Certain Sunday afternoons yield permission to be still. For those of us compelled toward activity, a quiet, gloomy-November Sunday is a gift. Especially with good radio. Today, I listened to “Writers and Company” host, Eleanor Wachtel interview New Yorker writer, Susan Orlean about her newest publication, The Library Book.
“In her new book, bestselling writer Susan Orlean moves from the intimacy of her childhood library to the devastating fire at the Los Angeles Central Library, which damaged or destroyed more than a million books. The Library Book is a compelling mix of history, biography, true crime and journalism — an ode to libraries, as well as a celebration of Orlean’s relationship with her mother, who died before Orlean could finish writing the book. ” Writers and Company web page, CBC radio
My Sunday marking forgotten, I listened to Orlean recount how her mother introduced her to the magic of libraries and borrowing books, their weekly excursions a special time for both. Orlean’s stories led to an emotional account of how her mother’s library of memories disappeared slowly with dementia, with her death occurring just before the book’s publication. Orlean’s story was both poignant and difficult to listen to: the accounting of steady loss; the powerful metaphor for memories; and my family situation. My own mother’s memory steadily is being erased by Alzheimer’s and with it, our mutual store of times together and shared experiences.
One of my first forays into independence was granted by my mother. At the age of 11, she deemed me big enough to make the 30-minute walk to the Elizabeth Ballantyne Public School library. Every Tuesday afternoon, I would set out from home, west on Chester Avenue, past duplexes and small yards into the wealthy, English conclave of Montreal West – old brick homes set back on large, treed properties. I would wonder what it would be like to live in such a large and separate home (we lived above our landlords in a duplex). Cautiously crossing busy Westminister Avenue, I walked through quiet side streets into the deep yard of the school. Down steps to a heavy wooden side door and into the vacuum silence of the library.
Elizabeth Ballantyne Public School, Montreal
There I would be greeted by the diminutive librarian, Mrs. Lanthier, gigantic in her fiefdom. She took me, with my shyness and small voice under her wing and ushered me into the world of libraries and books: Laura Ingalls Wilder, L.M. Montgomery, Judy Blume, Roald Dahl, Enid Blyton, C.S. Lewis. I loved the way she would press and roll the stamp on my very own library card and write the return date on the book insert card in narrow cursive script. She would stack the books one by one, ensuring all plastic nibbed corners were aligned. For a voracious reader, it was a feast. Five books just for me. I would carry them home in the plastic Steinburg’s shopping bag, walking faster to beat the dark.
Turns out Mrs. Lanthier was also the volunteer librarian at the tiny, parish library housed in the basement of St. Ignatius of Loyola church. As soon as the priest had finished the procession, with my mother’s nod I would race to the side door steps and meet my dealer, Lanthier. At St. Ignatius you could take out 7 books every Sunday. Here I entered the adult world of books – Herman Wouk, Hugh MacLennan, Agatha Christie, John Knowles, Gabrielle Roy. On the long walk home with my mother and brothers, all I could think of was which book I would start. After a respectable amount of time around the kitchen table, I would rush to my room. Lie on my tummy on the orange shag rug, lose myself in the pages. Intermittent mother checks asking if I needed to get fresh air or would I like a piece of her green apple. Only when the afternoon sun dulled and I could see no more, would I reluctantly close the book and join the family.
Villa Maria High School, Montreal
Once I essentially read out the shelves at the parish and school, I had access to the ancient, rumoured-haunted library of the Villa Maria, my high school from grades seven to eleven. The Villa library was beautiful in its angled location on the fourth floor but its contents were neither inspiring nor current. I relied on the Montreal public library system. In CEGEP, I found my niche in the Marianopolis College library, again in an old building, occupying much space, with long casement windows looking out over the city and St. Lawrence River. The casements were perfect for stretching out with reference books and notepad, in filtered sunlight, coat stretched out over cold knees and legs. I would meet my friends for whispered conversations and laughter snorts between the stacks. Later, after I graduated, my mother began to work at the library in the reference section. She was well-loved for her friendliness, efficiency, and kindness toward the students who worked with her. At Christmas, each employee was invited to buy a book for the library. My mom often requested that year’s Maeve Binchy novel to be put on the Current Edition shelf near the magazine racks. On breaks from university, I would sometimes meet her at the library. I would watch her from the turnstile as she conversed and moved quickly from desk to shelves. It was common ground for us. Not the books, but the people.
The former campus of Marianopolis College, Montreal
Other libraries gave me peace, stability and strong memories. The old Douglas Library at Queens University was huge and imposing with two or three floors of stacks that I would avoid at all costs. In first year, I found my place outside of the strictly-controlled reference room, the “purple passion pit”, with garish, mauve chairs and old scarred carrels in which one could both hide and use as an observatory to see who was coming in, who was talking to whom. In my third year, I would meet my now husband, Paul, in the library foyer at closing hours. In later years, I would often go off campus to the downtown Kingston Public Library. The large windows and private study desks offered light, peace and that sense of community when one is alone in a crowd. In intense times, I would stay there all Saturday, walking home in the dark with the same sense of satisfaction and content I had had as a child.
The former Douglas Library, Queens University at Kingston
There have been many libraries since Queens. It was one of my biggest thrills as a parent to introduce our children to Ottawa libraries. To watch as they navigated their way around the shelves, immersed in words and colours. Bringing the children to the library and returning home with piles of books was an unmediated pleasure, one of those rare times in parenthood when what you are doing feels just right.
Books gave our children a sense of space and independence. That is part of the gift my mother gave to me – the trust I could find my way and get back. As I have so often done through books. Thank you, Mom.