The year I met Atticus was the year I first began to understand my father. Atticus Finch, from the pages of Harper Lee’s book To Kill a Mockingbird, was a legendary man. As a scholarly gentleman and Scout’s Dad, he taught the world how to life a life of integrity and quiet dignity. He insisted on living transparently enough so that his kids could learn from his experiences. The battles that Atticus fought in rural Mississippi were viscious and visible. The story revealed how compassion and a steely resolve to do the right thing were life-changing for black and white Americans in an era of steep racial tension.
I learned more about the intentions of my Dad’s heart there in the pages of that Pulitzer Prize winning novel published in 1960 than before or ever again. One day I read on the flyleaf of the paperback book, “To Scout … ” and then I knew that my musings were accurate. He saw me there on those pages, asking the tough questions about life, just as I saw him as Atticus.
How I wish I had that book in my possession once more! I would stare at Dad’s words in the flyleaf, written in his quirky penmanship. I would scour the memories in my heart just to be able to know my Dad a little more than I did. You see, we all hope that we are Atticus whose heart was expansive and whose motives easily read in the condensed storyline. And we all hope that we are eight year old Scout, whose inquisitive questions and struggles were from the vantage point of innocent curiousity.
The thing is, we walk together through life and we think we really know one another. It’s not until stuff happens … an assault, a racially-charged lawsuit, or even a much more mundane failure … and then we begin to know what is in a person’s heart.
Back in their day God tested the Israelites in order to know what was in their hearts, to know whether or not they would obey His commands. I know what it is to want to know what is in a man’s heart. As I said, if I had my father’s copy of the book I would have those words he spoke to me as Scout. I am convinced that Dad would have longed for me to sift from the ashes of his life ~ the worthless minutae that seemed to dominate the years ~ and glean the rich, gold nuggets. He would have wanted me to embrace his moments of an expansive heart.
Perhaps you’ll do the same for me.
I remember when I was growing up, my Dad would show us stuff. He was intent on teaching us to identify trees and plants, like Morrel mushrooms, Bittersweet and Sumac. Of course he taught us useful stuff too, how to back up a truck with a trailer; how to drive a boat; how to collect sap and make Maple Syrup and, best of all, how to fish. Although my growing up years are mostly wrapped in nostalgia and I have few opportunities to exercise those skills, what I actually learned was this: I am limitless in my ability to learn a skill and do it. Dad taught us to be learners, and to not be afraid to try new things.
One year Dad decided to build a cabin on the back edge of our property. Dad was neither a builder nor an architect but he and my lovely, artist-in-residence Mom put their skills together. With the help of generous builder-type friends, the tiny, humble building came together. At the time the cabin served as the best fort and doll house a girl could ask for! We loved it! With it’s steeply-sloped corrugated roof, woodstove and dry sink, the cabin stood on stilts and overlooked the trout stream that ran through our property. My friends and I would traipse around in the woods and slosh in the creek for hours at a time.
It wasn’t until I was well into my adult years that I learned the strain that building the cabin placed on our family. Apparently it wasn’t the most fiscally responsible undertaking, nor was the building designed to withstand 25 years of rugged weather. My Dad has been gone for some time now, and yet the cabin stands perhaps as a tribute to his tremendous influence on our lives.
Talk is cheap and we spout ideas of who we are and what we’ll one day become. The fact is, we are not who we say we are. We are what we do.
Dad didn’t leave behind a cabin. He left behind a legacy of attempts to show us how important we were to him, how deeply he cared and how much he wanted us to love the things he loved.
Plain and simple, Dad wasn’t great at communicating. I still wonder about who he really was, and why he called me Scout.
But I know he loved me.
And I’m not afraid to try stuff.