Billie Letts has passed away, and with her, more stories of good Oklahoma folks. She was an English teacher at Southeastern State, and her first book, Where the Heart Is, became an Oprah book. Her life was forever changed by that book, and by Oprah's decision to feature it. The world is a better place.
I first learned of Letts and her book when two of my students at Central Mid High in Norman brought it to me and pretty much demanded I read it. Well, that was endorsement enough, and I did. Later, at Molly Griffis’ store, Levite of Apache, I met Letts at a book signing. I told her the story of how I’d learned about Heart…and her eyes filled with tears. My girls were HER students too…and to think she’d touched young people with whom she’d spend her life, touched her and me. She was still teaching.
That first time I met her, I bought two book for her to sign…one for me and one for my mother, the woman who taught me the book is always better than the movie. The woman who knew Dill from To Kill A Mockingbird was Truman Capote. The woman who taught me to be slightly disdainful of F. Scott Fitzgerald, who obviously stole much of his material from his mercurial, talented, flawed wife Zelda. The woman who introduced me to the Arthurian Legends, and traveled for half a day in England to reach Beatrix Potter’s home so she could write to me about the visit. The woman who told me how, when I was an infant, she would nurse me on one side, and hold a book with her other arm…then shift me and her book.
I am a reader because my mother, who barely finished high school, was a reader.
I’ve read all Letts' books…stories with sharp edges about good people…good Oklahoma people. People who create their own families, who watch out for each other, who support and care for each other. I read and loved all of her books. Honk and Holler Opening Soon's last scene still makes me smile. I loved the adoption story in Shoot the Moon, as an adoptive mother, and I read the dark Made in the U.S.A. wondering how she would bring her characters back to Oklahoma...and she did!
Mom kept the book until she and my dad moved from my childhood home in northwest Indiana to a nursing home in southern Indiana. They had to weed their books from two towering floor-to-ceiling built-in shelves in our family room, to one shelf in their new room. So, Heart was donated.
More years passed. Mom and Dad both passed away and were buried next to each other in Dad’s home, Sullivan, IN. My sister and I came to terms with being the oldest generation in our family, and life went on.
Then, five years or so ago, I got a strange email from my sister, who lived in northeast Indiana. She had gone to a garage sale in a small town in northeast Indiana. She found a box of books. She picked up one of the books, a paperback with an Oprah Book label. She turned it over. Where the Heart Is. For fifty cents she thought she’d pick it up. When opening the book, she realized the book was autographed by the author…”To Mary – a special gift from Claudia and best wishes from me – Billie Letts.” She was shocked. Here, years after Mom’s passing, even more years after she parted with the book, even more years after I gave Mom the book, there it was. In my sister’s hands. OUR book.
She snapped it up and sent it to me. Now, most fittingly, Where the Heart Is, is home. Home in my bookshelf. Home in my house. Home.
Billie Letts was always that English teacher from Durant, even when she got to meet celebrities and had the opportunity to move on. Her roots were here, and it showed in her work.
I wish Billie Letts and Mom could have met and visited about books and families and heartaches and life. They had so much in common.
So, now, the book she autographed for my mother, from me is home. It traveled from Norman to Merrillville, IN. Then through mysterious journeys to the opposite border of the state, then, back to me. I never told Letts that story, but I know she would have appreciated it.
Our world is sadder today, with the passing of Billie Letts…but she showed us time and again, love and support will be there for us when we need it. My heart goes out to her family and fans.