Written by Essay, First Person, Literature

Grass Grew on the Sidewalks

The dream of visiting Harper Lee’s world leads to reconnecting with a grandmother.

Above my art desk hangs a muted panel of lavender and blue. Faded, worn, and long separated from its binding, it is the cover of my junior high-issued To Kill A Mockingbird. In its frame, it reminds me that Harper Lee’s story is one of the pieces of art I hold dearest, literary or otherwise.

In my senior year of college, I rediscovered this favorite book, its author, and, at the heart of the journey, my remarkable grandmother. When Mockingbird was banned for the umpteenth time, I was determined to find out what the real issue was. I wrote a term paper for an elective history course and eventually submitted an abstract, which was accepted to a national research conference.

Meanwhile, spring break was fast approaching, and I’d caught an acute strain of homesickness for my Gramma Mary and the Florida I’d never visited. As I sat down to alleviate my woes and write her a letter one evening, my husband suggested that we use our time off to travel and see her. It was an extraordinary thought. My family didn’t have the opportunity to travel much, and so I hadn’t seen my grandmother since my junior-high graduation eight years earlier. At this point she occupied a similar place in my heart as Harper Lee: a woman I revered but felt I knew only in a storied sense.

I remembered the way Gramma held an oversized coffee mug in her small hands as she looked out the window. At least I thought I did; perhaps it was my dad’s endearing pantomime of her in this pose that was part of my memory. I remembered a sundress she bought me and the way she chopped down to the very end of a stalk of celery when she helped my mom in the kitchen. From an earlier visit, when I was much younger, I recalled dyeing roses in vases of colored water and her teaching me “Here Is the Church, Here Is the Steeple” on a bright summer day. Mostly my memories of Gramma revolved around what it felt like to be around her: safe, intrigued, lucky. If there was a chance to see her now, at this new stage of my life, I wanted to take it.

As we were sitting in our college library mapping out possible routes, the swath of the American South laid itself before me. Like an heirloom jewelry tray, it boasted dashing trinkets: Florida, New Orleans, and between the two—smaller and less polished Monroeville, Alabama. At 22, Lee’s father sent her from there to Oxford for the summer in hopes of enlivening a passion for law. At the same age, I decided to venture toward her hometown: the source of inspiration for her novel’s fictional Maycomb and heartbeat of the career for which she would instead be known. For the pursuit of beauty, truth, and inspiration, I set off, husband in tow, for Florida and southern Alabama.

Heidi Corley

Palm trees began to sway in greeting as soon as we crossed into Florida on day three. My head still spun from the previous night’s jaunt through Atlanta, where multi-lane highways were lit like an unforgiving toy racetrack. At the end of the day, we parked, and the hum of the road was replaced by that of a green and living state: geckos, bugs—even my own heart, purring in that uncertain way of enchanted anxiety. I was nervous and giddy. Then, in the late evening light, Gramma peered at us from behind the screen of her front door, looking just as I’d remembered her.

We spent many hours sprawled on the beach and in Gramma’s living room. She sat across from us in a large recliner that would have swallowed her if she hadn’t propped her leg up and hugged her knee toward her, girlish and witty as ever. As a teenager, she was a typist for the Air Force; later, married and living in Vermont, she cleaned rabbit and squirrel when her husband came back from hunting. Preparing frog legs one night, she met a creature with one good hop left when she went to cut into him, sending her kitchen into a ruckus. She was as stylish as she was skilled (though she’d never admit to being either) and had an affinity for wearing hats: on her wedding day and for Mass and other occasions, most likely. After her children were grown she worked in a hospital on some of the earliest computer systems. Between stories we simply looked at each other, and that, as it often is for my family, was enough.

She teased my husband relentlessly, saying in her deadpan manner that she guessed he’d do—that if my dad liked him he must be all right. But her love for Daniel was apparent, and she couldn’t get over the stories he told about being a wedding videographer in Oklahoma; that people would want to get married in a barn was beyond her.

