Tuesday, August 11, 2015

A New Book, An Old Story

Critics voices have swarmed and buzzed over the most anticipated book, Go Set a Watchman. Some were disappointed that the story line did not match perfectly with its prize winning companion, To Kill a Mockingbird; its hero, Atticus, showed unexpected flaws. Some people, supposedly close to Ms. Nelle Harper Lee, thought that it should never have even been published, claiming that the loss of her sister, her protector, had opened her up to manipulation by a new lawyer and a new editor. Having heard stories and witnessed some personal events related to influencing elders, helps me understand both sides of these concerns.  Sometimes well meaning relatives or friends who try to be gatekeepers for the aging ones seem to actually stifle their choices of activities they love, foods they like and times when they simply want to rest; sometimes these same trusted people misuse or misdirect the aging ones' money to fund their own desires.  In the case of Ms. Lee, I hope that did not happen.  For my own personal edification, I am so glad the book was published.  Her unedited voice from long ago spoke to me.  It seemed a gutsy, off the cuff tale of her life as it was and had been; an outcry on the role of women and the place of African Americans in her time.  Her time overlapped strangely with my time.

Go Set a Watchman was written around the time of my birth and first years, mid fifties, and was not published until 2015, the year I turned 60. It's the story of Scout as a grown up, it's the story of Susan Kohn Green as a child.  Monroeville AL I have never seen, but Ms. Lee's description and my own imagination tells me it was very much like Royse City TX in that era - just a small East Texas town of cotton farmers vaguely connected to the big city of Dallas before I-30 was constructed.  I was a child of privilege - not by wealth but by being known through family ties and by being white.

"Isn't that Beau and Sue Ann's little girl? Bally's grand daughter?  Pack's grand daughter? Hooker's niece? Smiley's niece? (the men carried lifelong nicknames that would confuse ancestry.com researchers) Usuallly traveling in the company of relatives to stores on Main St., to church on Sunday (mostly Baptist but sometimes Methodist with the Fisher side of the tree), to visit friends of the adults - I received doting attention.  People praised me for being smart or cute or sweet or for being created as the spittin' image of my mom (she was very popular).  They served me treats like fresh picked peaches, watermelon, blackberries or rice with butter and sugar, cold biscuits or that kind of homemade sherbet ice cream made in aluminum ice trays. I was allowed to play with their little porcelain nick nacks arranged on tatted doilies - figures of Victorian people, animals and shoes.  I could touch the pianos and press on electric organs. 

The town and times were safe. It was a normal occurrence to walk across the street to my friend's house or catty corner to play in another neighbor's yard (we loved Mr. Carr's smokehouse, wagon parked under the weeping willow and corn field). I could go around the corner on my own to play at a favorite location, "The Big Tree", or go a little further down this street to my grandparents' house to help mix up cornbread or have a treat of coke float or Juicy Fruit gum.  When you are a child, you think as a child and you think that everyone else lives just like you.

One day when I was in the company of my childhood best friend (words were spelled out in those days, BFF had not been invented), we decided to take a walk and explore the destination of a dirt road that ran next to Mr. Carr's field. We walked past black folk picking cotton in a field, past an old abandoned shack ready to fall down at the next windstorm and came out on pavement that was a street we recognized. No problem. We knew the way home.  When views of our houses appeared, we knew there WAS a problem. Our moms were in the front yards looking upset. They greeted us with frantic hugs but boy were we in trouble! I may have even received a swift swat on the bottom, don't exactly remember. There were stern discussions of our boundaries and "asking permission".  Even though we were allowed to roam, we had to learn the "understood" rules that accompanied freedom.

Like all southern towns of the 50's, Royse City was segregated, the black folk (called N#%$ by most towns people) lived in their own neighborhood across the railroad tracks. They had their own houses, their own church, their own school. As a child I thought like a child and I thought everybody lived as they did by choice. The only black person I knew by name was Gussie, the woman who came to help us out when my baby sister was born.  She was nice, I liked her.

During these pre-school days of my childhood (I didn't actually go to pre-school, these were simply developmental years before moving to the Dallas suburb of Carrollton where I started school in first grade), there were many occasions where adults gathered and children ran underfoot. White noise (pun intended) is expected to pass over the heads of kids, but not always, not mine. People would be sitting balanced in metal lawn chairs in a back yard passing bowls of homemade ice ream and chatting into the dark.  Sometimes the idle gossip would gain intensity as someone would audaciously accuse The Catholics or the NAACP of some shenanigans.  Too young to know fully, but the tone and some words caught in my innocence and twisted my heart.  God had set a watchman in me.  A conscience was being born to guide me through life.  I was too young to know, but there was a spirit telling me that something was off kilter in my perfect world.

Thankfully, my soul was spared some of the wrenching anguish of Jean Louise (Scout) in her adult sized eye opening moments. My little ears never heard the voices of my heroes, my mama and daddy, in the questionable utterances; they have remained my models of greatness throughout my whole life, even though I know they must carry their own human flaws.  The white noise remains unnamed but I know it had to come from neighbors and relatives, people we loved.  People who must be forgiven. Maybe I should actually be thankful for them, for stirring my childhood awakening to grow the seed of justice.

On a few recent visits back to this once hometown to attend funerals, I noted changes to the once Negro community that clustered near the cemetery. Newer houses appeared and the "Colored School" had been remodeled and revamped into a special district alternative learning center named after a man who had been my parents' teacher and principal. The black dirt cotton fields are being covered by new affordable housing developments touting the pleasures of country living.  Hopefully prejudices have dissipated and mutual respect prevails in the growing little city of the new millennium. 

Many people and events have continued to teach me about how to live my life on this earth, relating to others in our world.  Jesus' words and actions are the ultimate model.  The Golden Rule.  The Beatitudes.  The Sermon on the Mount. The Lord's Prayer.  The Great Commission. 

My Watchman is set.

Isaiah 21:6
For thus hath the Lord said unto me, Go, set a watchman, let him declare what he seeth.

Thank you, Dear God, for giving Harper Lee to our world, whose iconic, influential words shaped her readers. Thank you for my friends and family who love to read and discuss favorite books. Thank you for teachers who taught us how to read and question and explore. Thank you for Pastor John who delivered a Sunday sermon on Go Set a Watchman giving light to eternal insights. Thank you for your eternal grace toward us. Amen.

Go to Audio Podcast

Sermon by John Mollet

1 comment:

  1. What an inspirational message. So much wisdom!