1. The Daughter
Loneliness brings us together.
We are observers of the world, mostly because there’s nothing better to do. Making friends with loneliness during the day, tucked in by it at night. Unafraid of the melancholy of loneliness.
When we are together, the loneliness eases. She shares a story with me and I pull it into my imagination. I spend days developing a new story, filling up the empty space with vibrant life. I return to her storytelling at night with the eagerness of a hungry tiger. She and I are sisters, learning and growing together.
She is lonely for different reasons than I am. She is the loved daughter of an older widower who is of the generation that does’t play with their children. She is the loved younger sister of a brother who is growing out of childhood. Her mother is dead.
I am just the daughter. The daughter with a father that works to avoid home. And then comes home and takes his anger out on his family. The daughter of a very much alive mother that has no way or means to avoid home. And so takes her anger out on her family. The sister of an older brother who resists this home by being angry at the one person who can’t retaliate.
I am the daughter that learned to be good is to be quiet. To fold up into yourself. To not exist as much as possible.
Scout and I have little in common outside of our loneliness. But that is all we need.
2. The father
There was no where to go, but I turned to go and met Atticus’s vest front. I buried my head in it and listened to the small internal noises that went on behind the light blue cloth; his watch ticking, the faint crackle of his starched shirt, the soft sound of his breathing. (chpt 13)
Atticus Finch taught me how to father.
For all sorts of reasons, my father could not be who I needed him to be. But most of all, for all sorts of reasons, he didn’t know how to father. I used to resent him for this. Even hate him. But then I became a parent and I saw how hard it really is, and resentment and hate shifted into a question of practicality. How do I do this work? How do I give what I never got?
The first time I read that passage, I pause and reread it. Then I put the book down and think about it. To be that intimate with my father is incomprehensible. To hear his body shifting with his breath. To feel his breath on my skin. To feel the warmth of his skin against mine. To feel the comfort of releasing too adult worries into his adult hands. To feel the comfort of knowing without asking.
He will be there when I land.
For me to move into my father in a way that would lead to a hug or an warm embrace, is to confront the reality I’ve lived with my entire life but have kept hidden under the bed, only pulling it out during the long nights when terrifying dreams stalk my sleep.
He never really wanted you to begin with.
I am not old enough, mature enough, able enough to handle that truth being made visible in broad daylight. Not yet at least. And so I do nothing about the massive empty space between us, except pretend not to notice it.
But I read and reread Scout’s story. I study what having a father means to her like I study a planet I’ve never seen. There is proof it exists, so I know it must be real. But my trust in this proof walks on a tightrope. And soft breeze would be enough to push it off. It is only Scout’s constant reassurances that thickens the tightrope into the stability of a solid sidewalk.
I know it exists. And when I stare the question of practicality in the face, I know where to turn.
My son is talking. I am sitting in a chair at the table and he is talking to other family who sit with me. We are a family of history, we talk often about old battles, ancient policy, the influence of culture on world events. This kid of mine finds ways to weasel into these complicated history conversations between adults, and he is the rare kid that the ‘children should be seen and not heard’ adults in the family don’t elbow out. He holds his own, even with adults.
As he chats back and forth with others about the Holy Roman Empire and Charlemagne’s folly in leaving the empire to his sons, he backs gently onto my lap and pulls my hands around him. Eventually when he grows too tired to keep up with the conversation, he leans into me until he finally falls asleep.
I say nothing, just breath his warmth in.
When I talk about it later with my therapist, I tell her that the thing that made me cry after everybody left and we tucked the kids in bed, is how he didn’t even look at me as he slid into my lap. He just assumed I would be there. He didn’t have to look, he didn’t have to double check, he didn’t have to worry. He took it for granted I would be there, and I would welcome him into my lap. He knew without asking that I was there for him.
The therapist didn’t say anything. Just sat next to me as I cried again.
…and he would be there when Jem waked up in the morning.
It is incomprehensible to imagine a father like this. But once I read it, I know it exists.
My son crawls into my lap.
I knew it could happen.
And it did.
3. The Sunday Social
I am sitting at a booth in a small diner. My hands are sweaty, my stomach is a queasy mess. My father is at a different table talking to his friends. I don’t know where to look or what to do.
My father returns to the table, and slides into the seat opposite me. We don’t talk. My hands twist into a tight knot under the table. My father leans over and pulls menus out of the cluster of condiments at the end of the table, hands me one.
I can hardly breath as I take the menu. My mind races as my eyes flick over the different meals. I don’t see the words, I don’t know what I could possibly order that I could choke down anyway.
My father closes his menu, looks back over at the table of friends he was talking to earlier. I feel the familiar sinking in my body. He wishes he were some place else.
Happy birthday, he mumbles. He is still looking at his table of friends.
Thanks, my dry mouth manages to scrape out.
I look out the window.
And wish I was some place else too.
People like to focus on Atticus. They like to look at what they call the ‘climax’ of the book. Atticus, the brilliant lawyer, defending Tom, who is black and accused of raping a white woman in the Jim Crow South. Atticus, the defeated warrior, walking out of the courtroom after the inevitable decision finally returns. All the black people in the segregated balcony standing up as a sign of respect.
