"Maycomb was an old town, but it was a tired old town when I first knew it. In rainy weather the streets turned to red slop; grass grew on the sidewalks, the courthouse sagged in the square. Somehow, it was hotter then: a black dog suffered on a summer’s day; bony mules hitched to Hoover carts flicked flies in the sweltering shade of the live oaks on the square. Men’s stiff collars wilted by nine in the morning. Ladies bathed before noon, after their three-o’clock naps, and by night fall were like soft teacakes with frostings of sweat and sweet talcum."
I was probably ten when I first stepped into Maycomb and felt the drowsy July heat on the back of my neck. The light was different there – hazy and green, filtered through the lace of leaves and pink magnolia blossoms. The air – limpid and thick, sweet with Mimosas and sprinkled with fireflies. I padded barefoot though the soft dirt between the collard greens, shivered in Boo Radley’s shadow, and never wanted to come out again.
I have, in fact, returned every summer, and turning that first page always feels like coming home. Because Harper Lee’s magic is twofold; in reading her, I am transported not only Scout Finch’s childhood, but also to my own. Open the book, and I am curled again on my grandmother’s couch. Sunlight is warped through the multi-paned windows; it throws rainbow prisms across the pages and the maple wood of the coffee table. Through the screen I can hear the indolent hum of bees and the long whistle of a bobwhite; from the kitchen the muted chatter of conversation. Water droplets traverse the length of my pink lemonade glass and Scout’s honeyed voice is as Southern as Brer Rabbit.
Anyone who denies the power of the written word has not read To Kill a Mockingbird.
Whenever the cynical half of my soul decries the value of an author career, I have only to remember the ten year old on the couch soaking Harper Lee into her soul the way sun tea takes on color. This woman’s words made me want to fashion my own; to create from sheer nothingness a world as layered and nuanced as the one I inhabited seemed a magic beyond comprehension, and I knew, even then, that I would have to try.
I’m still trying, and even on my most wretched day I’m forced to admit how much I love the by-now familiar process. Words, you see, are a gift.
"Since Atlanta, she had looked out the dining-car window with a delight almost physical. Over her breakfast coffee, she watched the last of Georgia’s hills recede and the red earth appear, and with it tin roofed houses set in the middle of swept yards, and in the yards the inevitable verbena grew, surrounded by whitewashed yards."
I can see it, can’t you? Harper Lee is back, blowing through our lives like the sweetest Alabama breeze, whispering in our ears, bringing with her the all of the old magic. Never, ever, has a sequel been more anticipated.
My copy of Go Set a Watchman has been ordered and should be arriving in the mail any day now, at which time I’ll be off the radar for a bit.
I’m going back to Maycomb.
We put our flag away the weekend after Memorial Day, and here we are, unfurling it again on this gorgeous lavender evening, twilight hour thick with lightning bugs and the smell of fresh -cut grass. Down the block someone sets off a bottle rocket – whine and pop, laughter – and through the open screen I can hear the Jimi Hendrix version of the Star Spangled Banner. When we wrestle the flag pole into its bracket, the brilliant stars and stripes are glorious against the smooth purple sky.
It’s good to be here, isn’t it? Here, barefooted in my front yard in the middle of my town in the middle of my country.
And I love tonight – the carnival lights and the stink of spent firecrackers, the facepaint, the music, and all the rowdy raucous hullaballoo that is so us.
So noisily, uniquely American.
Here, tonight, we won’t question ourselves. Let’s not bemoan our property taxes, the healthcare system or illegal immigration. Instead, let’s remember who we are, where we came from. We the people. The first ever, anywhere, to believe that a dream could be shaped into a government and made to work not just for a few, but for all. We the people who absolutely could not wear the cloak of oppression, could never bow before a king or accept a class system. We the people made up of different religions, colors and ethnicities but yes, all us. All American.
Tonight, we’ll cheer about that. We’ll sing about a flag that waves in every hollow, on every mountain, across the prairie of this, our home.
Happy birthday to us – may we never take us for granted.
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