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I am a mother, a grandmother, and a teacher. But whatever happens in my life, I keep sewing. I have worked as a political communicator and now as a teacher in my formal life. I have also written extensively on sewing. I have been a frequent contributor and contributing editor of Threads magazine and the Australian magazine Dressmaking with Stitches. My book Sew.. the garment-making book of knowledge was published in May 2018 and is available for pre-order from Amazon


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Tuesday, June 25, 2019

Short story: So you want to be a writer

Inspired by:  Indeed, learning to write may be part of learning to read. For all I know, writing comes out of a superior devotion to reading.
Eudora Welty

I am pretty sure my dad spent most of my childhood wishing I was someone else.

He talked a lot about a big gang of kids. Why couldn’t I be normal and happy running around with a bunch of friends? Like he did in the stories he told in at the house parties my parents used to have. Parties held on nights when clouds of cigarette smoke drifted down the bungalow hall to our bedroom doors, cracked open so we could lie in bed and listen to grown-up laughter. Listen to the voices as they grew louder and the stories were told uncensored now the kids were in bed.

A big gang of kids like the ones my dad piled into the car when he was in university. In the days when you did drink and drive, seeing how closely he could back up to the edge of the bank of the Red River in his dad’s car, just for laughs.

A big gang of kids like my next youngest sister, the one I was most compared to, and who played basketball, and hung with. The gang who did who knows what when she was gone for hours out of everyone’s hair.

“Can’t you get that kid out of her room?” my dad would ask my mother. “It’s summer and she should be out playing, not stuck in her room reading books.”

But I had so many books to read. 

Every Saturday I took the bus downtown alone, they let you do that then, to the public library. It was the tallest building in town in those days, bigger than Woolworths, taller than Kresges, and towering over the Saan Stores With Clothes for the Working Man on the same side of the street. The library, an old bank, must have been two, three storeys high, at least.

The library had two sections. 

On the main floor was the adult library, where you could visit when you turned twelve. Downstairs, in the basement, was the children’s section, where you went while you waited, either for your parents to rescue you, or to turn twelve. Sometimes it was hard to know what was going to come first.

The floor of the children’s section was concrete and uneven. The walls were painted in shiny red enamel, because I guess, well you know children, it had to be easy to clean. There was a librarians’ counter the staff stayed behind, where you took your books to be stamped for check-out.  There were also a few tiny chairs but no one sat in them. Your bum got stuck if you did.

Down one end of the room there was a mesh wall with a lock. Here the library staff did whatever they did, putting the cards into the back of the books I figured, or composing the criminal records of kids like me who always returned books late. I remember now that there was also a huge safe at the back behind the gate. After all who was going to lug anything that heavy up the stairs and away? It was just as easy to turn the dial and forget the combination.

The children’s collection made me sad. 

What I really read there was how small was the world adults allowed children to have and how dull it was. There were books with mice dressed up for tea or with children taken care of by nannies. None of this made sense to a kid who was put out the back door to go play every morning, snow or shine, and only let in when the can of soup was hot enough for lunch.

Some of those books even broke my heart. Enid Blyton was the worst. Where was I going to build a tree house in a town without trees? I did my best but the slim poplars put up for a windbreak wouldn’t even hold the Kleenex box I tested on the lowest branches. 

As for lunch beside the seaside, I walked across the street and behind the new houses to the farmer’s field and looked at the slough for the cattle. There were no lapping waves in that dense scummy water. I wondered if those kids who said everything tastes better outdoors had in fact ever eaten a sandwich in the evening outside in Manitoba, once the mosquitos and black flies came out.

So it was the sadness those books brought into my life that forced me, at about nine or ten, to go to the desk in the basement and ask if an exception could be made for me. Was there any way at all I could go upstairs to the adult library?

The librarian at the time was a spinster lady my parents told me, a fate so terrible it led to life in a red basement in a bank, but she did stop and listen. In fact she even left her post and went up those stairs to talk about my situation.

I waited a long time for her answer.

Eventually she came back. She said yes. 

All the librarians had talked and had decided.  Here was my card, an adult one, in a different colour. With it I was allowed to go upstairs, browse, and even check out books at the big round desk with the grown-ups. The deal was to not spread this information around. Also, well, I was tall. It would be OK.

That library card changed my life. Upstairs I learned about things you could do in life that children couldn’t. 

