It was as if she was right there watching my halcyon summer walks through the streets of Eatonton, Georgia.
Somehow she knew details of the adventures I shared with my brother and cousins, the visits to the old cemetery (my cousins swore it held the remains of a real witch), the moments spent with the chatter of the AP machines in the lobby of the radio station, each drip of the snow cones purchased at the Little League ballpark.
When Harper Lee introduced me to Scout, Jem, and Atticus Finch in the fictional town of Maycomb, Alabama, I was certain I’d met them all before, been there before. Scout, Jem, and their summertime companion Dil taunted the Radley home, curious yet somewhat frightened by the specter of Boo Radley. For me and my kin, it was the sprawling pre-Civil War mansion next to my grandmother’s home which was haunted, we believed, by the ghost of a woman named Sylvia. Scout and Jem had their friend Dill. My brother and I had our cousins David and Neil B. Neil Bruce Hewitt was named for his father, but instead of going by Neil Jr., he went by Neil B. I’m told most people now refer to him simply as Neil. I still call him Neil B. In Maycomb, most of the entertainment was found at the courthouse, where Atticus Finch performed his duties as a lawyer. For us, in Eatonton, we were most amused when we were investigating the inner workings of the radio station, or the cold hard slab that covered the grave of that alleged witch.
Just like our fictional peers, we had no curfew. There were no restrictions. We hit the streets with pure freedom. Eatonton, Georgia, was, in those days at least, wide open for our exploration. We spent each hour of each sweltering day entertaining ourselves in the most innocent way.
My “what did you do this summer” papers lacked the magic touch of one Harper Lee.
“Men’s stiff collars wilted by nine in the morning,” she wrote. “Ladies bathed before noon, after their three o’clock naps, and by nightfall were like soft teacakes with frostings of sweat and sweet talcum.”
I fell in love the moment I read To Kill a Mockingbird. I fell in love with Maycomb, with Scout and Atticus, and I fell in love with my past. Until she put words to paper, I failed to appreciate the magic in those days spent touring the town that produced my mother and father. It took Harper Lee to convince me that they were among the best days of my life.
In Atticus Finch, I saw traits belonging to my father. Tall. Handsome. Sturdy. We are all equal, no matter race or class. Most of all, I saw in Atticus the same love of his children that my father had for us.
“He turned out the light and went into Jem’s room. He would be there all night, and he would be there when Jem waked up in the morning.”
It’s such a shame we can’t read more Harper Lee. Her other novel, Go Set a Watchman, was written before she’d ascended to literary master. I don’t understand why she didn’t produce more. It’s a shame. She did way more than just spin an interesting yarn. She was a moral voice, whether revealing the ugly side of the segregated south, or the beauty of it in characters who refused to hate. Mostly, she returned to the south a childlike innocence that seems as old and outdated as the Civil War itself. We need that now. More than ever.
We need Harper Lee.
“You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view, until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.”
I loved her words. I loved her characters so much I wanted to name a child Scout. My wife would have nothing of it. She even rejected the idea of using Scout as a middle name for our oldest daughter. I finally got to bestow the moniker on a dog. Scout the dachshund. She was a wanderer. Wouldn’t you know?
Harper Lee’s passing hit me right in the stomach. It was like losing my grip on a glorious youth. Eatonton has changed. Maycomb would, too, if it was real. I’ve changed, and that’s a shame. Never will I be as carefree as I was sitting on the bleachers at a Little League game, the purple juice of a snowcone running down my arm. I can no longer hear the clack of the AP machine above all of the stress.
I need Harper Lee. I need Jem and Scout to take me on one more long walk around the old south. I need to breath in the Magnolias, take a soothing sip of sweet tea, and forget about curfews and deadlines.
Thank you, Harper Lee, for reminding me of such pure, naive times.
Your writing was music, made for us to enjoy. All you did was write your heart out, and you did it for us.
Good night, mockingbird.