Once I learned how to read from those gigantic Dick and Jane books, there was no stopping me. I began thinking of books as little treasures -- and I'm sure I had an odd expression on my face as I flipped the pages of those early books, practically fondling them like some kind of pervert. I was hooked.
The first book I remember receiving as a gift was a Christmas present from my parents: a large, thick treasury of Shirley Temple stories. I read "Heidi" over and over again until I could practically recite it by heart, then "The Little Colonel," "Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm," and if I'm not mistaken, there was one more. I can't think of it right now, but I knew them all. That book stayed with me for many years until one of our dogs chewed the corner off. Even then, I still zealously guarded it, but my mother (in her own zeal -- cleaning!) commandeered it and threw it away. I was heartbroken.
That early gift made me realize there were lots of stories that I had yet to read, and when my mother took me to the little library on Union Street (hardly more than a storefront), I had found Nirvana. I roamed the stacks, immersed in the infinite number of books available to me -- and the variety! I could read about Annie Oakley or Abraham Lincoln, I could learn about Japan or the deepest parts of Africa. I could go on sleuthing explorations with Nancy Drew or enjoy the family stories of The Bobbsey Twins. I rampaged that place! The maximum number of books you could take out on that cardboard library card the librarian stamped with the date (one stamp for every book) was ten, so that's how many I took out -- every seven days. And, yes, I read every single one of them (some of them twice!).
I carried those ten books all the way home from the library, stopping at my grandmother's on the way in the hopes that my grandfather would be home to share some graham crackers and milk with me. We'd sit at the pine table in their kitchen, silently (my grandfather didn't talk much), smashing the graham crackers in the bowl of milk and slurping them until the last crumbs were left at the bottom. My grandfather had dark Clark-Gable-eyes and a pompadour of pure white, soft hair. He was gruffly handsome, and one of my favorite photos of him is the doughboy shot of him in full uniform from World War I. But when we sat at the kitchen table together, he was always wearing a white t-shirt, khakis and his brown leather slippers.
My grandmother had a birdhouse outside the kitchen window and while we were eating our graham cracker mush, my grandmother (Nana, I called her) would name the birds for me: "That bright blue one is a blue jay. See how pretty that one is? That's the male. That smaller, plainer one over there? She's the mama. She needs to be plainer so that she doesn't attract attention." By the time I was 8, I knew all of the city birds that visited my grandmother's house, what they ate, and what their eggs looked like.
That's one lesson my Nana never learned: how to be plain. Instead, she was always taking instruction from the flowers she grew along the driveway coming into the house--gladiolii, tulips, jonquils, lilacs, roses. I have pictures of her in a three-quarter length sleeve white coat with huge round buttons. She wears elbow length black kid gloves and a matching hat. She stands like a model, one foot in front of the other. I thought she was elegant, slim, classic. (She was responsible for my love of gardening. I think she would have been thrilled if she had seen my climbing roses at my last house.)
I loved the library, but I also loved visiting my Nana's house on the way home.
My best friend, Therese, loved to read, too. In fact, we still talk about books to this day, and one of my alltime favorite photographs is of the two of us -- lying on the front stoop of her house (not a porch, just a cement, two-step stoop with an iron railing) on a hot July day. Both of us on our backs, books raised in front of our faces. You can only see our legs, bent at the knobby knees, our Keds flat against the cement stoop. We both are wearing cotton shorts and sleeveless tops because it's the middle of the summer, and I can bet you my last dime, that as soon as one of us finished what we were reading, we silently passed it to the other and we'd start at the beginning.
My "rite of passage" occurred when I graduated from that little library on Union Street to the big library on Broadway -- the Shute Library, an impressive brick building with a tower in the middle that was the entrance to the upper level. You had to walk up around two flights of stairs to get into the adult section. The kids library was in the basement and the entrance was around the side. I can still remember the first day I entered the adult part of the library and was told "shush." I walked through the stacks as reverently as I had walked through the vestry of our church. I was afraid to touch anything.
The first "adult" book I read was KON TIKI by Thor Heyerdahl. It was a story about his journey around the world on a raft, complete with disasters, battles with sharks, horrible storms and near-death experiences -- as well as visits to completely exotic lands I had never heard of before. I promised myself when I brought that book back to the library that someday I would have my own traveling adventures -- though I wasn't sure I wanted to have them on a raft.
Years later, I found a copy of that book at a yard sale and couldn't resist. It was nowhere near as large as I remembered it, but the magical voyage was still as vivid. It is still on my bookshelf, and if I have to sell every book in my collection, that will be the one that will go to my grave. That and my white Bible that my mother gave me on my 13th birthday. But that's another story.