For over forty years Atticus Finch has been my hero.
I was pregnant when I first read To Kill a Mockingbird, and I’ve lost count of the many times it has warmed my heart since. As I read those remarkable words I found myself hoping my unborn child might one day be just like my hero.
During the following years, my little family was not in any way like the Walton bunch on television, although we had our share of drama: tragedy, grief, disappointment and even divorce. But we survived. Often it was impossible for us to see eye-to-eye. It was hard, real hard, to always look for the good in one another and we failed as often as we succeeded.
We were a family growing together and sometimes apart during one of the most turbulent times of my generation. I used to tell my two sons that even in bad times we, the people, make up the structure of our family much like we, the people, frame the core of our nation.
Today I have to wonder if I marked my first unborn son while reading TKAM, since he grew up to become a small town lawyer like my hero in the book.
Last year, he was terribly concerned about his client, a much-loved African American retired teacher. “Miss Annie Mae,” he told me, “took in a homeless girl, sheltered and fed her and even tried to help her find work.”
I looked into his eyes where the depth of his soul can be found and saw his indignation. “It sounds like a good thing she did. What was wrong with that?”
Unable to shake his concern he said, “The girl went through her things and stole a bank book. Then a month later, she wrote a check on Miss Annie’s account, took it to the store where America shops, and cashed it. No questions were asked.”
I exploded, alarmed for a woman I had never met. “This is terrible. How did something like this happen?”
He sighed. “Miss Annie Mae was totally unaware of it until the store manager informed her that she was responsible for the bad check. When she explained that she had closed that account two years before, he told her not to worry, that he would look into it.
A few weeks went by before three more checks were passed in Miss Annie Mae’s name at the same store. Living on a fixed income, she could ill afford to pay for the bad checks; in fact, losing a dime of her retirement would have been a real hardship. Again, she explained this to the store manager, and as he had done before, he promised to take care of it.
Three months went by and she had been back home for only a day following minor surgery when two county policemen showed up at her door with a warrant for her arrest.
“I just came home from the hospital,” she explained. “I’m sick and I need my medicine.”
They said, “That’s too bad because you can’t bring medicine to the jail, prescribed or not.”
Although she pleaded with them, in the end they carted her off in handcuffs while her entire neighborhood looked on. She was arraigned the next morning clad in the nightgown she had been wearing the day before.
When my son got wind of what happened, he was furious. Knowing that he had to help her in any way he could, he bailed her out, offered to defend her at no charge and made sure she would not spend another night behind bars. He advised her to bring suit against the retail store and she agreed.
As is normal for our system of justice these days, it took a while before the suit was brought before a judge. Since Miss Annie Mae meant nothing to the retail chain, they were eager to settle out of court. They made her an offer and even hinted at the possibility of a long trial unless she accepted the chunk of change they were prepared to give her.
My son spoke up. “Miss Annie Mae is a good woman who for many years set a fine example for her students as well as others in the community. The accusations made against her were not only painful but humiliating as well. Her own church congregation shunned her after she was arrested; her neighbors were angry because she’d spent the night in jail. Miss Annie Mae deserves better, so I suggest you people come back with a serious offer, one to help make up for the damage to her reputation. We’ll talk then.”
Meanwhile, upon further investigation, an identify theft ring was found to be operating in one of the retail chain stores. That particular store had cashed all of the bad checks passed in Miss Annie Mae’s name and the perpetrators were eventually caught and arrested.
A few weeks later, my phone rang. “Mom, we settled Miss Annie Mae’s case today.”
Relieved, I said, “Oh, honey, that’s wonderful. Is she okay with how things turned out?”
“Yes ma’am, she’s happy. In fact, I just spoke with her a few minutes ago.”
He chuckled. “First, I told her to sit down because I had good news. After that, I told her that the court had awarded her a million and a half dollars.”
“Holy Cow!” I exclaimed. “That’s awesome! What did she say?”
When he spoke, his voice was husky, full of emotion. “She said, ‘Praise Jesus. I’ve got enough money now to put a new roof on our church. We’ve needed one for such a long time. God sho’ does work in mysterious ways, doesn’t he?” He paused before adding, “Even though they turned their backs on her when she needed them, she still wants to give thousands of dollars to her church.”
We were both quiet for a few minutes. Mere words were inadequate to express our emotions. With tears freefalling down my face, I finally broke the silence. “What a wonderful ending to this story,” I said.
A child who takes on the most powerful retail chain in the world would make any parent proud, but when my boy stood up for a defenseless, African American retired schoolteacher, the word proud can’t describe how it made me feel.
Miss Annie Mae handled her troubles, as difficult as they had to have been for her, with grace and forgiveness, an invaluable lesson for all of us.
My son was right to do whatever he could to restore Miss Annie Mae’s dignity and standing in the community.
Move over, Atticus Finch. Over forty years have passed since we met, but I have a new hero now and he reminds me an awful lot of you.