Marja Mills / The Mockingbird Next Door – Life with Harper Lee.
“We talk about it once in a while. She once said to me when we were up late one night, sharing a bottle of scotch: ‘You ever wonder why I never wrote anything else?’ And I said, ‘Well, along with a million other people, yes’. “I espoused two or three ideas. I said maybe you didn’t want to compete with yourself. She said, ‘BULL … Two reasons: One, I wouldn’t go through the pressure and publicity I went through with To Kill A Mockingbird for any amount of money. Second, I have said what I wanted to say and I will not say it again.”
As quoted by Harper Lee’s best friend, fishing partner, and fellow trouble maker, Rev. Tom Butts of Monroeville, Alabama, this is an excerpt from “The Mockingbird Next Door” by Marja Mills.
Last night I sat down to watch a PBS documentary on Harper Lee. It was wonderful to see such celebration and praise spoken about one of the greatest novels of our time, “To Kill a Mockingbird.” When the video clip of Harper Lee’s sister, Alice Lee, started to spin, I felt like someone had just landed me with a good sucker punch to the gut. Alice’s raspy voice struggled in a way that made me lean toward the television and strain my ears just to decipher the words. I couldn’t help but think about what Alice would think about the state of the Lee family affairs today. Alice died at age 103 last year. Deemed by her sister, “Atticus in a skirt,” Alice practiced law just like her father and had remained Harper Lee’s sole protector and guardian throughout the years. Just three months after Alice died, the announcement of Harper’s new novel was released. I thought about Nelle Harper Lee and wondered if she was sitting alone in her wheelchair at The Meadows assisted living facility. As a security guard watched the door, perhaps a nurse had switched on a television for her on the night of the PBS airing. But I knew that even if they had, Nelle wouldn’t have been able to hear or see the program. I remembered the case of elder abuse that was filed this year and the concerns of many of Nelle Harper’s old friends who had received notices barring them from visiting her at The Meadows.
I switched the television off.
Unable to sleep, I sat in bed and reread by lamplight Marja Mill’s “The Mockingbird Next Door.” I took a ride with Marja, Alice and Nelle down the backroads of Monroe County, Alabama. I went fishing with Rev. Tom Butts and Nelle Harper as they threaded fishing hooks with weenies. I sat with Nelle as she drank cup after cup of black coffee at the local McDonald’s and enjoyed dinner at David’s Catfish House. I went to the park every day with Nelle as she fed the ducks, shaking a cool whip container full of food as they recognized her car and came waddling. And boy did I ever think to myself, what a bunch of lucky ducks!
It was 2001 when Chicago Tribune writer, Marja Mills, made the trek south to the steamy little Alabama town of Monroeville. Marja was on assignment covering the Chicago Public Library’s city wide reading program, “One Book, One Chicago.” She was granted a rare visit with Harper Lee at the local Best Western and what blossomed from that meeting was a beautiful friendship. She spent 18 months living next door to the Lee sisters. She came to know the sister’s “inner circle,” which was a group of ordinary friends who valued the precious friendship enough to guard it. Marja described this “inner circle’s” unwillingness to talk to outsiders about Harper Lee as, “Those who know don’t speak and those who speak don’t know.”
I met Marja last month and she graciously agreed to a photograph. The first thing that I said to her was, “I hope that you won’t mind the sticky notes!” She responded by pressing my book tightly to her chest with delight and pulling out her tattered copy of “The Mockingbird Next Door,” which was filled to the brim with sticky notes itself. Upon meeting Marja, I could certainly see why the Lee sisters were so taken with her and I am saddened by the things that those in charge of Harper Lee’s estate have projected against her in the media. I believe that Marja’s friendship with Nelle and Alice will probably be the last true account of the lives of the Lee sisters as they lived together. How lucky we are to have had that treasure shared with us.
My sister-in-law is an educator who taught “To Kill a Mockingbird” as curriculum for seven years. While corresponding about the current condition of the affairs of Harper Lee, she asked me to share my thoughts. I replied, just ask yourself, “What would Nelle do?” We have since light-heartedly abbreviated that phrase to “WWND?” All joking aside, I think that question is a great place to start. It is not often that this world is graced with a light that shines so brightly as Harper Lee. We owe it to Harper to question what we are seeing in the media. We owe it to her to ask questions about the integrity of her keeper. I hope that we will ask ourselves, why would an 89 year old Harper Lee who has remained so adamant about never publishing another novel, be releasing a rough draft to one of the greatest novels of our time? This is a novel that in 1991 was ranked no. 4 just behind the Holy Bible for “making a difference in people’s lives.” I can’t help but feel that the Nelle Harper Lee that we adore is too smart and too hardheaded for what is unfolding. I hope that my questions prove to be of no merit. I hope that a well-minded Harper Lee will report to us via film recording tonight and answer all of these questions with vigor. However, I fear that the time for that has long passed. I do know one thing. The brilliant human being that is Harper Lee gave up any chance of ever having a normal life so that we may experience one of the most beautiful pieces of prose in American literature. She certainly deserves a lot more honor and respect than she is receiving right now.
So, today as the masses line up at bookstores across the world to press against a shiny new novel by the Pulitzer Prize winning author, Harper Lee, I hope that we will pause our hasty hands for a moment and ask ourselves one simple question “WWND?” I think that deep in our hearts, we already know the answer. As for me, I’m going to unplug this computer, grab a straight cane pole and a cage of crickets, pack up my crusty 1961 printing of “To Kill A Mockingbird” and go cast a line into the cool water. I might even stop off for a plate of fried catfish, because that is exactly what Nelle would do.
Author Marja Mills showing off the sticky notes in my personal copy of her book “The Mockingbird Next Door / Life with Harper Lee”
Lemuria Books / Jackson, Mississippi