One can tell our daughter, Rachel, loves books. The books (mostly children’s books, of course) are everywhere around her house - everything from the hard board books for babies and toddlers up to the chapter books for 3rd graders, up to award-winning fiction books for 6th graders. I can hardly move around their house without sitting on or stepping on a book. I remember I once counted all the children’s books, and it was - what? 600 or so? And that was not including the ones I keep here at our house! These books are the results of years and years of buying a few at a time by the parents, and the kids receiving them as gifts on birthdays and Christmas and other non-special occasions. Before we tried to pare down expenses, I used to bring a book to Caroline every time I visited her.
When my sister, Joy, and I were growing up, we also lived in a household that loved books. The only difference is that our family couldn’t afford to buy them. Our children’s collection consisted of a few volumes of a series called Best in Children’s Books, a book of poetry, and an old dictionary that fascinated me because it had a rhyming section in the back (I was prone to writing silly poems as an adolescent). So how did we manage to be reading constantly during our formative years? The public library.
I honestly don’t know why I didn’t end up a librarian. The public library, along with the church, was our second home. Back in the days when child abduction was unheard of, our parents used to leave us at the library (when we were old enough) when they ran Saturday errands, as such as going to the grocery store. The Highland branch, a smaller neighborhood library, was our usual destination, and we knew every nook and cranny of that place. I could have told any patron where any book was. The larger Main Library was truly a place of wonders. I felt as if I barely scratched its surface, but I knew my way around. It was there I met Carl Sandburg and his Lincoln books, Agatha Christie, and the Bronte sisters. I scoured the history section incessantly. I even loved to read etiquette books to marvel at instructions for place settings at dinner parties (who ever heard of having more than one fork at at dinner??). I found addresses of famous people in Who's Who in America, and I wrote letters to them, many times receiving letters in response. I was known for my interest in “weird” books - like a cultural history of bowel movements. Well, I try to be a well-rounded person and be able to hold up my end of a conversation. You never know when obscure facts might come in handy.
Our dad adored reading, but rarely had time. On nights when our mother hosted her Bunco parties, Dad took us girls to the Main Library for a rare night out with him. I remember seeing him standing in between the tall shelves, browsing book after book. It looked so odd to see him in a library, and I began to realize how much sacrifice he had made in his life to take care of his family, his in-laws, be active in his church and other community activities. He just didn’t have time to go to the library himself - but he darn well made sure we did. He knew the library expanded our world many times over - learning about the history of places we’d never be able to see in person, reading fiction from a time long gone. He smiled as I rented records of symphonies and concertos. He was pleased when I borrowed music books - where else would I have learned how to play Cole Porter and Duke Ellington? Our dad gave us everything it was in his power to give, and what he couldn’t give, he made sure the library gave it to us.
When I got to be an adult, I still used the Memphis libraries on a regular basis for many years. Ed and I even rented paintings for a while. When we were first married, we stuck a heavy nail in the wall of our townhouse, and every month we’d rent a painting from the library and hang it on the nail. We borrowed famous ones and less famous ones. For a couple of dollars a month, we’d have a new painting to enjoy for a few weeks.
Alas, as we grew busier and more financially stable, we stopped going to the library and instead frequented the book store, where we actually bought books. If you have read my blog from the beginning, you remember that getting rid of many of those books was one of our first painful steps at downsizing.
When we moved to Ellsworth, Maine, I visited the very small library, but it was such a disappointment from the big extensive Memphis libraries, that I quit going. We were still reading extensively, but still buying the books we wanted.
Now after more than a year of cutting expenses and getting by on less, I decided it was time to get reacquainted with the Ellsworth Library. After 10 years or so, my card had to be renewed, of course. Now every weekend, I immerse myself in the wonders of the public library. These days I bring home not only books but movies as well. Ed and I have just finished watching a few movies from the 1930s that you can’t even rent in the video stores around here. And it was all free!
Even with all their books at home, our grandchildren Caroline and Charlotte still visit their community library. They know the pleasure and power of “borrowing the world” for a few weeks, as well as the responsibility of taking care of someone else’s books and returning them on time.
In my life, I have only been to a handful of dinners with more than one fork - but at least I was prepared. When I finally visited Lincoln’s home in Springfield, I had Carl Sandburg’s narratives in my head. When I met Duke Ellington and got his autograph, I was confident I could play a lot of his music.
The public library is one of those places we tend to take for granted, and making fun of librarians seems to be one of our national pastimes. But I consider that the public library gave me an even greater education than the school system, and I am so thankful our parents made sure we had that opportunity to learn and grow and be entertained. I am so excited that I am renewing that relationship again. Thanks, Dad.