“Put my bag in the front bedroom, Calpurnia,” was the first thing Aunt Alexandra said. “Jean Louise, stop scratching your head,” was the second thing she said.
Calpurnia picked up Aunty’s heavy suitcase and opened the door. “I’ll take it,” said Jem, and took it. I heard the suitcase hit the bedroom floor with a thump. The sound had a dull permanence about it.
“Have you come for a visit, Aunty?” I asked. Aunt Alexandra’s visits from the Landing were rare, and she traveled in state. She owned a bright green square Buick and a black chauffeur, both kept in an unhealthy state of tidiness, but today they were nowhere to be seen.
“Didn’t your father tell you?” she asked.
Jem and I shook our heads.
“Probably he forgot. He’s not in yet, is he?”
“Nome, he doesn’t usually get back till late afternoon,” said Jem.
“Well, your father and I decided it was time I came to stay with you for a while.”
“For a while” in Maycomb meant anything from three days to thirty years. Jem and I exchanged glances.
“Jem’s growing up now and you are too,” she said to me. “We decided that it would be best for you to have some feminine influence. It won’t be many years, Jean Louise, before you become interested in clothes and boys—”
I could have made several answers to this: Cal’s a girl, it would be many years before I would be interested in boys, I would never be interested in clothes… but I kept quiet.
“What about Uncle Jimmy?” asked Jem. “Is he comin’, too?”
“Oh no, he’s staying at the Landing. He’ll keep the place going.”
The moment I said, “Won’t you miss him?” I realized that this was not a tactful question. Uncle Jimmy present or Uncle Jimmy absent made not much difference, he never said anything. Aunt Alexandra ignored my question.
I could think of nothing else to say to her. In fact I could never think of anything to say to her, and I sat thinking of past painful conversations between us: How are you, Jean Louise? Fine, thank you ma’am, how are you? Very well, thank you, what have you been doing with yourself? Nothin’. Don’t you do anything? Nome. Certainly you have friends? Yessum. Well what do you all do? Nothin’.
It was plain that Aunty thought me dull in the extreme, because I once heard her tell Atticus that I was sluggish.
There was a story behind all this, but I had no desire to extract it from her then. Today was Sunday, and Aunt Alexandra was positively irritable on the Lord’s Day. I guess it was her Sunday corset. She was not fat, but solid, and she chose protective garments that drew up her bosom to giddy heights, pinched in her waist, flared out her rear, and managed to suggest that Aunt Alexandra’s was once an hour-glass figure. From any angle, it was formidable.
The remainder of the afternoon went by in the gentle gloom that descends when relatives appear, but was dispelled when we heard a car turn in the driveway. It was Atticus, home from Montgomery. Jem, forgetting his dignity, ran with me to meet him. Jem seized his briefcase and bag, I jumped into his arms, felt his vague dry kiss and said, “’d you bring me a book? ‘d you know Aunty’s here?”
Atticus answered both questions in the affirmative. “How’d you like for her to come live with us?”
I said I would like it very much, which was a lie, but one must lie under certain circumstances and at all times when one can’t do anything about them.
“We felt it was time you children needed — well, it’s like this, Scout,” Atticus said. “Your aunt’s doing me a favor as well as you all. I can’t stay here all day with you, and the summer’s going to be a hot one.”
“Yes sir,” I said, not understanding a word he said. I had an idea, however, that Aunt Alexandra’s appearance on the scene was not so much Atticus’s doing as hers. Aunty had a way of declaring What Is Best For The Family, and I suppose her coming to live with us was in that category.
Maycomb welcomed her. Miss Maudie Atkinson baked a Lane cake so loaded with shinny it made me tight; Miss Stephanie Crawford had long visits with Aunt Alexandra, consisting mostly of Miss Stephanie shaking her head and saying, “Uh, uh, uh.” Miss Rachel next door had Aunty over for coffee in the afternoons, and Mr. Nathan Radley went so far as to come up in the front yard and say he was glad to see her.
When she settled in with us and life resumed its daily pace, Aunt Alexandra seemed as if she had always lived with us. Her Missionary Society refreshments added to her reputation as a hostess (she did not permit Calpurnia to make the delicacies required to sustain the Society through long reports on Rice Christians); she joined and became Secretary of the Maycomb Amanuensis Club. To all parties present and participating in the life of the county, Aunt Alexandra was one of the last of her kind: she had river-boat, boarding-school manners; let any moral come along and she would uphold it; she was born in the objective case; she was an incurable gossip. When Aunt Alexandra went to school, self-doubt could not be found in any textbook, so she knew not its meaning. She was never bored, and given the slightest chance she would exercise her royal prerogative: she would arrange, advise, caution, and warn.
