Harper Lee: my Christmas in New York


One midwinter in 1950 s New York, Harper Lee went to stay with friends. Little did she know she was about to be given the gift of a lifetime

Several years ago, I was living in New York and working for an airline, so I never got home to Alabama for Christmas if, indeed, I got the day off. To a displaced southerner, Christmas in New York can be rather a melancholy occasion , not because the scene is strange to one far away from home, but because it is familiar: New York shoppers evince the same singleness of purpose as slow-moving southerners; Salvation Army bands and Christmas carols are alike the world over; at that time of year, New York streets shine wet with the same gentle farmers rain that soaks Alabamas winter fields.

I missed Christmas away from home, I supposed. What I truly missed was a memory, an old memory of people long since run, of my grandparents home bursting with cousins, smilax and holly. I missed the sound of hunting boots, the sudden open-door gusts of chilly air that cut through the aroma of pine needles and oyster dres. I missed my brothers night-before-Christmas mask of rectitude and my fathers bumblebee bass humming Joy To The World.

In New York, I usually spent the working day, or what was left of it, with my closest friends in Manhattan. They were a young family in periodically well-to-do situations. Periodically, because the head of the household applied the precarious craft of writing for their living. He was brilliant and lively; his one flaw of character was an inordinate love of puns.

He possessed a trait curious not only in a novelist but in a young man with dependants; there was about him a quality of fearless optimism not of the wishing-makes-it-so variety, but that of seeing an attainable aim and daring to take risks in its pursuing. His audacity sometimes left his friends breathless who in his situations would venture to buy a town house in Manhattan? His shrewd generalship induced the undertaking successful: while most young person are content to dream of such things, he made his dream a reality for his family and fulfilled his tribal longing for his own ground beneath his feet. He had come to New York from the south-west and, in a manner characteristic of all aborigines thereof, had discovered the most beautiful daughter in the east and wedded her.

To this ethereal, utterly feminine creature were born two strapping sons, who, as they grew, discovered that their fragile mother packed a wallop that was second to nobodys. Her capability to love was enormous, and she spent hours in her kitchen, rendering dark, viscous delights for her family and friends.

They were a handsome pair, healthy in intellect and body, happy in their highly active lives. Common interests as well as love described me to them: and an endless flowing of reading material circulated among us; we took pleasure in the same theatre, cinemas, music; we laughed at the same things, and we laughed so much in those days.

Our Christmases together were simple. We restriction our gifts to pennies and witticisms and all-out competition. Who would come up with the most outrageous for the least? The real Christmas was for the children, an idea I found totally compatible, for I had long ago ceased to theorize on the meaning of Christmas as anything other than a day for children. Christmas to me was only a memory of old love and empty rooms, something I interred with the past that underwent a vague, aching resurrection every year.

One Christmas, though, was different. I was lucky. I had the whole day off, and I spent Christmas eve with them. When morning came, I awoke to a small hand kneading my face. Dup, was all its owner had time to say. I got downstairs just in time to see the little boys faces as they behold the pocket rockets and space equipment Santa Claus had left them. At first, their fingers went nearly timidly over their dolls. When their inspection had been completed, the two sons dragged everything into the centre of the living room.

Bedlam prevailed until they discovered there was more. As their parent began distributing gifts, I grinned to myself, wondering how my exceptionally wily unearthments this year would be received. His was a publish of a portrait of Sydney Smith Id procured for 35 pennies; hers was the complete works of Margot Asquith, research results of a years patient search. The children were in agonies of indecision over which package to open next, and as I waited, I noticed that while a small stack of presents mounted beside their moms chair, I had received not a single one. My letdown was growing steadily, but I tried not to show it.

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They took their hour. Finally she said, We havent forgotten you. Seem on the tree.

There was an envelope on the tree, addressed to me. I opened it and read: You have one year off from your job to write whatever you please. Merry Christmas.

What does this mean? I asked.

What it tells, I was told.

They insured me that it was not some sort of gag. Theyd had a good year, “theyre saying”. Theyd saved some money and thought it was high time they did something about me.

What do you entail, do something about me?

To tell the truth if I truly wanted to know they supposed I had a great talent, and

What induces you think that?

It was plain to anyone who knew me, they said, if someone would stop to appear. They wanted to show their religion in me the best style they knew how. Whether I ever sold a line was immaterial. They wanted to give me a full, fair chance to learn my craft, free from the harassments of a regular task. Would I accept their gift? There were no strings at all. Please accepted, with their love.

It took some time to find my voice. When I did, I asked if they were out of their minds. What induced them suppose anything would come of this? They didnt have that kind of money to throw away. A year was a long time. What if the children came down with something horrible? As objection crowded upon objection, each was overruled. Were all young, “theyre saying”. We can cope with whatever happens. If disaster ten-strikes, you can always find a job of some kind. OK, consider it a loan, if you wish. We only want you to accept. Just permit us to believe in you. You must.

Its a fantastic gamble, I murmured. Its such a great risk.

My friend seemed around his living room, at his sons, half buried under a piling of bright Christmas wrapping paper. His eyes sparkled as they met his wifes, and they exchanged a glance of what seemed to me insufferable smugness. Then he looked at me and said softly; No, honey. Its not a risk. Its a sure thing.

Outside, snowfall was falling, an odd event for a New York Christmas. I went to the window, stunned by the days miracle. Christmas trees blurred softly across the street, and firelight induced the childrens shadows dance on the wall beside me. A full, fair chance for a new life. Not dedicated me by an act of generosity, but by an act of love. Our religion in you was really all I had heard them say. I would do my best not to fail them. Snow still fell on the pavement below. Brownstone roofs gradually whitened. Illuminations in distant skyscrapers shone with yellow symbols of a roads lonely aim, and as I stood at the window, looking at the sunlights and the snowfall, the ache of an old memory left me for ever.

Harper Lee went on to write Go Set A Watchman and To Kill A Mockingbird. This tale was first published in McCalls magazine in the December 1961 issue, titled Christmas To Me.

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