White people fetishize this moment. A white man as the hero. A white father as the hero. The Great White Father. And yet…
There is another moment further along in the book. A quiet moment. Scout is at a Sunday ladies social gathering that her aunt put together. Scout, who struggles daily with the strictures of womanhood, is cast by loneliness into a room of creatures as alien to her as a father is to me. Gossiping women.
She wryly notes that her Aunt Alexandra’s invitation for her to stay at the gathering was a part of ‘her campaign to teach me to be a lady.’ And at first, this campaign appears to be an abysmal failure, as Scout, who is stuck sitting next to a vapid gossip, declares that not only does she prefer the company of men, she finds women to be hypocrites.
It’s hard not to agree with Scout’s uncharitable assessment of white womanhood. Because as young as Scout is, she notices that there’s different expectations for her black maid, Calpurnia, than there are for her white aunt, Alexandra. And she notices that while the social club would never dream of inviting ‘white trash’ Mayella Ewell, the woman who accused Tom of raping her, to their meeting, these ‘ladies’ have their own ways of supporting Mayella that are almost as bad as Mayella’s accusation.
One of the women delicately and with much ‘lady-like’ dignity, notices that ‘some good but misguided’ people are ‘riling up’ the black community even though these ‘good but misguided people’ think they’re helping. She goes on and on about how ‘sulky’ some of the ‘darkies’ are getting and then concludes that she would’ve fired her maid if she had kept up her ‘sulking’ one more day.
Scout, not yet wise in the subtle (and often not so subtle) code language of ‘lady speak’ does not really understand that it’s Atticus these women are targeting. But the neighbor lady and family friend, Miss Maudie, does and with a few pointed words, cuts the conversation off. It is the first time that Scout begins to suspect that maybe there’s more going on in women’s socials than meaningless women’s chatter.
And then Atticus comes home and pulls Alexandra, Ms Maudie, Calpurnia and Scout out into the kitchen. He tells them that Tom is dead, killed by prison guards. He has Calpurnia come with him to help break the news to Tom’s family, leaving Alexandra and Miss Maudie and Scout to figure out how to deal with the group of unfriendly white women in the other room that would celebrate this murder with gentle eyebrow lifts and pointed nods. The group of white women that use language to enforce white supremacy.
There is a moment in the 6th Harry Potter book, when the hero Harry is contemplating what it means to fight a battle that is already lost. After 6 books and numerous battles against evil that never quite win the war, he finally figures out that the choice he is facing is not if he can defeat or win against evil, but how he chooses to face the evil. The passage reads:
“It was, he thought, the difference between being dragged into the arena to face a battle to the death and walking into the arena with your head held high. Some people, perhaps, would say that there was little to choose between the two ways, but Dumbledore knew – and so do I, thought Harry, with a rush of fierce pride, and so did my parents – that there was all the difference in the world.”
How you choose to deal with the unwinnable fight is the crux of the battle the hero faces on his journey. Luke Skywalker choosing to be killed rather than kill his own father. Simba choosing to return to his tribe. Jean Valjean choosing to let Javert go free. Harry choosing to die rather than allow anybody else to die in his name.
These are all critical moments in the hero journey, moments where the characters transcend the world they are in and symbolically give their lives over to the universe. And in giving their lives over to the universe, they become one with the universe. Eternal.
The problem is, we’re used to that moment of transcendence being dominated by men and boys. We’re used to Harry, Simba, Luke, Jean, Frodo, Neo, etc all being the hero. We’re used to looking at huge male figures like Atticus and assigning him the worship, the glory. We’re used to courtrooms being the arena were battles happen.
What happens when the hero is a lonely little girl? And the arena is a Sunday church social in the front parlor?
It’s no mistake that Scout’s gift is observation. She sees the plethora of choices singing to her almost from the beginning–the choices that somehow even readers often miss. She sees the white girl that falsely accuses a black man of rape. But she also sees her young white teacher imposing her power on the young people of her room and then being comforted by those same young people when she cries. She sees the drug addicted virulently racist old woman conquer her addiction only to die a few days later. She sees the hypocritical white women at the social gathering. She sees the white teacher who defends persecuted Jews to her students and snarls indignant hatred against uppity Negros. She sees the murder of an unarmed black man, murdered in the name of white womanhood.
It’s a battle that probably won’t be won, not in her lifetime and not by her.
But her choice is made.
She fights anyway.
If Aunty could be a lady at a time like this, so could I.
She is and will be a lady on her own terms. And those terms will unmoor the genteel lady speak of white supremacy.
She stops her shaking. And walks into the arena with her head held high.
A hero. On her journey.
4. Dolor hic tibi proderit olim–This pain will be useful to you.
There once was a little girl that was so lonely, she would cut herself just to feel something besides loneliness. Nobody ever noticed the burning red wounds. Nobody really ever noticed the girl. She had learned how to be a Good Girl very well. She knew that to be good meant to be quiet. To fold up into herself. To not exist as much as possible.
He crawls into my lap.
I breath in his warmth…
That Good Girl with the queasy stomach and the bleeding arms was on a hero journey. But she didn’t know it, not until she read the story of Scout. Scout, who was kind enough to share everything that little girl on a hero journey would need to survive.
I read about survival. So I knew it existed.
And I did it. I survived.
Thank you Harper Lee.