Barbara J. Boothby
And I Will Smile, Too
Reading. That is my second earliest memory. My first earliest memory is of Kennedys funeral, but as important as that is in the scheme of my memories, it is just a sort of black and white snapshot. The reading memory is like a grainy, jerky old eight millimeter film. A home movie. Unlike an old home movie, it has a sound track. If the movie were to be playing on a sheet hung on the dining room wall, here is what you would see and hear:
Me, age three. A fire warms my back. My bum rests on the firm terracotta tiles of the hearth in front of the fireplace. In my hands is an oversized book made of white, heavy cardboard. On the pages are the letters of the alphabet and color illustrations for each letter. The audio is my three-year-old voice proudly singing the "ABC" song.
I remember how hard I worked to get the letters right, and for some reason I had a hard time with "H", "L" and "P". They seemed to occasionally slip their moorings and drift amongst the other letters. When I finally got them all in the right order I was so excited, but I was even more excited when I repeated them correctly. That actrepeating those letters in the correct orderactivated a voice inside of me that told me I was smart.
My father was a teacher, and he taught me everything there was to know about letters and the words they made. The more I read, the prouder he was of me. I swelled in the knowledge that I made him proud. Hop on Pop, Mary Poppins, The Tall Book of Make-Believe and The Encyclopedia of Childrens Classics rapidly fell before my newfound power. I fell in love with mysteries as I shivered in anticipation and fear at the exploits of the Happy Hollisters.
We lived on a small farm way out in the country and winter storms often brought down our electric lines. There were neighbors houses close by but because of the woods and the rolling hills between us we could not see each other. On those non-electrified nights we seemed isolated. In response, my family would hunker down together on sofas and sleeping bags spread before the fireplace and we would play games, sing songs while Dad played the ukulele, and read.
In that house we had shelves brimful of books: encyclopedias and dictionaries, childrens series, real-life adventures like Kon Tiki, collections of classic poems, and several bizarre books, including one titled 101 Things to Make From Human Skin. I feared looking in that book, not so much because of the potential content (which fascinated me), but because I thought it was an "adult" book, and I would get in trouble if I were caught reading it. When I finally got up the courage to look inside, I discovered that it, and the other bizarrely titled volumes, were just fake jackets on books with completely benign contents.
We lived about three miles from a small town, and in the basement of the Womens Club in that town was the public library. Underneath the wide, white wooden stairs that led to the front entrance of the clapboard Club building was a narrow, steep set of damp-smelling concrete steps that led down to the basement where the library was. Inside the library, the ceiling was low. Dangling, bare light bulbs and a couple of windows which daylighted out to the street lit the room. Below the level of the windows the walls were lined with books. It was warm in there, and the room had that dry, sweet cinnamon-y smell unique to old volumes of books.
By the time I turned five, I had my own library card. It was thick paper with rounded corners, and a large metal tab attached to it with a number embossed in the metal. That was my number. Children under the age of twelve were not allowed to check out more than two books at a time, but Eunice Barnum, the smiling, thin-haired old librarian saw how eager I was to read, and let me check out as many books as I could carry. Two would not have held me for two weeks. Or even two days.
The library collection was not large, so I checked the same books out again and again. I read and re-read the "B is for Betsy" books and all the Beverly Cleary. At age five I was reading books for nine to twelve year-olds. I didnt know that was unusual. I thought all children were able to read as I was. I often wonder if the necessity of re-reading the books from that small library is what compels me to re-read books today. I know people who physically recoil when I mention that I will read a book more than once. They think it is a waste of time.
In second grade, we read the "Dick and Jane" books out loud, one paragraph at a time, to the rest of the class. I squirmed in frustration as most of the kids could not even get through the simplest bits of reading. Mrs. Bouiss just patiently smiled her encouragement to them. On the day Gwen Howell struggled to read the word "with," I nearly lost my mind. It was so simple! Just sound it out! Wuh-i-th. With! Gwen squirmed, too, a pathetic half-smile of embarrassment pasted on her face.
