“I was living in the projects with Mona Lisa on my wall.”
Fifteen years ago, a woman in a grocery store parking lot gave me a copy of To Kill a Mockingbird that was on its way to a church rummage sale. While placing bags in her car, I gushed that the book in her trunk was the reason I became a writer.
I was 22, making $7.25 an hour stocking shelves and handing out cheese samples. I’m sure I went on and on to this poor woman about my love of Atticus Finch and how he was the father everyone wished they'd had and Scout the girl we all knew ourselves to be. Each bag I placed in her car had three-minute intervals of literary theory. I can get a bit dramatic, evident by this next fact.
The woman handed the book to me and said, "Well then, you should have it.”
“By the way, it's signed by the author."
She was either impressed by my enthusiasm or desperately trying to shut me up. Probably the latter. I almost dropped her organic cage-free eggs.
It was a sunny day in Los Angeles (like all of them really), the kind that is pleasant in its warmth but painful to look in the face. Having left the fluorescents of the store, I was still adjusting to the natural world like a diver reaching the surface. It was disorienting: the woman’s expression, the book, all illuminated under the smoggy hue of the San Gabriel mountains —the City of Angels.
The parking lot was on a severe slope, so I was holding the shopping cart with my foot as I opened the book to the title page. It was not only signed by the author, but included an inscription to what appeared to be a young boy. I squinted in the sun to read the passage.
For crawling around in the courtroom; for trotting five pounds off the author; for being your apple-cheeked, cheerful loving self! With admiration and affection, Harper Lee (Nelle to you!)
The tone of the inscription was Harper Lee’s voice. I knew because I’d read the first chapter of To Kill a Mockingbird a thousand times. It was my cure for writer’s block, the antidote to generic thought. Whenever I needed inspiration, I’d take her book off the shelf and read passages like this one:
“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 nightfall were like soft teacakes with frostings of sweat and sweet talcum.”
It is her tone that immediately transports the reader to Maycomb, Alabama, a fictitious town based on Monroeville, Alabama, where Lee grew up. Her story needs no introduction. In that first chapter, you are there. And even though I’d never traveled to this town, I felt I’d lived there all my life.
Lee once said, “Introductions inhibit pleasure, they kill the joy of anticipation, they frustrate curiosity. The only good thing about introductions is that in some cases, they deal the dose to come.” And in her case, what a dose to come.
I knew this inscription was written by the woman who wrote my favorite book — everyone’s favorite book. It was like hearing my sister’s voice on the phone.
Let me be clear: I have never met Harper Lee. I don’t know her at all, and I’m sure she would be the first person to scold me for assuming so much. But she comes through like a hologram on the page. Here I am — Scout, a tree-climbing, tough-as-nails, sweet-as-molasses-on cornbread girl from Monroeville, Alabama. Harper Lee (Nelle to you!).
I swear I know her.
And standing in the Trader Joe’s parking lot, I knew I couldn’t take this book.
I handed it back to the customer, shaking my head, saying, “no,” like she had just given me her newborn and said, “Off you go then!” I didn’t deserve this. All I did was carry bags to her car. And I almost broke her incredibly expensive but respectfully cage-free and organically produced eggs.
Did she know what she was giving me? If she told this story to a friend, would they smack her and say, “You gave what away?” But that day, under the ruthless sun, a total stranger just seemed happy to give another total stranger a gift that meant something. She wouldn’t take no for an answer.
I took the book, said thank you, and stared down at the holy grail of American literature in the middle of a Trader Joe’s parking lot, my foot holding a shopping cart from rolling down a steep hill.
Thirteen years went by with the book on my shelf. People would often ask me what I was going to do with it. And to me it was the equivalent of someone walking into your apartment, petting your dog, and saying, “So when you putting the old boy down?”
What do you mean, what will I do with it? I’m going to keep it.
It was the only thing I had of value. I owned nothing new. Cars, furniture, jewelry —everything in my life was acquired second hand. But I had this one masterpiece. It was like living in the projects with Mona Lisa on my wall.
Somehow, having the book on my shelf, I felt like a better person. I owned a little bit of history from a woman who changed the world. I not only had her words, but her handwriting, and a personal message to someone she clearly adored. A message to Henry.
