In light of Harper Lee's recent passing on February the 19, I wish to share a little about her, through the eyes of my maternal Grandmother. My Grandma, Louise Townsend (1926 - 2009), went to school with Harper Lee. They both went to the University of Alabama, in Tuscaloosa. Grandma Louise majored in English with a minor in French Studies; she was also a Crimson Tide fan, yet that's neither here nor there! Grandma Louise graduated from The University of Alabama in 1947, which is the same year that Harper Lee graduated.
Once while relaxing with Grandma at her home, we looked through her old college yearbook together. "That's Harper Lee!" she exclaimed a few times. I could hear the pride in her voice. At the time (I'm embarrassed to admit), I had no idea who Harper Lee was. To be fair, I was about thirteen years young. So I asked who she was; Grandma told me that Harper was a famous author, the creator of the American Classic To Kill a Mockingbird. "She's a Pulitzer-Prize winning writer!" I reasoned that that sounded significant, so I pressed further. "What was she like?"
Grandma described a witty woman who contributed to their school newspaper, and its humor 'zine, the Rammer Jammer. Grandma said that Harper went on to edit the Rammer Jammer, and that people thought that she had a great sense of humor. I inquired more, intuiting that this person was really something. A perplexed look danced across Grandma's face. "I just don't get it. She was smart, but she was our class clown. One of the main things that I recall was that she'd bum cigarettes off of me. I'd share cigs with her at parties!" I laughed. "Grandma! You know that that's not good for you." My Grandma grinned. "We didn't know then." "What else, Grandma?" She paused, reviewing memories. "I remember Harper putting her feet up on her desk, and cracking jokes. She was a goofball. We were all surprised when such a serious book came out of her...." I grinned back at Grandma, and quipped, "Don't judge a book by its cover."
As a writer, I've occasionally chewed on this exchange, particularly during times of creative drought and self-doubt. I've reflected on how sometimes the funniest people write the deepest things; we shouldn't write anyone off (excuse the pun), based on personality. Even if someone (yourself included) seems like she doesn't have it in her, that ain't necessarily so. In honor of Harper Lee, I call on all goofballs to take their talent to heart. You never know what could emerge from you, if you give it a sincere shot. And you might be so successful that someone will - one day - tell her grandchild about you.
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