She never let a chance escape her to point out the shortcomings of other tribal groups to the greater glory of our own, a habit that amused Jem rather than annoyed him: “Aunty better watch how she talks-scratch most folks in Maycomb and they’re kin to us.”
Aunt Alexandra, in underlining the moral of young Sam Merriweather’s suicide, said it was caused by a morbid streak in the family. Let a sixteen-year-old girl giggle in the choir and Aunty would say, “It just goes to show you, all the Penfield women are flighty.” Everybody in Maycomb, it seemed, had a Streak: a Drinking Streak, a Gambling Streak, a Mean Streak, a Funny Streak.
Once, when Aunty assured us that Miss Stephanie Crawford’s tendency to mind other people’s business was hereditary, Atticus said, “Sister, when you stop to think about it, our generation’s practically the first in the Finch family not to marry its cousins. Would you say the Finches have an Incestuous Streak?”
Aunty said no, that’s where we got our small hands and feet.
I never understood her preoccupation with heredity. Somewhere, I had received the impression that Fine Folks were people who did the best they could with the sense they had, but Aunt Alexandra was of the opinion, obliquely expressed, that the longer a family had been squatting on one patch of land the finer it was.
“That makes the Ewells fine folks, then,” said Jem. The tribe of which Burris Ewell and his brethren consisted had lived on the same plot of earth behind the Maycomb dump, and had thrived on county welfare money for three generations.
Aunt Alexandra’s theory had something behind it, though. Maycomb was an ancient town. It was twenty miles east of Finch’s Landing, awkwardly inland for such an old town. But Maycomb would have been closer to the river had it not been for the nimble-wittedness of one Sinkfield, who in the dawn of history operated an inn where two pig-trails met, the only tavern in the territory. Sinkfield, no patriot, served and supplied ammunition to Indians and settlers alike, neither knowing or caring whether he was a part of the Alabama Territory or the Creek Nation so long as business was good. Business was excellent when Governor William Wyatt Bibb, with a view to promoting the newly created county’s domestic tranquility, dispatched a team of surveyors to locate its exact center and there establish its seat of government. The surveyors, Sinkfield’s guests, told their host that he was in the territorial confines of Maycomb County, and showed him the probable spot where the county seat would be built. Had not Sinkfield made a bold stroke to preserve his holdings, Maycomb would have sat in the middle of Winston Swamp, a place totally devoid of interest. Instead, Maycomb grew and sprawled out from its hub, Sinkfield’s Tavern, because Sinkfield reduced his guests to myopic drunkenness one evening, induced them to bring forward their maps and charts, lop off a little here, add a bit there, and adjust the center of the county to meet his requirements. He sent them packing next day armed with their charts and five quarts of shinny in their saddlebags — two apiece and one for the Governor.
Because its primary reason for existence was government, Maycomb was spared the grubbiness that distinguished most Alabama towns its size. In the beginning its buildings were solid, its courthouse proud, its streets graciously wide. Maycomb’s proportion of professional people ran high: one went there to have his teeth pulled, his wagon fixed, his heart listened to, his money deposited, his soul saved, his mules vetted. But the ultimate wisdom of Sinkfield’s maneuver is open to question. He placed the young town too far away from the only kind of public transportation in those days — river-boat — and it took a man from the north end of the county two days to travel to Maycomb for store-bought goods. As a result the town remained the same size for a hundred years, an island in a patchwork sea of cottonfields and timberland.
Although Maycomb was ignored during the War Between the States, Reconstruction rule and economic ruin forced the town to grow. It grew inward. New people so rarely settled there, the same families married the same families until the members of the community looked faintly alike. Occasionally someone would return from Montgomery or Mobile with an outsider, but the result caused only a ripple in the quiet stream of family resemblance. Things were more or less the same during my early years.
There was indeed a caste system in Maycomb, but to my mind it worked this way: the older citizens, the present generation of people who had lived side by side for years and years, were utterly predictable to one another: they took for granted attitudes, character shadings, even gestures, as having been repeated in each generation and refined by time. Thus the dicta No Crawford Minds His Own Business, Every Third Merriweather Is Morbid, The Truth Is Not in the Delafields, All the Bufords Walk Like That, were simply guides to daily living: never take a check from a Delafield without a discreet call to the bank; Miss Maudie Atkinson’s shoulder stoops because she was a Buford; if Mrs. Grace Merriweather sips gin out of Lydia E. Pinkham bottles it’s nothing unusual — her mother did the same.
Aunt Alexandra fitted into the world of Maycomb like a hand into a glove, but never into the world of Jem and me. I so often wondered how she could be Atticus’s and Uncle Jack’s sister that I revived half-remembered tales of changelings and mandrake roots that Jem had spun long ago.
