So, a couple of weeks ago, this happened. And "Mockingbird" fans everywhere rejoiced. I am super-excited about this and can't wait to read it. I have been a huge fan of Harper Lee ever since I first read "Mockingbird," and have read all that I could get my hands on about both the book and its author. (I even read some stuff on Truman Capote, since he was one of the people Ms. Lee called a friend. At least they were friends until the friendship became so detrimental that she had to sever ties. In fact, she was his research assistant on "In Cold Blood", and many people believe she should have gotten co-author credit.) I have read the book about fifty times, and watched the film adaptation several times as well.
This novel was eye-opening for me as a young reader. It was after I read "Mockingbird" that I really began to realize that things like what Harper Lee wrote about actually happened. And that there were good men and women that stood for what was right, no matter the popular opinions of the time. The character of Atticus Finch taught me a lot about standing.
But I feel a connection to this book for another reason. And that is the story I want to tell. The story of the time I meet the author of this great novel.
Back in 2003, I was teaching at the school. My younger sister was in high school at the time, and the principal gave her an opportunity to participate in an essay contest held by the University of Alabama (Harper Lee's alma mater) celebrating the 40th anniversary of "Mockingbird." So, she wrote an essay, and was invited to come to the campus and receive a certificate of recognition for her essay. And a chance to meet Harper Lee. She was allowed to bring one guest, and so she invited me. (Thanks, Little Sis!) I was pretty excited to meet any author, and the fact that she was the author of one of my favorite books was just icing on the cake.
On the day of the ceremony, we left bright and early. We had never been to the campus before, so I wanted to be sure that I could find my way there, find the right building, parking, etc. So we left like 2 hours early to make sure we had a window of time just in case we ran into a problem. (Paranoid much?)
Well, we got turned around once, but we made it to the campus with time to spare. So, we drove over to the building that the ceremony was being held in. It was a big old plantation-style house, with a circular drive. The only problem was I didn't see anywhere to park! We drove around the driveway a couple of times, and then just sort of pulled off to the side at the end of the driveway. I figured that if there was a problem, then someone would let us know, right?.
Anyway, while we were waiting there, (still about twenty minutes early) we noticed a car pulling up, and driving around the circular drive. It stopped, and an older lady got out. We figured that someone was finally here to start the process of telling people where to park and stuff. So, we got out of the car and started meandering toward the front door of the house. (Trying to look like we knew exactly what we were doing!) As, we got closer, we made eye contact with the lady who had driven the car. Being polite Southern ladies, we said "Hey" and "Good morning." Then she asked what we were doing there, and we told her about the essay contest, and asked her if she knew where we should park. She said no, and asked if there was anyone from the university here yet. We said we hadn't seen anyone yet, but that we were a little early. She looked at us and smiled a little smile and said, "Well, I'm Harper Lee."
I think I can be forgiven for not recognizing her right away, since she has always been a private person. She rarely gives interviews, makes appearances, or anything else that may put her in the public spotlight. After I processed what she had said (and closed my mouth), I think I managed to get out a "Well, hi!" or something witty like that. I asked her if the university had sent anyone to meet her, or tell her anything, and she said no. (Really, UA, you have a ceremony to honor one of your most well-known graduates, and you can't even make sure there's a greeter?!) We talked about the parking issue, and she said finally said, "Well, I'm going to park right here, and you can park behind me, and then there won't be a problem, will there." I had to agree with her--I mean, would you tell Harper Lee to move her car?! Not likely! So, we got the cars settled (the whole time I was thinking "Please don't let me rear-end Harper Lee's car!") and she told us to come on into the house. So, of course, we followed her right inside.
When you walked in the front door, it felt like you were entering Tara. Grand sweeping staircase, ornate furniture, oil paintings of people in old clothes, shining hardwood floors with Oriental rugs covering them--everything you could imagine in an old plantation house. But it was absolutely empty! No one was there yet. You could tell they were expecting company, but nobody was home. So, what do we do? Well, Ms. Lee gives us the grand tour, of course!
I am not joking...Harper Lee gave us a tour of this grand old house while we all waited for everyone else to show up! She started by telling us that the house was where the university president had lived at one time. (I believe they live off-campus now.) She told us who was in the pictures, showed us the art work in all the rooms, and gave us the provenance of several of the pieces of furniture in the house! (I guess she knew all this because she was a former student. Or because she was Harper Lee.) I still cannot quite forget the surreal feeling of the whole situation...we are being shown around this old plantation house by one of the most well-known authors in all of America like we are prospective buyers or something! And she was so nice! Just the picture of a Southern lady in her gray pantsuit and purple blouse and sensible shoes. I mean, she looked like an English teacher or librarian or something. And the whole time in my brain I was going "This is Harper Lee. Scout Finch! She won the Nobel prize for Literature. She was friends with Truman Capote. She is saying words, and I want to remember everything she is saying because she is Harper Lee, but I can't because she is Harper Lee!" I know I made some kind of remarks about the things she was showing us, and I think I even asked a couple of questions, but I couldn't tell you what they are because I was just blown away by the whole experience.
Well, finally, after about fifteen minutes, a couple of more people showed up. Ms. Lee kind of retreated into herself...it was almost a visible process. Then somebody (finally) showed up from the university, and the actual event started to get rolling, but I was pretty much done for the day. I mean, we had already gotten to spend one-on-one time with Ms. Lee--how much better could the day have been?! I really could have left right then and been totally satisfied with how it turned out. But, of course, we stayed, had a few snacks, my sister received her certificate, and then things kind of started to wrap up. The ceremony people invited us to come across the way to another building where Ms. Lee would sign books for a few minutes. (Something else she rarely does.) I had like four copies of "Mockingbird" with me for her to sign because all my family are huge fans as well. So we trooped over there, and got in line.
When we made it through the line and I set down my stack of books, Ms. Lee looked up at me over the top of her glasses and asked, "You're not planning on selling these, are you?" I managed to stammer out a "no, ma'am." and she signed all the books for me. (Sell them?! My family members would be lucky if they got them back!!) I was even able to take a picture of her autographing my copy.
So, that is the story of how I met one of my favorite authors. Who totally blew me away with how much she was "like folks" to use a Southern expression. I can't wait to read her newest book, and when I do, I will remember the person behind the story and that will make me enjoy it all the more. :)