Thankful Thoughts

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.

17 Comments

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17 responses to “Thankful Thoughts

  1. Emily P.

    Happy Mother’s Day, and what a wonderful story you have told!

    I can certainly relate to you. I was always a prolific reader as a child, and I could read several years above my grade level. When I was in the second grade, I was told by my well-meaning school librarian that kids my age weren’t allowed to read Nancy Drew or Hardy Boys books. She said it was just too hard or that it was for older kids, I can’t remember which. But by golly, I’d already finished reading all the age-appropriate books that interested me in that library, and I was not intimidated by the thought of reading books for kids who were slightly older and slightly taller than I was. So I told the librarian I wanted to read Nancy Drew anyway, and even though she had some misgivings, she allowed me to check out one of those books. I finished it in a few days, and I loved every word.

    By the time I was in third grade, I was reading plenty of “adult” books. I even read Margaret Mitchell’s “Gone with the Wind” that year. All 1,036 pages of it. There were many words in it that weren’t in my vocabulary, but I looked up literally every one of them in the dictionary, so I wasn’t lost. It was absolutely worth the time and effort. Since then, I’ve read that novel several more times.

    At 49, I’m still crazy for books and still very grateful for libraries and librarians and library cards. How fortunate we are to have access to a world of books at no charge to us. It’s more than just a privilege. It feels downright magical.

  2. What a beautiful story! I also have good memories of my mother taking me and my sisters to the library Thanks for sharing.

    Sent from my iPhone

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  3. Jacquelyn Goudeau

    I too, was taught reading by my mom…born 1915. I also got the library card while in 1st grade.
    Always, wanted a library! Born May1945…I now have 2. One of urban planning materials & a personal one of creative arts & culture for Moi!
    Thanks for your story. I also thank my mother for teaching me to READ!
    Jacquelyn Goudeau

  4. A lovely tribute. I still remember the feeling I had the moment I realized I could read. My mother never watched television she was always reading. She also taught me to read. Thank you for reminding me.

  5. My mother was born in 1926, but my story is similar (the subtle library lessons in self sufficiency, thrift and standing up for yourself to ridiculous rules from a woman who was in and out of the hospital through my childhood). My parents did not own books except The Joy of Cooking and Roget’s Thesaurus, but we went to the library every week.
    Thank you for the reminder and the sweet memories.

  6. MARY STILL

    What a great e-mail! Many thanks for this glimpse into your past! There is nothing like reading, is there!

    Happy Mother’s Day! Mary

    Sent from my iPad

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  7. Mary

    So wonderful to hear your story of learning to read. I also loved reading from the start ! I had the same experience with a librarian asking me if my mother knew I was reading an adult book.

  8. Julie

    Hi, awhile ago, you wrote about 40s apeon, mcall 1403, tulip pocket apron. I wonder if you have this pattern and, if so, would you sell a copy of instructions? I have pattern, but no instruction. Thanks.

  9. I love this! My mother claims that I taught myself how to read, but we had a metal board with magnetic letters and I remember her going over them with me. We went to the library a lot, and there were plenty of books there, but I started reading from my parents’ bookshelf when I was seven. My mom told me (with good reason) that I should check with her first if I wanted to read one of these books. Unfortunately I had already started reading a book called But Daddy!, about a Catholic family with eleven children, which I adored. I wasn’t a sneaky kid, but I couldn’t stand the idea of not being able to finish it, so I used to sit behind the furniture and read it, terrified of being caught with this wholesome book.

  10. Jewel Nelson

    As a retired Librarian–YAY!. I hope that children are allowed access, because they usually pass up what they don’t understand, (too adult). Our library was nice that way. Kids learning to draw would wind up in the adult area, and they were excellent artists (you sure you are only 8?) and their parents would do a quick peruse to make sure that it was not going to shock them. Thank you so much for sharing your story. You are so lucky, and you were also lucky that you had a library in your area.

    • We were lucky to have a Carnegie Library. Our town was the county seat. In those days no one worried about seven or eight year old children riding their bike around town or going to the park of supervised. Ah, the good old days.

  11. The enjoyment of reading – what a beautiful gift your mother bestowed on you!

  12. What a glorious and touching story – thank you!

  13. What a beautiful story, thank you for sharing your wonderful memories. I grew up in a house full of books, so reading has always been a part of my life from a young age too, and so is visiting the library.

  14. Wonderful memories. I became and avid reader at a young age, reading books while I walked home and it was a thrill to get an adult library card. Vaguely recall it was age based so maybe at 12?

  15. Like you, I learned to read early. I was born in 1944, and my mother, tiring of reading to me (she was a busy single working mom), taught me to read the little golden books etc. I was reading at age 3, started first grade at 5, and that christmas someone gave me The Wind in the Willows, which I read (I probably had a dictionary to use). I read avidly, but very few children’s books from that time on. When I was 9 I read all of the Sherlock Holmes stories and thought he was a real person (he was, right?). Reading shaped my young life, thanks mom…..
    bonnie in provence

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