I had wanted to change the world, to leave my mark as a writer, but life had other plans. Like Harper Lee, I’d known the confines of a small town could not carry the weight of big dreams. And I had big dreams.
By age 20, I’d had two plays produced in New York and was offered a playwriting scholarship by a well-known screenwriter. The day after graduation, I moved from Iowa to California, certain I was the next Nora Ephron.
Love changes every story, for better or worse. And my hubris was bigger than my talent, in epic proportions. So, instead of selling million-dollar screenplays, I worked at a Trader Joe’s and then at an Indian Restaurant, a theatre for the deaf, as a nanny, as a researcher, and personal assistant, all the while pursuing a career as a writer.
Just as I had one foot in Hollywood, holding it from going down a steep hill, my husband and I learned we were pregnant. I was thrilled to be a mother and positive that after a brief break, I would be back in meetings with TV execs.
Plot twist: When my daughter was 4 months old, she stopped gaining weight, turned pale, and looked like a porcelain doll or frail child in an Elizabethan portrait. After a battery of tests, we learned our sweet Adelaide had Cystic Fibrosis. We were told that at best she could live to 40; at worst, the unthinkable. One world ended and another began.
With my daughter’s birth, I had accepted gratefully that my life would change. My dream of writing for everyone’s favorite television show would morph into sweeping up Cheerios and wiping bums. I could handle a detour, a postponement, a pause. But this was not just a chapter in a book. It was the whole book. This was us. I was not going to be a writer.
I was going to keep my kid alive.
It’s strange how a dream, something you wanted longer than you can ever remember wanting, overnight means nothing. Nothing. Just poof.
With Adelaide’s daily respiratory treatments, hospitalizations, and health insurance battles, time for anything other than survival seemed frivolous. I questioned: Maybe my story was not to tell a story but to live a story. Maybe that was good enough. Just be in the moment, rather than recording it.
Soon after Adelaide’s diagnosis, my marriage fell apart. As my world was crumbling down around me, I remember picking up To Kill a Mockingbird and, perhaps a little mawkish, reasoning that I was meant to have this. I would probably never write a novel translated into 40 languages or win the Pulitzer Prize for literature. Like most writers, I would need a day job, with writing existing more as an obsessive hobby, than a career. But having this book was hope — tangible, at-my-fingertips hope that someday I, too, would tell a great story.
No introductions, no transitions — like Harper Lee managed on that first page. One minute you’re in Maycomb, Alabama, or Iowa, and the next in New York or Los Angeles. No time for questions. No time for, “How the hell did we end up here?” You are now the parent of a child with major health issues. You are now a single mother. You are now here.
All I could do was set the tone and try to make it beautiful.
Nelle Harper Lee grew up in Monroeville, Alabama, the fourth child of A.C. and Frances Lee. Her name was derived from the backwards spelling of her grandmother’s name, Ellen, but Harper came from an unlikely place. And the story of her namesake has given me an even deeper connection to Nelle.
Much has been said about Nelle’s mother, Frances Finch. She was described as having a “nervous disorder,” but childhood friend Truman Capote went as far as saying she tried to drowned her children in the bathtub. It was that comment, among other fabrications, that later ended the friendship between the writers. Little was understood at the time of mental illness, but it is believed her condition was brought on, or at least exacerbated by her daughter’s illness. Shortly after Frances’s second child Louise was born, she was diagnosed with failure-to-thrive. Just like my Adelaide.
Alice Lee, the oldest of the siblings said, “Louise was not getting any nourishment and she was crying twenty-four hours a day and she was losing weight. Mother thought she was losing her baby and also did not get any rest. She could not get away from that crying child. Well, you see, what was happening, the baby was starving to death and the doctors there did not know what was wrong.”
The family visited a specialist by the name of Dr. William W. Harper. He prescribed a special formula that saved Louise’s life. But the aftermath of having a sick child, of having no answers, pushed Frances over the edge. For the next year, she sought mental health treatment in Mobile, Alabama, while the children were cared for by their grandmother in Finchburg.
Ten years later, Harper was named after the doctor who saved her sister’s life.