She suggested more than a few times that Daniel and I go on a date instead of hanging around with some old woman—her way of reminding us that this was a vacation. After a trip to a nearby nature preserve, we returned with a large takeout box of shrimp and cracked conch to share with her as we told tales of the streams we’d jumped over, eagles we’d seen catching fish, and the hefty snake that had slithered past us on the trail.

I mentioned that we’d be going to see the home of one of America’s most beloved authors. She, like most people we shared the plan with, mulled it over. They made a movie with Gregory Peck, I offered. Yes, yes, she remembered. I rarely volunteered much more; did I even know what I hoped to find?

My Gramma is somewhat of a Harper Lee herself, with her close-cropped white hair and ornery smile. She too has a grace about her, which, one can tell, lends her heart to the deepest, truest senses of right and wrong. Though we’ve only been physically near each other a handful of times in my life, she’s had a tremendous impact on my world. A diligence that begins and ends with her easygoing What’re you gonna do? rings in my ears often.

Drawing our three-day visit to a close wasn’t easy. On our last morning we snuck out early to see the beach one last time, where we snapped Polaroids to leave on her side table. She sent us off with a beautiful set of dishes that she had bought when she moved to Florida many years ago and a final message on the camera we’d brought along, reminding us that we were good kids and to take care of each other. We left Gramma at the same post we’d found her in, and as we pulled out and waved goodbye, I realized we’d each left a piece of ourselves with the other.

The day went on and the drive began to look less and less like the Florida we’d come to know and love. Tallahassee was a concrete game of Chutes and Ladders, consisting only of gas stations abundant with the Florida ball caps I’d coveted for the beach but hadn’t found before then. Before it became too late in the evening, I called Gramma to let her know we were close to our destination. There was a sadness in her voice that told me how much she missed us; I wanted, not for the first time that day, to turn around. Instead, we simply said our I-love-yous with a new sense of familiarity.

We exited the interstate and all recognizable civilization at Caryville, Alabama.  For the last two and a half hours of the drive, deer eyed us at every bend in the road, and tall, limber pines blocked any remnants of sunlight on the horizon. In planning the trip, I’d done my best to ensure that we wouldn’t have to drive at night in unfamiliar territory, and if we did, it wouldn’t be for very long. I was quite disappointed to find that we drove in the dark at every given opportunity. So was Daniel.

Our attempts at lightening the mood brought on by such tedious circumstances only served to test sanity and marital bond. But we arrived. Monroeville received us with sparse orange streetlights, a baseball field, and a sign that read “Literary Capital of Alabama.”

Floor-to-ceiling mirrors covered nearly every wall of our hotel room. It smelled. Daniel’s ingenuity took over, and he set off brewing as many complementary cups of coffee as we were given and placing them around the room. The warm, bitter scent absorbed whatever pitiful ghost odor had been hanging around. It did little, however, to alleviate the stench of onions and mustard that had covered my skin and clothes at Whataburger three hours back. My husband braved the shower; I declined.

The next morning we set out for the old Monroe County Courthouse-turned-museum. Lee’s father practiced law here, and when Hollywood came to scope things out for their adaptation of Mockingbird, they left to make their set an exact replica. Before entering, we took in the red-orange brick and white scaffolding details of the building’s exterior and a To Kill a Mockingbird-themed birdhouse on the lawn. I was in heaven. To be doing nothing and everything at the same time felt like the spring breaks of my youth: homey and sunshine-tinged, big and intimate; an easy freedom gracing the simplest of pleasures.

Monroeville was strangely familiar to me in its likeness to many an Oklahoma town I’d known, and part of me never wanted to leave. Although it was springtime, I imagined it might not be all that different in fall. Light would warm buildings in the same manner and there’d be a comparable number of good-natured flies buzzing about. Perhaps fall came to mind because besides being the season in which the biggest beats of Mockingbird take place, autumn was the lifetime in which I first read the book, in seventh grade. I remember feeling so transported to this world in that time–how every part of my life felt hinged to it during those weeks of class. Those memories and feelings are not unlike the ones I associated with my Gramma at that time.

