My earliest memory of a book is a story about Mr. Flibbertyjibbet. Is it any wonder that name can be easily plucked from my memory bank 65 plus years later? My mother reads the book to me as we snuggle on the sofa. My father reads the book to me, too. I bring the book out whenever an adult is there, and I hand it to them. My grandmother, every one of my aunts and Mother’s friends—they all read to me.
My kindergarten teacher reads to us, too. She sits on a small chair, and we all gather around her, sitting Indian-fashion on a green carpet. Every day Miss Horst reads a new story and shows us the pictures. Her hair is silver, her lips are cherry red, and her eyes sparkle as she reads. I want to read the book myself, but I don’t know how. Mother makes a promise. “Next year you’ll learn to read.” And I trust her, for she’s never been wrong.
I am six years old and in the first grade. Miss Curto passes out the books, one for each child. “Do not open the books,” she says. How can I wait any longer to see if I know how to read now? The teacher shows us the proper way to open a new book—first the front cover, then the back. Then we close it again and she instructs us to open to the first page. There are a few words, but I don’t know what they say. I’m disappointed. I can’t read. Was Mother wrong? But in only a matter of days, I am reading. I read stories about Dick and Jane and Baby Sally. I am one of the first to finish the book. And then there is a new book, and my happiness knows no bounds. This one has the same children in it and their dog and cat. Spot and Puff become my friends, and I read more and more books.
At home, I read Mr. Flibbertyjibbet to my mother. I read to my father, my grandmother and my aunts. I bring home books from school and I read them over and over.
One day my mother takes me to a new place. She explains we are going to the library, and by the time we have walked several blocks to the square brick building, I know that the library is full of books that I may borrow. I know that I must be very careful with the books because we must return them for other children to read.
“We would like a library card, please,” my mother tells the woman behind the big desk by the front door.
The woman has white hair that is pulled away from her face and fixed in a bun behind her head. Her cheeks look soft, and she has eyes that are as blue as the summer sky. Rimless glasses rest on her nose. She wears a navy blue dress with a white lace collar, and she is fat like one of my aunts. Her mouth is clamped tight like my grandmother’s when she is angry. Maybe I won’t like this place after all.
Then the lady slides a card across the desk, dips a pen in an inkwell, and hands it to me. “Write your name on this line, please.”
I print my first and last name as neatly as I can and slide the card back to her.
She comes around to the front of the desk. “I am Miss Maze,” she says. “and I will show you where the books for you are kept.” She smiles at me and holds out her hand.
Mother nods when I look at her for direction. I slip my hand into the one Miss Maze has offered. I look down and see she is wearing black oxfords that tie, and the skin around her ankles hangs down over her shoes. I wonder if it hurts.
We walk up two steps into a world of enchantment. Miss Maze patiently shows me row upon row of books, and she shows me how to replace them on the shelf after I look at them. She helps me choose three books to take home, and then it is time to go back to the big desk and learn how to check them out. My library card will be ready for me the next time we visit she tells us.
As the years go on, the library becomes my second home, and Miss Maze becomes my special friend. Her eyes light up, and she smiles whenever I walk in the door. She often shows me new books that have arrived, and I am eager to check them out. I am there winter and summer, in sunshine and thunderstorms.
I learn that if you like a book especially well, you should look for more books by the same author. I read a series of books with titles like Ballet Shoes, Theater Shoes, and Circus Shoes, and I dream about being one of the girls in those books. I read books by Lois Lenski called Strawberry Girl and Blueberry Sal, and I learn about being a child of a migrant worker. I read all the Nancy Drew mystery books, the Bobbsey Twins, the Little House books, and move into a series about a girl named Sue Barton. I follow Sue as she becomes a student nurse, a resident nurse, a visiting nurse and every kind of nursing job there is.
And then I am a teen, and I read young adult books like Bramble Bush, which moves me to tears, ands soon I move on to adult books. All these years in the 1940’s and 50’s, I visit the library almost on a weekly basis. I walk several blocks, taking a shortcut behind the elevated train platform. I carry a stack of books to the library on the cinder path and come back with books piled high in my arms. I read in all my spare time. I leave my everyday existence behind when I am reading. I learn about other cultures, live vicariously through the heroines in the books I devour. I store up a desire to travel so I can see these wondrous places in the books.
My favorite class in college is the literature class. I am the only one who doesn’t groan when the professor tells us we will read one novel every week. We go to the college book store, check out a book on Friday afternoon, and we are to be ready to discuss it on Monday morning. I look forward to Friday morning when the professor gives us the name of the book for the week. My feet fly across campus to the bookstore. I am a fast reader and have no trouble finishing by Monday, while some of the others sit up late on Sunday night trying to finish.
I’m a senior citizen now, but I still love books. I am never without a book to read, and the library still feels like home to me. When I am there surrounded by thousands of books, I feel a sense of peace and contentment that I find in no other place. As I make my selection from the fiction shelves and from the shelf that holds books about writing, I sometimes think of Miss Maze. I learned to read at school, but I learned about the world of books from Miss Maze. I wish I’d thanked her for what she gave me, but as a child and a teen, I was too shy to do that. Perhaps she knew what sharing her treasures meant to me. I’d like to think so.