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Lessons of a ‘Mockingbird’

Ruth Andrew Ellenson with her grandmother, Lillian Douglas Andrew, in Lynch Station, Virginia.

When the news came this month that a manuscript by Harper Lee had been discovered and would be published in July, it was not without controversy, but I immediately called my 93-year-old grandmother, delighted to share the news. For us, and countless other readers of the approximately 40 million copies of ”To Kill A Mockingbird” in print, the discovery of “Go Set A Watchman” brought unambiguous joy.

My most prized possession is my grandmother’s original hardcover copy of ”Mockingbird” with her name, Lillian Douglas Andrew, inscribed in precise cursive on the inside cover. A voracious reader her entire life, she still counts it as her favorite book (and so do I). Our love of Scout, Atticus, Boo Radley and their story navigating racial injustice, moral bravery, familial love and human kindness in a small Southern town in the 1930s has always been a shared passion.

The improbability of the novel’s suddenly found sequel is as unexpected for me as having a grandmother from Lynch Station, Virginia — a town not unlike the fictional Maycomb, Alabama where Lee’s book is set. Reading the book as a child, I didn’t comprehend that it was a meditation on justice against the backdrop of the nefarious legacy of racism in the South. I thought it was a book about my grandmother as a little girl.

Whenever I read ”Mockingbird,” I pictured Maycomb as Lynch Station, where my grandmother still lives in the family home that she was born in. Everything in the book’s descriptions of the sleepy, slow pace of the small town South in the heat of summer, the friendly faces — and the social tensions that occasionally resided just below the surface of those beautiful manners — I understood inherently. As I read Scout’s voice, I could hear my grandmother’s particular blend of drawl and lexicon, reflective of a place still smarting from the “War of Northern Aggression.”

Birth announcement

Although I grew up as the daughter of a Jewish studies professor and rabbi in the urban Jewish shtetls unique to New York’s Upper West Side and Los Angeles’ Pico-Robertson, where psychoanalysts and PhDs were in abundant supply, I am equally informed by my grandmother’s birthplace; somewhere I have never lived, but still feels like home. In Lee’s book I saw it precisely drawn, almost like a photograph.

Lynch Station was named for Colonel Charles Lynch, my ancestor who fought in the Revolutionary War and whose chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution in Lynchburg lists me as a member. The daughter of my father’s first marriage, I was born in Jerusalem to a woman who left Lynch Station and a devoutly Methodist family to join the Jewish people. I was given the name Ruth — what has often felt to me like the most Jewish of names — reflecting my Christian mother’s declaration to the Jewish people that “your people shall be my people, and your God my God.”

Upon my birth, the local paper in my grandparents’ town featured an article with a headline declaring, “A Babe is Born in the Land of Judea.” A picture of my grandparents delightedly receiving a phone call with the news illustrated it. When I see it now, I can’t help but be amused and see it as one of many such moments between us; a connection forged by great love, yet whose cultural details often lose something in translation.

In addition to bringing my grandmother’s life as a girl alive for me, ”Mockingbird” also communicated its ethical paradigm. She told me that she loved the book for Atticus’ moral stance as a defense attorney fighting for justice for a black man accused of raping a white woman that — in her time and context — she must have recognized as a profound act of bravery. While the events of her lifetime paralleled Scout’s, it’s not surprising to me that Atticus resonated for her most. As an adult, in her life as a Christian and her career as a teacher, she embodied his moral steadfastness. Her uncompromising dignity and fierce commitment to righteousness was manifest in loving all people as she saw them: as God’s creation, including her Jewish grandchild. Even if she could not fully understand the world that was forming my childhood — with its dietary prohibitions that extended into her own home — she respected it. Through reading ”Mockingbird,” I was given a window into the world that formed her. Lee’s book was a bridge between us, its pages almost a literary umbilical cord.

As Jews we often talk about the threat of intermarriage, but for the families left behind on the other side of conversion there can be a chasm. What did it mean for Lillian to have her daughter’s daughter live in a world that was so foreign? As a child I couldn’t understand that her unconditional love and acceptance of me, whose world and beliefs were so different from her own, was a testament to her moral character. As a believing Christian, it must have been painful for her not to share her faith with her grandchild, but she never expressed that to me or made me feel different. 

“Anyone who loves God, God loves back,” she would say to me when I asked her what it meant to her that I was Jewish. Once I joked that the real threat would have been if we were atheists. Lillian shot me a look and replied tartly, “Don’t be ugly.” 

Lillian as a young woman with husband, Wallace .

She meant it then and means it now. I am loved because I am hers. I ought to love reading, write thank you notes in a timely manner, care about doing the right thing and then do it and mind my manners in the meantime. If I pontificate on abstract thoughts a little too long, she’ll admonish me with: “When someone asks you the time, don’t build them a grandfather clock.” Those are the fundamentals, the rest is details.

When July comes, I hope I will be lucky enough to sit with her on the black wooden porch swing in Lynch Station, reading about Scout’s continuing adventures. No doubt she’ll finish before me and will have to wait patiently as I catch up. I imagine my grandmother looking out on the same road that has lain before her since she was a girl, watching the world change, but paying it no mind. 

Ruth Andrew Ellenson is a writer and journalist whose work has been published in the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, and other publications. She received the National Jewish Book Award for the bestselling anthology The Modern Jewish Girl’s Guide to Guilt.

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