July 20th, 2008
Most Sundays I take the girls to the library. It’s an unexpected day for the library to be open, so it’s often empty and uncrowded. Usually, we start our excursion with a coffee/smoothie/chocolate milk pick-up, then make it to the library when it opens at 1. Sometimes, we wait outside on the lawn in the few minutes before the tired-eyed librarian unhurriedly opens the door, clicking her key ring against the glass and turning away before we can greet her. That time is spent mingling with the elderly woman dropping off Barbara Cartland or the angry-under-the-surface middle-aged man who glares at the girls hiding behind trees and tracing angels in the grass. Either way, soon enough the gaggle of us file into the building and my daughters scamper down the too-steep stairs to the enormous kid’s section.
I relish this time. I’ve spent more collective hours in the library than in my bed, I think. If a nuclear bomb were headed our way, I’d trundle us all to the library and huddle between the stacks, feeling impossibly safe and happy. There’s not much I remember anymore about my early childhood, but there is this: cradling a leaning tower of checked-out books under my chin, willing them not to fall, as I made my way past the McDonald’s and over two bridges back home; or swallowing the peppermint taste of excitement as I willed my legs to stop bouncing long enough to read the back of John Bellairs’ The Letter, The Witch and the Ring.
And for as long as I’ve loved books, one nightmare has hounded me: I’m alone in a library, squinting at the spines of book after book, in aisle after aisle, as my eyesight grows progressively dim, until in one brutal second, my vision snuffs out altogether. I can no longer read a thing, and this vignette haunts me.
Yet for now, I transfer my eyes to my children. I hope that by reading word after word, I’m infusing them with a glimpse of white mountains, the taste of peppermint, the thrall of witches and the breathlessness of whistling through space atop a winged horse. There are other things. Stories that pluck your eyes, pull your skin and stretch you, until you are quite someone else from the person you were an hour before. I breathe this on my children.
When I watch Toots travel somewhere else, see her eyes take on the distance and reflect the water of Honalee, I’m transported to snapshot of a little girl, hiding under her covers, aiming a flashlight at a book, sure that the world holds magic she’s only begun to touch.
So while I recall this other girl, and her road through books. I thought I remembered every book that laid the world at my feet. When I browse the kids’s section now, I run my fingers across my favorites, barely able to wait until my daughters can read The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe, A Wrinkle in Time, Mary Poppins, and my beloved John Bellairs. But as I pulled one book from the shelf, attracted by its yellow cover, I was wholly unprepared for what happened next.
I knew this book. Yet I hadn’t thought of it at all in the intervening years between my 3-year-old self and now. The complete familiarity of it took my breath, as if I’d lost my ear, or perhaps a finger, then found it again, restoring me back to whole. Melodramatic, yes, but it was just like that. This visceral connection to my younger self came as a physical sensation, like a rubber band snapping my soul.
I can’t explain it another way.
I leafed through the book, and saw this:
And I was back to a mustard yellow couch in an apartment overlooking a pool. The door hung open and I could see the pale blue water rippling through a white plastic fence that circled the entire second floor of the apartment complex.
That was all. I don’t know who was reading to me, but I suspect it was my mother. I did feel an intrusive sadness when I saw the story, and I can’t tell you why. But it’s since cleaved to me and I own it again, after losing it for so many years.
Those movies where you see how a man became a man? Where you watch him as a child suffering abuse, then fight back to become an advocate or a killer? Or when you see the early transformation from an introspective over-thinker to a philosopher?
I’d just glimpsed the beginning of my movie.