Cultura y ArtesDemocracia y PolíticaLiteratura y Lengua

Harper Lee, My Daughter and Me


Harper Lee

FAIRHOPE, ALA. — IN 2004 my daughter, Meredith, won an Alabama-wide high school contest to write an essay about “To Kill a Mockingbird.” The finalists from each school were invited to a luncheon at the University of Alabama, and Meredith, as statewide winner, got to bring Mom and Dad along. My wife, Nancy, and I were delighted. The elusive author herself, we’d learned, was scheduled to be there. Harper Lee. The name was an incantation.

“If Harper Lee is there,” I told Meredith, as we drove from Mobile to Tuscaloosa, “don’t expect her to be superfriendly. Just say hello, be gracious, shake her hand.”

“O.K., Dad.”

“She’s famous but reclusive. Not every star wants to be the center of attention.”


“And do not, I repeat, do not, ask her about ‘To Kill a Mockingbird.’ ”

“This is about Meredith,” Nancy said, “not you. We’re just going along.”

“It’s fine, Mom.”

“I’m just saying,” I put in.

“Don’t worry, Dad.”

Meredith later told me that she’d expected to meet an author “vain and reserved, distinguished looking, done up,” and Nancy, a lady who was “aloof, who might make an appearance and be gone.” I summoned a mysterious ghost. Like Alabamians who had once spellbound the nation — Hank Williams, Rosa Parks, Hank Aaron, Helen Keller — Ms. Lee had entered the realm of myth.

Surreally, she knew something about me, too. The year before, an editor had written Ms. Lee to ask her to blurb a new novel of mine about Jewish immigrants in Alabama. To my astonishment, Ms. Lee wrote back with three deft sentences of praise. I’d hung over the typewritten lines and signature, feeling exalted.

We pulled up to the university president’s mansion and were ushered in to a tall-ceilinged room lively with high schoolers in Sunday dress.

Amid them an ebullient woman with gray hair in a pixie cut and big black-framed eyeglasses was shaking hands, laughing, and posing with the teens for photos.

“I think that’s her,” Meredith said.

“Can’t be,” I said.

I recognized the face — the square jaw, deep-set eyes — but with an expression not like what I’d noted in the few images extant of her. There was a liveliness, a boisterousness even. A sense of great, convivial vitality.

“Let Meredith meet her first,” Nancy reminded me.

“Of course!”

I hung back, feeling suddenly shy.

Ms. Lee expressed delight at meeting our daughter, and spoke warmly of her essay.

“And this is my dad,” Meredith said, coaxing me forward.

“When I saw that name, from a school in Daphne, Alabama,” Ms. Lee said, “I wondered if it was Roy Hoffman’s daughter.”

It was one of those moments that loops over and again in slow motion in memory. The woman who’d created Scout, Atticus and Boo was standing in front of me like a cheery grandmother in black skirt and soft-sole shoes, a white blouse with embroidered black jacket, holding out her arms. The sweet 77-year-old was leaning forward and kissing my cheek. I’ll never wash that cheek again.

Nancy readied the camera, took one photo, another. One more.

“Oh, parents!” Ms. Lee said to Meredith, laughing, as the shutter snapped again. “Aren’t they too much!”

The essay contest’s theme was how the South had changed since “Mockingbird.” During the luncheon program a faculty member read aloud the winner, quoting Meredith on how seeing the world “through the eyes of Scout” helped fight prejudice. I watched Ms. Lee, who paid rapt attention and clapped.

After lunch, across the street at the Hoole Library, Ms. Lee took up her position at a table to sign copies of “Mockingbird.” I stood on one side with my copy of the novel, Meredith on the other side with hers.

She signed mine, and I stepped away as Ms. Lee took Meredith’s book. They were chatting now, out of earshot. Ms. Lee was smiling, nodding; then shaking her head, gesturing my way. They spoke another moment and Meredith thanked her and walked toward us.

“Well?” I was eager to know what had transpired.

“I was just telling her how much I admire her.”

“And?” I waited another moment.

“I asked her if I could send her my writings and get her feedback.”

Ah, the innocence of youth.

“She said she doesn’t do that.”

“I understand,” I said.

“She said, ‘Ask your daddy, he’s a good writer.’ ” Meredith looked at me, and we both knew somehow that we’d begun a lifetime of my being her first reader. We didn’t need Ms. Lee to codify that; but she had.

After the others had gotten their books signed and we’d visited around, we went to the elevator for the ride to the ground floor. Harper Lee stepped in behind us, still bristling with energy, with fun.

She caught sight of Meredith’s stylish heels, a new purchase for this special day.

“Those are so pretty,” she said.

“Thank you.”

“How do you walk in them, though! Aren’t they uncomfortable?

“Yes, ma’am.”

“Well, if you want, just take ’em off.”

I’ve thought about that scene many times over the years, the familial ease of it. For the next decade and more, even while facing health challenges, Ms. Lee would continue to be followed, implored, hounded for interviews, for a peek into her soul. Another manuscript, “Go Set a Watchman,” found in a safe-deposit box, would only heighten the controversy surrounding her. She had asked of her fans the unforgivable: Leave me alone.

When the elevator doors opened we said our goodbyes, and Meredith, shoes dangling from her hand, walked with us barefoot back to the car.


Roy Hoffman is the author, most recently, of the novel “Come Landfall.”

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