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.
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.