Inside the courthouse we were greeted by none other than a cousin of Truman Capote, childhood friend of Harper Lee, to whom part of the museum was dedicated. He gave us a delightful rundown of the building’s history, and asked where we’d come from. He looked my husband up and down in dress shirt and newsboy cap. New York, perhaps? Oklahoma, Daniel volunteered. The man tapped his finger to his lips, his other arm folded loose across his waist pondering, as if to say, no, that’s not it.

We began our self-guided tour of the museum, peeking in an out of nooks and crannies that led into large, elaborate offices filled with law books and ledgers long preserved. Other spaces held local art and beautifully displayed factoids about the building and town.

Upstairs we first visited Capote’s side of the museum. His small start and larger-than-life continuation filled his personal artifacts and the notes about him. I was anxious to move to bigger things, though, and found myself practically holding my breath as we moved toward the door of the balcony.

I’d caught a glimpse downstairs, perhaps even seen a few signs advertising the display, but I’d suppressed the reality of the situation. Simply, I was in denial. I was not prepared to see that local historians and crafters had strewn quilts over virtually every available railing, balcony, and aisle. It was upsetting, to say the least, not to experience the courtroom in all its bare glory, but I eventually came to accept the irony: to search for Harper Lee was to find the place she called home, floral handiwork and all. It was likeI could hear her chuckling.

We next ventured to the section of the museum dedicated solely to Lee and Mockingbird. It felt so quiet compared to Capote’s side. While he was larger than life, she, seemingly, was about average size. The collection of first-edition copies of the book and a large piece of the “Radley” tree were remarkable to behold, but I felt that there was something missing. It was no slight of the museum; Lee was elusive, living nearly as quietly as my Gramma did with a husband and five kids. Perhaps the issue was personal: maybe it brought to light commonalities between her and me. She struggled to create after Mockingbird. Do I, too, have but one great work inside me? I think of my paint brushes, so often ignored, and my folders of notes back home-utterly haunting some days. If Mockingbird sufficiently captured her viewpoint, did it truly render any additional social commentary unnecessary? Would I do anything differently with that one great thing? I looked around the little room. It was here that I recognized the burden created in balancing our sanctuaries with our desire for humanity and justice.

Having surveyed all of Lee’s world that she’d allow, we headed downstairs to the gift shop. I collected three postcards, a pin depicting Monroeville’s literary capital status, and a large children’s t-shirt. I wished to appear as though purchasing it for a younger sibling and not just to save $10 by passing up an adult size. Hoping I wasn’t disrespecting the lovely museum dedicated to her life and work and hometown, I concluded that Lee would’ve appreciated the humor of the situation, perhaps even done the same.

As we rounded out of town on the hilly road we’d come in on, I silently thanked Lee for letting me visit. I’m not a bucket-list sort of person, but worn and thankful, I checked this visit off somewhere inside me.

In one photo from the trip, taken minutes before leaving, I am leaning across a picnic table in front of Mel’s Dairy Dream, a coke float in front of me as the day heats up. I think of the moment in Go Set a Watchman—Lee’s part-sequel-to, part-draft-of Mockingbird—in which Jean Louise finds herself at this very ice cream stand. Autobiographical as ever, Lee’s world had changed around her, leaving the memory of her childhood home buried flat beneath the dusty gravel I kicked at under the bench. I find myself thinking of my grandmother, born just a year after Lee. The South and the Northeast, two worlds that never eclipsed and paths that were far from parallel. But somehow in that moment, in that photo, I’m the product of both of them: a young woman from the middle of nowhere, heart longing for honesty only as demure as she might choose, untangling the roots of her own Radley tree.

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