It is one thing to have something wrong with your child, it is another not to know what that something is. It is enough to make anyone “crazy.” A mother’s first obligation is to feed and nourish her baby. From the moment the child is born, they are taken them from her body and put her to her breast. It is expected. It is natural. And if something goes wrong, there is no one in-between to take the blame. When a child is failure-to-thrive, the doctor immediately looks to the mother. What is she doing wrong?
For almost a month, we did not know what was wrong with Adelaide. I was nursing all day long but nothing was enough. Milk went right through her, like a baby doll I had as a child — you fed it a bottle and it instantly came out into a little cloth diaper.
When I called the nurse at our Pediatrician’s office, she laughed and said all babies eat constantly. When I explained I was nursing my child every few minutes, the doctor said, “All babies are different.”
By her fourth month, a good friend of mine called and said, “Addie doesn’t look right.” It was like being punched in the gut, confirming what I had felt, what I knew, and what our doctor had ignored.
We met with a new Pediatrician, who took one look at my daughter and cancelled his appointments for the rest of the day. I will never forget that moment; he looked me right in the eyes, without any blame and said, “We’re going to figure this out together.”
And we did, and it was awful. But we had an answer. Just like Louise, Adelaide was starving.
After Addie was admitted to the hospital, we learned the situation was even more dire than we’d thought. Her kidneys and liver had suffered from malnourishment. The Pulmonologist explained that Addie needed a blood transfusion and she may not live through it. I immediately called my husband to tell him the news. There were several medical students on their rounds watching me as I held Addie in my arms and was sobbing into the phone, “They said she could die! They said she could die!”
I remember locking eyes with one student and he was terrified. I could hear my voice in my head and it was the frantic screech of a rabbit being carried away by a coyote. I’d known that sound from growing up in Iowa—the howl of one’s heart breaking. At that moment I was capable of anything. I was crazy.
I had failed at the most basic task of keeping my child alive. When faced with the death of my baby, I could have easily been hospitalized like Frances. Fortunately, depression and trauma were better understood in 2005, than in 1916. I was not only able to handle my daughter’s illness, but maintain my own.
Frances was also a brilliant pianist and instilled a love of music and literature in her children. But that is not the story most often told. It is that she was “crazy,” because crazy is much easier to explain than the complicated, interwoven tapestry of motherhood.
Lee’s father, A.C. Lee was an attorney who dreamed of his daughters following in his litigious footsteps. But Nelle had other plans. After attending law school for one semester, she dropped out, and joined Truman Capote in New York City to pursue her dream as a writer. Capote helped find her a job in a bookstore, and then for an airline, but the low-paying positions left her with little time to write and little money to live.
It was through Capote that Nelle would meet two people whose generosity led to the writing of To Kill a Mockingbird: a composer by the name of Michael Martin Brown and his wife, Joy Williams Brown. Nelle was introduced to Michael during the rehearsals of a Broadway musical, House of Flowers. Over the next two years, Nelle and the Browns developed a close friendship and mutual admiration of literature, art, music, and theatre.
In 1956, Michael and Joy invited Nelle to spend Christmas with them. In past years, Nelle traveled back to Alabama for the holidays, but this year, her employer insisted she stay close. It was a good thing she did.
Michael’s career had prospered, and he and Joy were living comfortably in the city with two young boys. Knowing Nelle could not afford to purchase gifts for Christmas, they maintained only bargain gifts could be exchanged. Never one to enjoy conventional shopping, or conventional anything, Nelle was thrilled to present gifts that took a year in the collecting—for Michael, a portrait of Sydney Smith, the 18th century founder of the Edinburgh Review and for Joy, a complete set of Lady Margot Asquith’s works. After all the presents had been opened, some time passed without any mention of Nelle’s gift. She was trying not to show her disappointment when Joy said, “We haven’t forgotten you.”
On the Christmas tree was an envelope. Nelle opened the card and read:
“You have one year off from your job to write whatever you please. Merry Christmas.”
Nelle’s confidence in her writing was not a risk she wanted her friends taking. She tried convincing them of that—to no avail.
We just want you to accept, they said. Just permit us to believe in you. You must, they said. They wouldn’t take “no” for an answer.
Nelle accepted the gift and later in 1961, wrote in McCalls, that the gesture was “Not given to me by an act of generosity, but an act of love.”
