Bicycling Costume, 1890
My mother was born on Thanksgiving Day, early in the 1900s. Of course, Thanksgiving doesn’t always fall on the same date, so she sometimes claimed that her birthdays didn’t count unless they fell on Thanksgiving.
Today, on Mothers’ Day, I want to express gratitude to two women who changed my life — with a library card.
Before I started school, the highlight of the week was Sunday, when the Sunday comics arrived. In those days (the late 1940s) many of the cartoons told continuing stories, so in addition to the weekly color (and also daily) black and white adventures of Dagwood and Maggie and Jiggs, I looked forward to the continuing adventures of The Lone Ranger and The Phantom and Prince Valiant, et al. I would climb into my father’s lap, and he would read me “the funny papers.” (If I was at my grandmother’s house, my Uncle Mel would read them to me.) Either way, it’s possible that my love of reading began with those Sunday mornings, safe and warm in the lap of an adult I adored. (When I was older, I was very impressed by Uncle Mel’s complete recall of the whole Prince Valiant saga!) Prince Valiant was a fictional member of King Arthur’s Round Table — well, all the Knights of the Round Table were fictional, but Valiant, with his shiny blue-black bobbed hair, was a 20th century invention. His adventures, with those of his beautiful wife, Aleta, usually took up the entire back page of the Sunday Comics.
I remember a Sunday when I asked my father, “How do you know what the people are saying?” and he pointed to what appeared to me as a group of straight and squiggly black lines. “I’m reading these words,” he replied.
From that moment, I wanted to learn to read.
In fact, after my first day of school my mother took me to my father’s construction yard, where everyone asked, “How did you like school?” I shrugged. “It’s OK,” I muttered, then blurted “But they didn’t teach me to read!“(I didn’t realize that I would be going to school on most days for the next 17 years….)
As it happened, I took to reading immediately. My mother was fiercely proud of my progress in school, and, although I only recall having one book in the house (aside from Little Golden Books,) she took me to the public library while I was still in first grade. (Her aunt had been head librarian there, decades before I was born.) Mother used to ride her big, heavy bicycle alongside my child’s bike, with its handy basket on the front, to the library with me. Every two weeks we returned for another dozen or so easy reading books — the kind with colorful illustrations on the cover. I remember devouring Billy and Blaze and every other horse book we saw. Probably with the help of the children’s book room librarian, I quickly moved on to Mary Poppins and the Island Stallion books, to Edward Eager and Laura Ingalls WIlder.
Its only now that I realize my mother, a cancer survivor, was teaching me how to get to the library without her. I had my own little library card which allowed me to check out books from the children’s room. But in those early days, she usually accompanied me.
One day, probably exhausted by my saying “I’ve already read that” to all of her suggestions, Mother took me to the Adult Section. It was strictly forbidden to children under seventh grade, but she steered me to a shelf of adult books, and told me to pick one. These books had no pictures on their covers or spines, and they were shelved by author’s last name; not a clue for a book-crazy seven-year-old to seize upon. Fortunately, I recognized a title I knew from the few children’s books at my grandmother’s house: The Arabian Nights. I had read that beautifully illustrated children’s version from Scribner’s (published in the 1920s) and I loved it. The adult shelf had about ten different adult editions, so I just grabbed one, and Mother took it to the check-out desk to borrow it for me. When she told the librarian that the book was for me to read, the librarian was aghast. (She knew what my mother didn’t know, that the original English version of 1001 Arabian Nights, by explorer Richard Burton, had shocked the Victorians with its sexual content.) But the librarian didn’t say that; she just said, “Oh, that book is much too difficult for a little girl.”
My Mother’s hackles rose.
She cracked the book open (ouch,) slammed it down on the counter, and said, “Susan, read for the lady.”
I selected a paragraph at random and began to read aloud. I read for a minute or two, to the end of the paragraph, and the librarian said gently, “That’s enough.” Then she turned her back on us and went to a shelf where the new library cards were stored. She took one, stamped it, entered my address and other information, and had me sign it. Against all regulations, she gave me, a child of seven, the key to all the riches of that fairly large public library!
On the outside of the library building was this quotation from Scottish essayist Thomas Carlyle: “All that mankind has done, thought, gained or been: it is lying as in magic preservation in the pages of books. They are the chosen possession of men.”
Thank you for introducing me to the library, Mother.
With my Mother on my fifth birthday. Because she lied about my age, I started First Grade three months later. I was a fluent reader by the time I was seven.