I read through shelf after shelf. I read Dylan Thomas when I was ten, Our Town, Faulkner, and Wuthering Heightswhen I was eleven. I read the Rubaiyat of Omar Khanyyambefore I should have.

But most of all I read the ‘600s - Applied Science. I read about keeping goats, and digging wells, and making cider. I read about auto mechanics, building my own house, timber frame and thatch, and I learning what to pack when I sailed around the world. My favourites, my absolute favourites, were any title that began “So you want to be …” 

So you want to be a bee keeper ? Sure. Why not?

When I was sixteen we moved away from that library and that town. My dad got a job somewhere else and off we went. Before we left I went back to the library to return my last stack of books. I had to explain to the round desk why I was leaving. I remember the head librarian taking my card for the last time and going into the back room. When she returned there were new words typed on it:

Lifetime membership to the Brandon Public Library. Bearer entitled to borrow at any time.

I have only been back to that town and that library once. Once to sneak in and see if my date stamps were still there, on the cards in the pockets of books I am sure no one else ever read. Of course they weren’t. The system had gone automated sometime while I was away, growing up, and moving on.

My dad is gone too.

 A few months after his funeral I helped my mother sort out his things. On the back of the dresser I found an envelope, unopened- an overdue notice from the library. I have it still, pinned to the corkboard above where I do my writing. It’s typed on yellow paper, second notice: 

V.I. Durant, W.J. The story of civilization: Our oriental heritage. 1935.

West, Paul. Words for a deaf daughter. 1970.

McClung, N.L.M. Purple Spring, 1921.

I hope those books were returned.


Kansas Sky said...

There is no institution I love more than the library—- you make me so nostalgic for all the libraries that have been my second home. ..... How beautifully you’ve written this. Thank you. Those librarians would be so proud of you today.

Sarah Wale said...

What a beautiful and poignant story. Thank you so much for sharing it with us.

theresa said...

Your story sounds very familiar. We had a bookmobile before the branch library down the street got built. The bookmobile staff let me check out anything. They knew me. Imagine my embarrassment when we took a field trip to the Main library and I was refused an adult book. I had to go over to the children's section to get it approved. My Dad was a reader. When he took my youngest sister to get her first library card, when asked what restrictions to put on the card he said, "None. She can read anything she wants." I like your librarian.
Theresa in Tucson

Jodie said...

Beautifully written, Barb. In the small town I grew up in there were the same sort of rules. Alas I wasn't given early admittance to the adult section, so my mother, bless her got on the library board and fixed it for me, And I still love to read.....

Anonymous said...

Sounds like me - inside reading during the hot Australian summers :) Dad saying why doesn't she go outside, luckily mum said leave her be she loves to read. Libraries both community and school kept me going - wonderful resource and yes I read books deemed to be well out of my age range very early too.
Now I also read books and blogs to enhance my sewing knowledge :)
Sam the Aussie

expat in Side said...

How many memories that brought back to me! For me too, the library was easily the best place to be. I too was allowed to borrow any book I liked from a very early age, probably when I was about eight, because I had been caught using my mothers library card. I fibbed and said that my mother was ill and I had to choose books for her. The Librarian (spinster of course, with several pet chinchillas in cages on top of the bookcases!)was amused when on picking up the first book in the pile and demanding how I knew my mother would like this book I responded by saying that it was a murder mystery and she loved the ones where 'whodunnit' was revealed in the last page or two, so that was only what I read and checked! Angela

Liane said...

I just love this. Reminds me of my days at the library.

Janet said...

I enjoyed reading your library story. It reminded me of all the long summers of going to the library and taking out tons of books. From these books I remember I learned how to make paper, puff pastry swans, paper mâché sculpture, doll house furniture etc. It was self directed learning.

Monica MacDonald said...

I understand now where Scarlett's love for books comes from. What a great legacy to pass on to the next generations. Monica

Kathie said...

Oh, my goodness! Your story took my back to the little library in the basement of my school building. I was known as the girl who read the most books each summer. They would have a little contest and you had to tell the librarian about each book to verify that you had actually read it. You got a little token of some sort for each one completed. I was always interested in the stories of how other children lived... I loved the original Dr. Doolittle books (and it was only when my niece's kids were little and I gave her some tor read to them, that I discovered how racist they were in parts!).

