Wednesday, February 15, 2012

On Reading "To Kill a Mockingbird" for the 27th Time

Here's my second place-winning entry to The Colony Public Library's 30th anniversary writer's competition.  Thanks Kevin for encouraging me to enter.  I love you!                                    

                                  On Reading “To Kill a Mockingbird” for the 27th Time

I don’t remember a time in my life when I wasn’t aware of Harper Lee’s only novel. My mother and sister referred to it often, quoted it when the occasion presented, and Atticus stood but one notch below my own father in my personal pantheon of male achievement. 

I had heard so much about this book and seen my sister act out the main scenes of the film so many times that by the time the paperback became available to me through a school book sale and my mother handed over the $1.95 Scholastic wanted for it, I could hardly wait to get it home.

I still have that yellow-covered paperback with its red-block title font somewhere, although it’s the hardcover version I read now. I’ve read “To Kill a Mockingbird” every summer since my seventh-grade year. This story means summer to me. Summer and freedom. Freedom from school, freedom from kids my age, freedom to read whatever I feel like reading- the freedom of childhood. 

The opening sentence is never far from me: “When he was nearly thirteen, my brother Jem got his arm badly broken at the elbow,” and the last sentence “He would be there all night, and he would be there when Jem waked up in the morning,” crosses my mind every time my own daughter is sick.

This summer, though, I only managed to skim through the book, but I watched the movie with my three year-old daughter. I watched it and I watched her enthralled with the first half of the film, then watched her drift off to her toys when things got serious and sad and adult- just as I had drifted away from the sad stuff when I was a girl.

What strikes me now, listening to the book on CD and doing dishes while everyone else is sleeping, is how life carries on. I vividly remember thinking that things were “over” at each turning point in the book. Scout goes to school and isn’t allowed to read with Atticus anymore. Miss Maudie’s house burns down, Jem is waylaid by old Mrs. Henry Lafayette Dubose, Scout is confined to petticoats and tea parties by Aunt Alexandra; Atticus’s fellow citizens show up to lynch his client and him, too.  How will things ever be the same?

As I grew up, each of these developments wrenched me, saddened me, laid me low, but I kept reading, kept loving this book. 

At forty now, it hits me. Alone at night, listening to the book on CD and washing dishes while everyone else is asleep- this is what happens: life carries on.

As children, as young people, every major shift in life is the end- how will we go on?  Our family moves, our friends marry and move away, our loved ones die- life will never be the same comforting tableau we’ve come to know. 

Then we wake up the next morning. We brush our teeth, go to work, take the kids to school- and things carry on. Tom Robinson may be gone; Boo Radley may have been explained and demystified, but still we go on. 

We carry on living and working and loving and reading- above all, loving and reading. Then we share “To Kill a Mockingbird” with our daughters. We share that sense of summer, of fun, of youth, of melancholy, of fighting even though “we were licked a hundred years before we started.”

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