Soon we started going to the school library once a week. The first time we went, most of the other kids huddled in awe as we stood surrounded by the imposing cathedral ceilings and the seemingly endless bookshelves. I headed straight for the stacks, but before I could make any selections the librarian rounded us up into a neat little group, and sat us down on the carpet before the huge windows that looked out on the cow pasture beyond the school driveway. She frowned as she delivered a lecture about the sacred nature of books and the level of behavior we were to maintain in the sacred space of the library:
No running; no talking above a whisper.
Books were to be returned on time, or there would be fines.
Do not eat while reading; always use a bookmark.
And finally, a two-book limit. I was disappointed at this limitation, but my disappointment was soon forgotten when we were introduced to the Dewey Decimal system and the card catalogue. I discovered research. The card catalogue led me down unknown paths, like a rat in a maze always in search of a delicious chunk of cheese.
At the school library I also discovered a world outside my all-white farming community. Peanuts for Billy Ben took me to the rural South and the African-American sharecropper experience. Soul Brothers and Sister Lou took me to the inner city. Two Pesos for Catalina transported me to Mexico.
At school we each got a new Weekly Reader magazine every Wednesday. About every other month there would be a selection of Weekly Reader books we could order. It was exciting to pore over the lists and descriptions and negotiate the budget with mom. The wait for the day we received the books was interminable, but the thrill of getting that pile of books was beyond description. Sometimes it was like Christmas. Books I forgot I had ordered would be a special surprise.
Even though these books were very inexpensive, I know that there were kids who were either very poor, or who came from families that did not value books, and I wonder if they ever got to order any. I do not know what those children did on the day the rest of us received our orders. Did the teacher have a discretionary fund for the poor kids? Did they get at least one book on those days? I sure hope so.
One winter day when I was about twelve, my best friend Katie and I went across the road from our houses to play in Boswells woods. She took me into an area where we did not normally go, and digging under a log, she showed me where my buddy Dol-Ray Boswell had hidden some magazines. They were incredibly filthy much more so than my big brothers Playboys. We were grim and titillated that people would do those things.
It was the first time since I had learned to read that printed words had absolutely no value. The photos were grainy, but engaging, and even though I tried to read the stories, my attention always returned to the pictures. I never got through more than a paragraph or two of any of the articles.
My rapt attention returned to the written word the following year when Nancy Perkins sneaked a copy of The Godfather to school. We shared it around in the restroom during breaks, paying particular attention to pages twenty-six and twenty-seven, and grinning nervously at one another, our eyes wide at the characters lurid activities. That book drew me back to the written word like iron filings to a magnet, and drew all of my friends and me into a frantic and thorough search of our parents' libraries.
My search turned up little on the bookshelves in my own home, but I discovered that my parents read books that had material of that nature in them, and they had been checked out from our big new public library. So, on Thursday evenings when my Mom and I went to town to shop and visit the library, I would affect a casual exterior, a happy smile pasted on my face while I looked through the stacks of books in the adult fiction section. My insides would seethe as I searched for titles that suggested thrilling scenes hidden between the pages. When I found one, I would retreat to a private nook and screen the novel inside the recently published coffee table book full of pictures of Mount Hood. Both my mom and the librarian knew of my passion for the mountain, so they would not have thought it remarkable that I spent long periods of time looking at that book.
As I have grown older, I suppose I have read a predictable variety of books. In my twenties it was the Communist Manifesto, Kurt Vonnegut, the literature of the feminist free presses, and I found Richard Brautigan in an appropriate spot: jammed between the seat and the wall of a metro bus. In my thirties, women authors and spiritual literature consumed me. Now in my forties, I am taking on "the classics" of English and American literature. I wonder what will come in my fifties, sixties and seventies.
I hope that I will have children, and there will be a reason for me to come full circle back to Dr. Seuss and the Happy Hollisters. If not, perhaps I will learn a language, and challenge foreign classics in their original tongue. Maybe I will tackle the Greeks. My wish is that someday there will be an adult who will look at me, smile, and say, "I remember how you taught me my ABCs when I was three, and how fun it was to romp through Hop on Pop and One Fish, Two Fish." And I will smile, too.