The World’s Best Invention
When I wrote last month about the jewelry box my mother bought for me when I was twelve, several people located the box for sale on the web (the same place I found the photo) and suggested I buy it again. For the memory of it. But I don’t need to buy someone else’s similar box to sweeten that memory.The memory is sweet enough.
Of course, some people were shocked that I ever let it go. My husband for one. He could not see why I would give away something that had so much meaning to me. But the meaning was still there even if the box was gone. And I wanted my niece to open that little piano-shaped box and hear “Fascination.” It didn’t matter if her pleasure was short-lived, if she enjoyed it for a while and then forgot it, or broke it, or threw the box away. That box was a joy to me that I wanted to share, even for just a little while.
My husband has lots of his old toys in our cellar. He wanted to keep his crib and mattress too. I had a difficult time convincing him that his childhood is not a shrine. I don’t think I ever completely succeeded.
But you know what I wish I kept?
My library card.
It looked sort of like this:
At the Bristol Public Library, you could get your own library card when you were seven, with the only other requirement being that you had to write your own name on the card. No printing – you had to write cursive – as a sign of your maturity I guess. So I practiced for a few weeks before my seventh birthday. And I could do it. Here’s my nine-year-old signature inside my prayer book:
It was a good thing I wasn’t Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio. I got my card.
(As an aside, my mother just this week laughingly said she rued the day that my sister ever learned to sign her name. She signed up for everything. She once signed up for the city-wide tennis tournament. Only she had never played tennis.)
How I loved the library! My mother told me that the Public Library was best thing the world had ever invented. You can take home anything you want to read, and in a few weeks, bring it back, and read anything else you want to read. For FREE. Can you imagine that?
I went to the library every week. They let me take six books at a time. I would read one book there, and then take six home. So that way I got seven. I thought this was very clever – and sneaky – of me.
I liked books about girls. Animals were okay. No boys.
My favorite girl was Madeline. My favorite animal was Ferdinand. No favorite boys.
As I got a little older, and pictures became less important (but I still like a great illustration, as you know, if you have seen most of my previous posts), I still wanted girly-girl stories. The Secret Garden, A Little Princess, Pollyanna, Heidi. Nothing is quite as wonderful as a destitute and mistreated orphan.
When I was really small, the Children’s section of the Bristol Library was in the basement of the old building.
The Children’s Library had a separate entrance on the side of the building that took you down into the rather dark small room. But sometime in my mid-childhood, the Library built an addition.
The new Children’s Library still had its own entrance, and there was a passageway (a very forbidden passageway) that connected the Adult Library to the Children’s Library.
The new addition was big and light with aisles full of shelves. And a separate section for pre-schoolers, so us big kids who wrote cursive didn’t have to even go near the baby books.
And there was a small section of Young Adult reading. There wasn’t really a YA genre back then. So these shelves held mostly Classics. I had no use for Treasure Island or Great Expectations, since they were all about stupid boys. But in my meandering through this section I stumbled upon: The Book That Made Me An English Major.
It was Jane Eyre. I was ten years old. I wasn’t allowed to check out a book from the Young Adult section until I was twelve. But I would sit on the floor, hidden by the bookshelves, and read the first chapter. It was hard going for ten. I read the first few pages over and over again. And when I was eleven, the librarian bent the rules and let me take the book home. It took me a month to read Jane Eyre. And I didn’t understand most of it. But I understood Romance when I saw it. And I liked it.
I re-read Jane Eyre in high school. And in college, I made Jane the subject of a term paper. By that time I saw more than simple romance. I saw how subversive this book actually was. With the mores of the day, Bronte could hardly have Jane marry an already-married man – so Bertha had to die. However, Jane returned to Rochester not knowing that Bertha was dead. It does seem that she was prepared to live in sin with a married man, while his crazy wife was locked in the attic. Oh yes. I understood Romance. And I liked it.
Back when I was eleven though, my own romance was with books. And that amazing librarian who let me borrow Jane Eyre a year early did another fantastic thing. She told me I could borrow from the Adult library, as long as I first showed her the books I wanted.
And I walked through that forbidden passageway.