I’ve always been a reader. It’s just what we did in my house. A love of books was instilled in us at a very young age.
One of my single working mother’s biggest parenting successes was our weekly trips to the library. For as long as I can remember, during the glory days of our childhood, she would take us to the local library to stock up on books.
Part of the thrill of our regular library visits was the search. I’d often ask my teacher for book recommendations that I could then track down at the library over the weekend. For whatever reason, the Dewey Decimal System fascinated me — it was the secret code to everything the library had to offer! I loved looking up the titles in the musty card catalog, slowly leafing through each tattered card until I found what I was looking for. Then, it was off to the shelves, hoping against all hope that I would find the book there. This simple process always made me feel so self-sufficient.
During the miserably hot summers of southern California, I’d lay out under the maple tree in the cool grass and read all afternoon. In the winter, I’d curl up on the couch with my cat Jinx, happy to escape into whatever book I had selected for the week.
One library incident has always stood out in my memory. In the eight grade I heard about John Steinbeck’s Travels With Charley: In Search of America. All I knew about the book was that the writer toured the entire country in his camper with his adored dog, a standard poodle named Charley. Passionate about camping and dogs, it’s little wonder the book appealed to me. I put it to the top of my list for our Sunday trip to the library.
I was thrilled to find it on the shelf and quickly met my mother at the check-out desk. When it was our turn, I placed the book in front of the librarian so she could work her magic with her faithful rubber stamp. She pulled the book towards her. Seeing the title, she looked at me, then my mother, then back to me.
“Are you checking this out?” she asked me.
“Yes,” I answered, a bit surprised by her question and the especially harsh tone of her delivery. Something was amok but I didn’t have a clue.
Turning to my mother, the librarian huffed “She is far too young for this book. I can’t allow her to check it out.”
Who knew an already quiet library could go absolutely silent but in that frozen moment, it did. But what happened next completely floored me. My exhausted mother, who was anything but confrontational practically every waking minute of her life, did the most extraordinary thing. She shot back at this judgmental woman, “I’ll decide what my daughter can and cannot read. If you are more comfortable, I’ll check out the book in my name.”
A moment later, securely tucked under my mother’s arm, Steinbeck and his faithful dog left the library with us. I couldn’t wait to open the cover of this forbidden book.
My mother must have read my mind as she was the first to break the silence in the car. “I’ll read it first and then I’ll know if you’re too young to read it.”
In the end, I did read Travels with Charley that summer but my mother offered it to me with some defined guidelines. She said she felt I was old enough for the material but that there was going to be plenty I didn’t understand. She made me promise I’d come to her with my questions and said she expected us to have plenty of conversations about what we’d both read.
I know now, after raising my own children, what a wonderful bit of mothering she was offering me, all because of a powerful book. As our children — and grandchildren —grow, we need to support them, be available for their questions and concerns, and these days more than ever, explain the complicated world to them as best as we can.
To be continued …