Thanks for sharing your memories and reminding me of some very lovely ones of mine.

Joy Zemrock said...

I think we share DNA. I could have written this, with very few changes. So with tears in my eyes as I eat my breakfast, I thank you.

Patty said...

Sharing your memories has brought back so many of my own, thank you! I had to share your post with my small town librarians :-)

bbarna said...

This is also very similar to my childhood. Taking the bus on Saturday downtown to the library, and being told that I was too young to take out Jane Eyre...I would often bring home 10 or 11 books to read , totally upsetting my mother who had a chore list for us during the summer. Beautiful story.
Barb from Prince George.

Lynne said...

Thank you for this post. I grew up in Winnipeg in the 50s and had a similar experience of never meeting my father's standards for hell-raising as I too preferred to read. I manoeuvred my way into the senior high school library at the age of 13 as I had read everything in the junior library and the children's section of the public library. The best part was being appointed as the library monitor for my class as I got to check out what everyone else was reading when I collected all the books in the classroom and returned them on a weekly basis to the librarian.
Thank you for the lovely memory.

Anonymous said...

I LOVE LOVE LOVE your writing!

Sydney in California

Lisa - SF Bay Area said...

I loved the library as a child (and now it is exciting because it has air conditioning!!!). I remember when my dad told me that just because I read something in a book that was in the library, that didn't make what I read necessarily true. I was shocked. I thought every book had been carefully selected for it's truth.

Thank you for your wonderful memories!

Lisa, SF Bay Area

Anne Frances said...

I hate what austerity has done to the library service here. As a child I went to the Library every Saturday. The staff had eventually to tell me I shouldn't borrow a book and then return it and borrow another the same day. I think you were only allowed to to borrow one or two. I would take a book outside, sit on the park bench in the little garden outside the building, read the book and then want to exchange it. That messed up their system. So I had to borrow fatter books and keep them all week. But I read all the time.

Anonymous said...

I love evocative. It resonates with my childhood experiences and my elementary school librarian, Mrs. Shad, who guided me through the biographies of strong women thereby preparing me for career and life. I just finished Susan Orlean’s wonderful “The Library Book” about libraries in general and the Los Angeles Central Public Library in particular. You might consider reading it if you have a love of libraries. Thanks for writing...Penelope in Texas.

Jenerators said...

My main memory of going the the library as a child is selecting my books (in the kids section - and often books that I was rereading) and then standing still to listen for mum's car keys, which had a particular jingle, to find out where she was, to eay I was ready to go home.

paloverdeblooms said...

Oh, I am so lucky. My mother used to take me to the library, and when I turned 6 she asked for an adult card for me. There was no reason for me to not have one, thank goodness. I don't ever remember spending much time in the children's section. I absolutely glued myself to the adult science fiction section. That was my heaven!

Marianne said...

What a beautiful story. The library was/is one of my very favourite places too. Reading this makes me think you might be happy to learn that I placed a request with my library to acquire your book shortly after it was published. The request took some time for approval and my library no longer informs us when our requests are approved. When I finally discovered that my request was approved, there were already 45 holds on your book! So, the library placed another order for 5 more copies. I just checked; there are still holds on your book. 🙂

Anonymous said...

Library = safe place. Tears in my eyes from reading this - so grateful for libraries, books, and adults who intervened despite the rules :) I still remember at 5 or 6 walking home with my mom with my first libary book under my arm, and thinking to myself, "They let me take this home!" I still feel that way when I drive away from my libary . . .

San Clemente, CA

Josie said...

Great experience Barbara
I grew up in S. America, small town with no libraries. In the summer I got books from friends, neighbors, and nuns. In U.S. since the 80's, libraries become a heaven on earth.

What a awesome experience. Thanks for sharing.

Josie Huber

Anonymous said...

Thank you for this beautiful post. I grew up in The Netherlands in the 1950s. Our library had shelves for age groups and the allowance was two books per week, from your age group. As I was an accomplished reader at a young age, I had to read very boring books and finished them before I'd walked home. So I read whatever came into our house, books, magazines, instructions on boxes. Some of those articles I never forgot, such as an article on the treatment of slaves, that haunts me to this day.. Yet I firmly believe children should read what they want. As the oldest child of seve, reading was my escape from our very busy household. Anne-Marie