When I read about this gift she was given, by friends who believed in her, who said that she “wasn’t a risk, but a sure thing,” I couldn’t help but think of the woman in the parking lot. She didn’t know me from Adam, couldn’t have known if I could write, if my dream was worth exploring. But by expressing my passion for To Kill a Mockingbird, she gave me something that helped foster that dream.
It was in that year, that year of writing “whatever she pleased,” that Nelle Harper Lee wrote a book that would shape civil rights, win the Pulitzer Prize for literature, and be named the Best Novel of the Century by Library Journal.
Maybe Nelle would have written To Kill a Mockingbird piecemeal over the years, but would it have been the same? Its publication came at the height of the Civil Rights Movement and racial tensions—a story told through the eyes of a little white girl in the South where a black man stood accused of rape. If it had come before, would the world have been ready? And if it came after, would the world have cared? It was the perfect book at the perfect time. And it began as an act of love.
I had never considered selling my autographed copy of To Kill a Mockingbird. But life took yet another strange and drastic turn. Soon after my divorce, my ex-husband stopped paying child support. I had almost full custody, and Adelaide’s health care expenses consumed a third of my income. Her therapies and appointments prevented me from working a full-time job that would offer benefits. I was in an abusive relationship and did not have the money to leave.
Once again, my best-laid plan was like preventing a shopping cart from rolling down a steep hill.
I owned two items of value: my engagement ring, and and my book. I’d promised the ring, a family heirloom, to my daughter. With Cystic Fibrosis, comes a shortened lifespan; holding this ring for Adelaide was a promise that one day she would live to be old enough to marry. I could never sell it. But the book? I didn’t have a choice.
I started researching how much my copy would garner. Every auction house, book dealer, and antiquarian, although intrigued, asked the same question:
“Who was Henry?”
They contended that if I could figure out the identity of Henry, I would be in possession of not only a gem, but a story. And there is nothing more enticing for fans of To Kill a Mockingbird than a great story.
Who was Henry? I didn’t know, but I had to find out. Even if the answer meant losing Harper Lee.
I researched every cast and crew member from the 1962 film to see if any of the child actors were named Henry. Jem was played by a Phillip Alford, Dill by John Megna. No Henrys. I then researched the siblings of the child actors. No Henrys. I searched the names of the children of all the producers, the writer, director, executives, and actors. No Henrys. I read everything I could about Harper Lee’s life, wondering if in her personal life she befriended a child named Henry. But it was as if there were an abnormal absence of Henrys in her life.
What if I did find him? This child who trotted five pounds off the author, who crawled around the courtroom on what I imagined was the set of the film To Kill a Mockingbird, bumping into the knees of Gregory Peck, perhaps swinging on the tire swing in the Finches’ yard.
And then a paralyzing solicitude knocked the wind out of me. What if Henry wanted it back? I’d assumed that because the book was on its way to a church rummage sale, the owner was somehow at fault, negligent for having misplaced or given away a book signed by one of America’s most beloved writers.
But what if he had prized it and this was a terrible mistake? What if all the years I’d treasured this find, he was mourning a significant loss?
The thought of parting with this book froze my research. I didn’t want to know. I couldn’t give Harper Lee away. I was not the kind and generous woman in a Trader Joe’s parking lot who just gave a stranger the a gift of a lifetime. No, I was the woman who took the book. It wasn’t with rapacious intent, but now that I’d had it for years, showed it to friends, discussed it at dinner parties, kept it as my dearest treasure, I wasn’t sure I wanted to know who the original owner had been.
Harper Lee once said in an interview that we were wrong to assume the character of Scout was based on her. That, in fact, she related more to Boo, the recluse neighbor who cowers from his neighbors but comes out of hiding to protect the children—the silent hero who saves the day but takes no credit.
After promoting To Kill a Mockingbird, Nelle had hidden from the spotlight, refusing interviews and public forums. It was as if she were living in the shadows of herself —the neighbor who didn’t want to be part of the story, but rather watch it unfold from behind a chifferobe. And after coming out and saving the day, she went back to the quiet confines of a small town, where it all began.
Maybe she was Boo. Maybe I hadn’t known her after all. Not really. And if I had been wrong about Nelle’s character, maybe I was wrong about Henry as well. Maybe he wasn’t a little boy on the set of the film.
