When I was little, I remember vividly when E.B. White died. I brought a newspaper article about his death to school to show my teacher, half-expecting we would talk about it as a class or have a moment of mourning. Then and now, authors who have touched my soul reside in a special place in my story-loving heart.
One of these is the reclusive Harper Lee, author of To Kill A Mockingbird, a novel that I read as a soft and impressionable but mature ten year old.
It’s hard to capture in words all that this story meant to me. There are whole passages that I can recall in vivid detail. When I think about heart-piercing moments, there are many in this book, one of which is the beat between Mr. Cunningham and innocent Scout when he squats down next to her and puts his hand on her shoulder and says, “I’ll tell him you said ‘hey’ little lady.”
Then there’s Calpurnia, the unsung hero of the story. While I, too, adore Atticus much in the same way that Scout does, and I can quote his many wise maxims from memory, it is Calpurnia I love and remember as a soul who lived and loved a bicultural existence, my first glimpse in a mirror of what it meant to be bicultural, reflected so vividly in a story.
Cal opened my young eyes to thoughts on the duality of living as a hyphen-American.
Here’s a quote from her on why she talks differently at the Finches (among white folk) than at church (among black folk):
“It’s not necessary to tell all you know…folks don’t like to have somebody around knowin’ more than they do. It aggravates ’em. You’re not gonna change any of them by talkin’ right, they’ve got to want to learn themselves, and when they don’t want to learn there’s nothing you can do but keep your mouth shut or talk their language.”
I remember how the words of this story felt in my head and in my heart. It was as if someone had lightly touched a dimmer switch, and a light was coming on, first as a soft glow and then stronger and brighter with each reread.
One could argue that I know nothing about who this reclusive author really was, but I love her for having touched my life in this way with her words. I am left with a heart filled with unexpressed gratitude for her contribution to literature and to my worldview.
Thank you, Nelle. Rest in peace.