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December 6, 2009

Robert Goolrick: Harper to Harper

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A RELIABLE WIFE author Robert Goolrick recalls an amazing encounter he had with legendary novelist Harper Lee, and the one truly priceless gift (if not two) he was able to give through a copy of TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD.

I give books, largely because I like shopping for books. I like wandering in bookstores, thinking about the varied interests of various friends, knowing that somewhere there is or has been someone who had the same interest and wrote about it with eloquence and grace: bee keeping, tulips, Betty Page.

My best book story isn’t a Christmas one, but I’ll tell it anyway. My friends David and Mimi were going to have a baby, and they were going to name it Harper whether it was a boy or a girl because Harper Lee’s TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD is a kind of Bible for southerners --- a reminder of the strangeness and beauty and cruelty and kindness of the region where we were born. Harper Lee’s book makes us cry like babies, no matter how many times we read it, and its eloquence never fades, which may explain why it is consistently named one of the best American novels of all time and has sold over 30 million copies.

So Harper was on the way, and I decided to give a signed first edition of the book to her as a baby gift. I was both poor and profligate and, even then, 30 years ago, first editions went for huge sums of money.

In those days, The Franklin Mint produced books, fine leather-bound editions of timeless American novels. The books were not expensive, and I ordered one and then I got obsessed with having it signed. But Harper Lee, among her other acts of grace and eloquence, had taken herself off the map. She existed only in rumor.

However, my brother worked for the Wall Street Journal in Atlanta, and I called on him, as an investigative reporter, to track her down, and he did, sort of. He found her sister, Alice, who still lived in the house she and her sister grew up in, in Monroeville, Alabama. I called her, and she couldn’t have been more charming. Nell, as she called her sister, wasn’t there, but she would be coming down any day now, and so I sent the book down there and waited.

Mimi’s belly grew bigger and bigger, and no book appeared. Then came the day. David called to say they were on their way to the hospital. I finished up, walked home, and there, in the mailbox, was an envelope from Monroeville.

Inside the envelope was my Franklin Mint book, and inside of it an inscription: “To Harper from Harper Lee, with all good wishes.” I raced up to the hospital and there was beautiful Mimi and handsome David, beaming at the face of their beautiful daughter, Harper.

I gave Mimi the book, and, when she unwrapped it, we all cried a little bit, because Harper was finally here, safe in her mother’s arms, and because someday that little girl would grow up and have the infinite pleasure of bursting into tears, as everybody does, when Scout finally meets Boo Radley for the first time.

Some years later, my friend Jeanne invited me to dinner at her mother’s house to meet some friends of her mother’s Alabama college days. And there was Harper Lee. Real. Living. Beautiful and tall and warm and such a perfect example of a woman of her kind, a kind you couldn’t even imagine the beauty of unless you yourself have actually met one. She was what my grandmother would call a lady.

She wasn’t weird in any way. She wasn’t anti-social, and she wasn’t drunk. She spent the evening telling stories about their days at college, about her father, Amasa, about a way of life that was as warm and comforting as grits on a cold winter day.

I told her the story about the book, about her namesake, and what a wonderful thing it was, but I got the feeling she didn’t remember it at all.

On the way home, I began to think that perhaps Harper Lee hadn’t actually signed the book. I began to think that Alice had signed her sister’s name, and, as much as I have tried to escape these misgivings, they stay with me.

I don’t think, or at least I hope, that it doesn’t matter. When you give a book, it’s not the object that matters, no matter how rare or exquisite. It is the experience, the giving of a passport into a whole new world, one which was imagined and made for you and only you to walk in, to inhabit, a country to call your own for the rest of your life. Home.

-- Robert Goolrick

More holiday cheer tomorrow as Meg Waite Clayton stops by to tell us about the best present she's ever received, two decades ago.