Nothing was simple about Harper Lee. But if I were to find Henry, first I would have to understand Nelle.
Nelle seemed to live a life of contradictions, seeking attention while simultaneously rejecting it. At the University of Alabama, she joined a sorority but never quite fit in, smoking a pipe and playing golf rather than primping and attending dances. She attempted law school to please her father but dropped out to move to New York, making her own footsteps rather than following in someone else’s. She couldn’t wait to leave Monroeville, yet she wrote her best-selling book based on the home she’d fled. Rejecting and embracing, giving in and holding fast—she was not easily defined, and for a writer, that can be an unforgivable quality.
I don’t believe any author throughout literary history has been met with a reaction that could be described as vitriol for not writing again. It’s as if she owed us. She gave us something perfect, and then decided that was it. That was all we were getting.
Why was it so personal? After rereading To Kill a Mockingbird as an adult, I realized why it was personal to me. I was Scout, a tomboy who believed in my father, who tormented my older sibling, who’d swung from a tire swing and spied on the neighbors, who wanted more than anything in the world for life to be fair. And not writing again was like withholding the rest of our story. How does it end? Who do we become? What happens to us?
It was personal. She was such an adept writer, she’d convinced us that we were one of her characters and that she was one, too.
The answer of Henry’s identity came a year ago. It was a sunny day in Los Angeles (like all of them really), similar to the one when I acquired the book. It was as if no time had passed—a city without seasons to mark the years going by. No introductions, no transitions. Los Angeles is the perfect place for telling a story, a basic backdrop, white scrim, blank slate on which to add the details: snow, rain, wind, words, characters, story. It is why the producers of the film To Kill a Mockingbird decided to re-create Monroeville in Hollywood, rather than filming in Alabama. It proved easier starting from scratch than remodeling what was already there. Sometimes it’s simpler to start over than to restore what one already has. Just set the tone and try to make it beautiful.
Fifteen years after receiving the book, I walked out the door of our little California bungalow, reciting the inscription to myself. Like a little song:
For crawling around in the courtroom; for trotting five pounds off the author; for being your apple-cheeked, cheerful loving self! With admiration and affection, Harper Lee (Nelle to you!)
Crawling around the courtroom. Crawling around the courtroom. Apple-cheeked. Nelle to you.
I ran back inside, grabbed my computer, and typed the name Henry Bumstead. A picture popped up of a robust man with ruddy and childlike cheeks, standing next to Harper Lee, their arms around one another like old friends. He had a huge smile on his face as if he had told a joke seconds before the camera went snap.
But he wasn’t a boy.
Henry Bumstead, or Bummy, as he was known, won the Oscar for his set design of the 1962 film version of To Kill a Mockingbird.
Somehow I’d missed it. I’d known who he was, of course, but had assumed the inscription was to a child and had quickly crossed him off my list of Henrys.
Crawling around the courtroom. Crawling around the courtroom.
He wasn’t a toddler, a child crawling under tables and knocking knees with Gregory Peck. He was a set designer, on his hands and knees measuring the courthouse of Monroeville, Alabama, in order to build the replica in Los Angeles.
It was the same historic courthouse where Harper Lee’s father had once defended two black men accused of murder and the courthouse where Atticus Finch would defend Tom Robinson, as the children and black citizens of Maycomb peered down at an all-white jury.
To Kill a Mockingbird was a fictional story, but it was thought to have been inspired by two cases that took place in the exact same courtroom. And Henry Bumstead designed the replica, to the centimeter.
In 1919, Nelle’s father, A.C. Lee, defended two black men accused of murder. It would become a taboo story in the Lee household when Nelle was a young girl.
Lee was in his late 20s at the time, an inexperienced attorney defending his first criminal case, representing a black father and son accused of murdering a white storekeeper. It was similar to To Kill a Mockingbird in that it was a circumstantial case with little evidence and judged by an all-white jury. Despite Lee’s efforts, the men were convicted and hanged, their bodies mutilated and sent to the victim’s family. After such a devastating loss, A.C. Lee never accepted another criminal case.
