Tuesday, March 15, 2016

Homage to Miss Lee: Maudie Atkinson

Miss Maudie (Rosemary Murphy) and Jem Finch (Phillip Alford) in the film version of To Kill a Mockingbird

(The subject of this post is Maudie Atkinson, a character in To Kill a Mockingbird. In the film version of the novel, her character was endearingly rendered by actress Rosemary Murphy—no relation.)

I think about Miss Maudie often, especially when I am gardening. After Scout (and Boo Radley, on some days), she is the character with whom I most identify. Maudie loves to garden, and she loves to be outside. In fact, with the exception of the ill-fated and profoundly ironic "missionary tea" in Chapter 24, Miss Maudie is outdoors every single time her character makes an appearance (well, ok, except for those brief moments during which the rabid Tim Johnson threatens everyone on the block). I like that about her. I also like her sass. When the "foot washing Baptists" shout judgmental scripture at her for being prideful about her flowers, she shouts scripture right back at them—"A merry heart doeth good like a medicine!" Yep, she's my kind of gal. She also puts the hypocritical blowhard Mrs. Merriweather in her place at the missionary tea when she starts to talk crap about Atticus. Atta girl, Maudie.

Alas, love seems to have passed Maudie by, and I guess I identify with that, too, to some extent, now that I've been alone for a couple of decades. I'll tell you what, though, if a man like Atticus Finch lived across the street from me, I'd do a lot more than just befriend his children and perhaps, on occasion, bake him (or his horrible sister) a Lane cake. I'd have enough sense to step up my game—especially if my Atticus-neighbor looked anything like Gregory Peck. Those Lane cakes certainly would be packed with shinny if that were the case, and I'd find a way to deliver them when the kids weren't around.

Of course, due to her spinsterhood, Maudie misses out on raising children, though she goes a far way in helping raise Jem and Scout. She offers gentle advice without scolding or criticizing, which is always my goal with my students. Scout mentions at one point that Miss Maudie allows them to help themselves to the scuppernongs from her arbor or to get a squirt of warm milk from her cow, but you know, the truth is, Maudie doesn't have a cow. Not really. I mean, if she had a cow, wouldn't someone have mentioned the poor beast on the night of the fire? Or the morning after? Other than Scout's vague one-time reference, the cow is never mentioned again, so in my mind, she doesn't really exist.

The best thing about Maudie, of course, is that she is the spokesperson for Atticus, explaining his ways to the kids when they don't understand, encouraging them to appreciate that their father is someone quite extraordinary. It is through Maudie that we learn why "it's a sin to kill a mockingbird" (if we're referencing the novel; in the movie, this wisdom comes directly from Atticus as he speaks to Walter Cunningham at dinner). After the verdict in the Tom Robinson trial, Maudie tries to comfort Jem by telling him that some folks are simply called upon to do the unpleasant things in life that others don't want to do, and that Atticus is just such a person (though Jem's dismay is not in regard to his father's failures, but rather the town's).

I find it fascinating that people often equate Harper Lee with Boo Radley, since she declined to make public appearances (for the most part) or give interviews. But she wasn't a recluse. After Mockingbird came out to such success, she still enjoyed living in New York, and she went about the city shopping and going to baseball games unrecognized by the vast majority of the folks she encountered. (There is something to be said for the anonymity found in the writer's life. My guess is Stephen King can probably still wander around New York City in a baseball cap and shades and his fans are none the wiser. No doubt the same would be true for J.K. Rowling).

No, Miss Lee wasn't Boo. She was Maudie. She loved to be outside, loved her town and the Southern way of life, despite its flaws. And she loved her father, the real Atticus (Amasa Coleman Lee), so it makes sense that Maudie is the character who says all the lovely things about Atticus. And she never married, nor did she have children. Lee, like Maudie, lived a quiet life, but a social one, I'm sure. She had her own view of the world, her own particular hope for its growth and enlightenment, and she put that hope forward with gentle words. She was a woman who, with her novel, created a space of comfort, wisdom and acceptance, much like Miss Maudie's porch was to Scout.

Pretty sure Miss Lee didn't have a cow, either. In fact, I'm certain of it.