These were abstract speculations for the first month of her stay, as she had little to say to Jem or me, and we saw her only at mealtimes and at night before we went to bed. It was summer and we were outdoors. Of course some afternoons when I would run inside for a drink of water, I would find the livingroom overrun with Maycomb ladies, sipping, whispering, fanning, and I would be called: “Jean Louise, come speak to these ladies.”
When I appeared in the doorway, Aunty would look as if she regretted her request; I was usually mud-splashed or covered with sand.
“Speak to your Cousin Lily,” she said one afternoon, when she had trapped me in the hall.
“Who?” I said.
“Your Cousin Lily Brooke,” said Aunt Alexandra.
“She our cousin? I didn’t know that.”
Aunt Alexandra managed to smile in a way that conveyed a gentle apology to Cousin Lily and firm disapproval to me. When Cousin Lily Brooke left I knew I was in for it.
It was a sad thing that my father had neglected to tell me about the Finch Family, or to install any pride into his children. She summoned Jem, who sat warily on the sofa beside me. She left the room and returned with a purple-covered book on which
“Your cousin wrote this,” said Aunt Alexandra. “He was a beautiful character.”
Jem examined the small volume. “Is this the Cousin Joshua who was locked up for so long?”
Aunt Alexandra said, “How did you know that?”
“Why, Atticus said he went round the bend at the University. Said he tried to shoot the president. Said Cousin Joshua said he wasn’t anything but a sewer-inspector and tried to shoot him with an old flintlock pistol, only it just blew up in his hand. Atticus said it cost the family five hundred dollars to get him out of that one—”
Aunt Alexandra was standing stiff as a stork. “That’s all,” she said. “We’ll see about this.”
Before bedtime I was in Jem’s room trying to borrow a book, when Atticus knocked and entered. He sat on the side of Jem’s bed, looked at us soberly, then he grinned.
“Er — h’rm,” he said. He was beginning to preface some things he said with a throaty noise, and I thought he must at last be getting old, but he looked the same. “I don’t exactly know how to say this,” he began.
“Well, just say it,” said Jem. “Have we done something?”
Our father was actually fidgeting. “No, I just want to explain to you that — your Aunt Alexandra asked me… son, you know you’re a Finch, don’t you?”
“That’s what I’ve been told.” Jem looked out of the corners of his eyes. His voice rose uncontrollably, “Atticus, what’s the matter?”
Atticus crossed his knees and folded his arms. “I’m trying to tell you the facts of life.”
Jem’s disgust deepened. “I know all that stuff,” he said.
Atticus suddenly grew serious. In his lawyer’s voice, without a shade of inflection, he said: “Your aunt has asked me to try and impress upon you and Jean Louise that you are not from run-of-the-mill people, that you are the product of several generations’ gentle breeding—” Atticus paused, watching me locate an elusive redbug on my leg.
“Gentle breeding,” he continued, when I had found and scratched it, “and that you should try to live up to your name—” Atticus persevered in spite of us: “She asked me to tell you you must try to behave like the little lady and gentleman that you are. She wants to talk to you about the family and what it’s meant to Maycomb County through the years, so you’ll have some idea of who you are, so you might be moved to behave accordingly,” he concluded at a gallop.
Stunned, Jem and I looked at each other, then at Atticus, whose collar seemed to worry him. We did not speak to him.
Presently I picked up a comb from Jem’s dresser and ran its teeth along the edge.
“Stop that noise,” Atticus said.
His curtness stung me. The comb was midway in its journey, and I banged it down. For no reason I felt myself beginning to cry, but I could not stop. This was not my father. My father never thought these thoughts. My father never spoke so. Aunt Alexandra had put him up to this, somehow. Through my tears I saw Jem standing in a similar pool of isolation, his head cocked to one side.
There was nowhere to go, but I turned to go and met Atticus’s vest front. I buried my head in it and listened to the small internal noises that went on behind the light blue cloth: his watch ticking, the faint crackle of his starched shirt, the soft sound of his breathing.
“Your stomach’s growling,” I said.
“I know it,” he said.
“You better take some soda.”
“I will,” he said.
“Atticus, is all this behavin’ an’ stuff gonna make things different? I mean are you—?”
I felt his hand on the back of my head. “Don’t you worry about anything,” he said. “It’s not time to worry.”
When I heard that, I knew he had come back to us. The blood in my legs began to flow again, and I raised my head. “You really want us to do all that? I can’t remember everything Finches are supposed to do…”
“I don’t want you to remember it. Forget it.”
He went to the door and out of the room, shutting the door behind him. He nearly slammed it, but caught himself at the last minute and closed it softly. As Jem and I stared, the door opened again and Atticus peered around. His eyebrows were raised, his glasses had slipped. “Get more like Cousin Joshua every day, don’t I? Do you think I’ll end up costing the family five hundred dollars?”
I know now what he was trying to do, but Atticus was only a man. It takes a woman to do that kind of work.