Like most stories of racial injustice, this case was shoved under the rug of polite Southern dinner conversation. Perhaps the fact that it was rarely discussed in her own home spurred Nelle’s desire to bring stories like this into the light—to speak of the unspoken, to give words to the silent.
A.C. Lee would possibly feel some vindication from the guilt he felt over losing the case in 1919. Years later, as editor and publisher of the Monroe Journal, his name was one of the “many leading citizens of Monroe County” who called for clemency for another case—a 1933 trial that To Kill a Mockingbird was thought to have been based on. It was a rape involving a white woman, Naomi Lowery, and a black man by the name of Walter Lett. Although Lett claimed he had never met Naomi and was working at another location at the time of the rape, he was charged and convicted and sentenced to death by electrocution. The case caused a stir, as many people did not believe the guilty verdict brought down by the jury of 12 white men. Because of the public outcry and the political prowess of A.C. Lee, the governor commuted Lett’s sentence to life imprisonment.
As an inexperienced attorney in the 1919 case, A.C. Lee was unable to penetrate the racial prejudice of the times in rural Alabama. But years later, his political position in the community was not able to right a wrong, but lessen the severity of injustice. Sadly, it was too late for Lett to escape death. After living on death row and hearing the electrocutions of six fellow inmates, Lett suffered a mental breakdown and spent the rest of his life in a mental hospital.
Like her character Scout, Nelle Harper Lee learned from a very young age that justice was rarely carried out, and most stories were without a happy ending.
It was in this courthouse, in Monroeville, Alabama, where A.C. Lee defended two black men sentenced to death, the same courthouse where Lett stood trial, and the same courthouse Henry Bumstead replicated for the 1962 film To Kill a Mockingbird. It was art imitating life. Harper Lee wrote the book, and Henry Bumstead set the background.
When Henry Bumstead came to Monroeville, Alabama, in November of 1961, to do research for the film, it was Nelle herself who gave him a personal tour of her hometown.
They spent a day with Nelle at the wheel, showing Henry her world. They would stop for Henry to take pictures and scribble notes. They spent a large amount of the day at the courthouse, measuring and taking photos. Nelle explained that the courthouse should include a block of ice at the exterior for people to chip off a piece and keep cool during long proceedings. While driving through the neighborhoods, Henry told Nelle that he had never eaten Collared greens and had no inclination as to what they even were. She immediately pulled the car over, walked into a neighbor’s garden, and schooled him on Southern cuisine. Toward the end of their visit, Nelle commented on how Henry must be a camel, because they didn’t stop once to use the restroom or get something to eat.
About this visit with Nelle, Henry Bumstead wrote in a letter to producer Alan Pakula (dated November 1961):
“Harper Lee was here to meet me and she is a most charming person. She insisted I call her Nelle—feels like I’ve known her for years. Little wonder she was able to write such a warm and successful novel. … Nelle is really amused at my picture taking and also my taking measurements so that I can duplicate the things I see. She said she didn’t know we worked so hard. This morning she greeted me with, “I lost five pounds yesterday following you around taking pictures of doorknobs, houses, wagons, Collards, etc. — can we take time for lunch today?”
It was this letter that confirmed the identity of Henry. She insisted he call her Nelle (Nelle to you!). He said she lost five pounds following him around while he took photos. (trotting five pounds off the author). This was Henry.
I sat down hard at my desk.
I had a copy of To Kill a Mockingbird that was signed by Harper Lee to her friend Henry Bumstead, who had won an Oscar for his set design of a film that won Best Picture. It was a book that not only changed the world, but also meant the world.
I’d found Henry. But now I could lose Harper. Nelle to me.
After the dust of To Kill a Mockingbird settled, Lee moved back to Monroeville, Alabama to live with her older sister Alice. She kept her apartment in NY, but spent half of every year in her hometown. As hard as she tried to escape her humble beginnings, she was tethered to her roots, her sister, her town.
There is always a tipping point that ultimately makes the decision, whether to stay or go, follow a dream or accept the reality. This was mine.
My partner and I were in a relentless ferris wheel of fighting—up and down, circular and nauseating. In one argument, I placed my hands over my ears while he screamed at me. Enraged at my defiance, he climbed on top of my body, and held my hands against my chest. I could feel his weight crushing my breath. He was more than twice my size. He could do anything and he knew it. His face was not only angry, but contained a satisfaction that frightened me more than not being able to breathe. He was enjoying this.
