I have been thnking about heroines lately, and it’s funny how easily this keeps turning into bittersweet musing about the larger-than-life heroine in my own family, my mother, who died last year.
My first and greatest heroine was an exact contemporary of Scout Finch, the adult narrator whose memories of her own childhood form the story of Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbord. Scout’s childhood took place in the mythical Maycomb, Alabama, while Margaret Robb’s – my mother’s – took place in Tuscaloosa, 150 miles north of Monroeville, the real Maycomb. I have to admit that as I was growing up in the 1960s, my mother’s stories of childhood in Tuscaloosa during the Great Depression blended mythically with the invented rememberings of those years as told by Scout Finch.
For years, I had my own grandfather Robert pleasantly confused with Gregory Peck, who played the film version of Scout’s father Atticus. Like Atticus, Mister Robert had been known for quiet authority, newspaper-reading, and being a far better shot than more obviously masculine men. Hunger and joblessness were a constant in the mining communities where he earned his living, and there was more than one story about how, in an incendiary situation, wit could often prevail over an unintelligent display of force.
My mother, in these stories, appeared as a freckled child in dirty overalls, trying to attain mastery over the dogs, horses, trains, and guns of a proper southern boy’s coming-of-age. In the re-telling, she was Scout and Jem rolled into one. Both her older brothers had died in childhood, and she was determined to be the son her father had lost. It was only in adulthood, re-reading To Kill a Mockingbird with my own daughters, that I was able to untangle the tom-boy stories of Scout’s narration from the similar stories I had heard from my mother.
I wonder, now, about the heroic tone of so many of the stories which my mother told about those years – about the hard times and obstacles conquered. It must partly have been a way of compensating for the sheer difficulty of life then. The anxieties of a girl-child were acute in a world where male privilege and even intimidation were always simmering just below the surface. The anxieties of a white child were acute in a different way: they involved watching and trying to make sense of racial brutality, being grateful to be on the safe side of the line – yet always unsettled by the odour of violence in the atmosphere.
At the same time, I suspect the heroic tone was also a way of trying to capture the tense emotional charge of that phase of her life. It was always clear to me that the comparatively civilized urban world in which I grew up, and in which my mother spent her adulthood, was a great come-down after the life-or-death immediacy of Depression Alabama. My mother was fully in sympathy with the idealism of the 1960s and 1970s, and yet at the same time you could feel how disappointingly small it all seemed to her. The stories of ‘how it used to be’ were never idealized – it wasn’t an easy life she was describing – but it was a world with a wide horizon.
Now, of course, it is I who have to find a way to tell these stories. My own daughters need to be told my mother’s stories, along with those her mother and grandmother told her and which she handed on to me. I don’t yet know how to characterise the tone that I reach for when I tell the stories of my own early years, the years my mother’s story began to cross with my own. Perhaps it is too early to tell. But it may also be a question only my own daughters can answer.