered how he would have structured Reconstruction. I'll never know but I have my suspicions.

So why did I claim Georgia thirty years after leaving? Why, for all those years, did I feel a bit of an outsider in a state where so many good friends live?  Part of the answer rests in my own story and has little to do with geography. An uglier admission is that I wanted to distance myself from the front-page bombings and Bull Connor brutality even though my home state was every bit as dead-set on matters of race and segregation. [Vs. 2, "Hear me, o children: do NOT be prideful." I do not always take my own advice first time around.]

This latest news is an amalgamation of contradictions and pride, much like Miss Harper Lee, she of New York City and Monroeville, Alabama. Not a recluse but private, she mirrors the Boo in each of us, the ghostly wounded soul. She has chosen not to air her hurts but to live honestly...and all whose frailty remains masked feel less alone in their vulnerability. She modeled Atticus after her own father and her heart is found in these words: "Miss Jean Louise...Miss Jean Louise, stand up. Your father is passing." Southern girls who love their daddies are apt to quote this at the drop of a hat and shed a tear.

We may never know the truth of how this new/old book was launched. But for those of us who met ourselves in the pages of her classic book, the events are personal. We are in the wilderness with her. With the death of Alice, Harper Lee's fiercely protective sister and attorney, and the sudden, coincidental discovery of a long-lost manuscript, the timing seems suspect. Because we fear that, with Alice's death, another Atticus has departed and no one is left to keep Miss Lee - or us - safe. We are all vulnerable, never more so than as infants and then again in old age, and we fill our in-between years with dread. We borrow trouble and foolishly mourn in advance the loss of dignity and independence. We, not so foolishly but perhaps prematurely, declare a pox on those who would profit from another's infirmity. And the whispers gather, calling us to remember and cry out. It's a sin to kill a mockingbird.