He wanted to make me feel small. But it was that moment I realized how important I was. I was a mother. And I had to stay alive to keep my daughter alive. This was not the first time he’d pushed me down or used his size to intimidate me. He’d often walk by and move me out of his way like a gorilla asserting dominance or throw furniture across the living room. He would go days without speaking to me or my daughter, pretending like we weren’t even there. We only existed on his terms. And I realized now it was escalating, each argument building to something I feared would be irrevocable.
After all incidents verbal or physical, he would act like nothing happened, Mr. Hyde went back to being Dr. Jekyll again. No harm done.
After he got off of me, he made a drink, and read the New Yorker, as if nothing had happened. I sat down at my computer and emailed an antiquarian to see if he’d like to purchase my copy of To Kill a Mockingbird.
Halfway through my email, I could feel his body behind me, as he breathed, “I hope you’re not doing anything stupid.”
I closed my computer and said, “Of course not.”
And I wasn’t. I was doing the first smart thing I’d done in a long time. I was getting out and I hoped Harper Lee could help me.
With the news of Harper Lee releasing her sequel, Go Set a Watchman, and the controversy that those representing her could be taking advantage of her elderly cognitive state, I knew I couldn’t write to her. Harper Lee’s words would live forever, but she wouldn’t. I did not want to be one of the thousands who wanted something from her, to rehash a time in her life, that she likely put to bed 50 years ago. But I did want to tell a story of friendship, of love and loss, of giving and still wanting more.
The day Go Set a Watchman was released, I purchased the book and could not put it down. It was not To Kill a Mockingbird, but I knew it wouldn’t be. And secretly I was glad it wasn’t. I wanted To Kill a Mockingbird to remain an enigma, something irreplaceable, perfect. Part of me would have been heartbroken if it had surpassed it’s predecessor. It was my first love and nothing could ever compare.
Atticus was not the Atticus I’d fallen in love with as a young girl. He was flawed, and Scout was not telling the story through the eyes of a child, where parents are perfect, where fathers are flawless. Atticus would let her down. A.C. Lee would let her down. Life would let her down. And there was something beautiful about that. I didn’t once feel disappointed. The sequel was both brilliant, and heartbreaking. Just like life.
Henry Bumstead passed away in Pasadena, California, on May 24th, 2006. The Trader Joe’s where I worked was located in La Crescenta, California, ten miles away. Henry was gone. I couldn’t ask him if this was his, and if it was, how he’d lost it. I couldn’t ask him how the woman in the grocery store parking lot had acquired it. I couldn’t ask him what it was like to drive around in a car with Harper Lee as a chauffeur, never stopping once to use the restroom or eat.
Harper Lee passed away February 19, 2016 at the age of 89. The opportunity of finding out the absolute identity of Henry passed with her.
If I could write them a letter, my own inscription, it would be this:
Dear Henry and Harper (Bummy and Nelle),
I have been holding on to something of yours that meant the world to me. It has seen me through a diagnosis, a divorce, an abusive relationship and the humbling acceptance that the dream I had as a 22-year-old making $7.25 an hour at a grocery store would never come to fruition. I never became a writer in capital letters or in the credits after a movie. But I have something even better: a healthy girl who is the spunky, tree-climbing epitome of Scout. In nine years, we have lived novels and sequels of life.
When I think about what’s next, I picture the courtroom, Scout standing in the balcony looking down and waiting—believing that no matter what, there will be a happy ending.
I did not sell my copy of To Kill a Mockingbird. Instead, I left Los Angeles and found my way back home, like you did so many years ago.
It wasn’t until I moved back to Iowa that I had the support from my family to write—not only to record a good story, but to live one. And every hour I have to put words on paper is a gift of love.
With admiration and affection,
Elise (Lisi to you)
“I hope to goodness that every novel I do gets better and better, not worse and worse. I would like, however, to do one thing, and I’ve never spoken about it because it’s such a personal thing. I would like to leave some record of the kind of life that existed in a very small world. … I believe that there is something universal in this little world, something decent to be said for it, and something to lament in its passing.” — Harper Lee, Nelle to you.