"Way back when," the TV series Rhoda always began with a snappy, amusing monologue tracking the character's history so far. Paraphrasing a couple of the opening lines would work well in my situation:
"My name is Linda Young. I was born in Cranston, Rhode Island, in 1955...the first thing I remember liking that liked me back was books..."
Daddy wasn't much of a reader, although he did the newspaper cover to cover every night. Mom, on the other hand, had been a library hound since her own childhood. So it was that Dad would say accusingly, when I would sneak inside on a gorgeous summer day and they'd find me off in some corner reading: "This is all your fault."
Well...maybe. I can't remember not being read to. And although I wasn't one of those prodigious children who learned to read before they went to school--
my mother was told it was "bad" for me; had she done so I'm certain I would have my nose stuck in primers at age four. Came first grade and those paragons of virtue, Dick and Jane, and I was off.
When I was very small, I asked the usual question of every kid whose mom has gone off shopping and just come home: "What did you bring me?" The turnover began in first grade. If it were summer, I'd be in the yard next door, under the thick rustling grape arbor, settled in a big Adirondak chair eating fresh grapes or homegrown cantaloupe and under the watchful eye of my godmother's mother ("Zia Maria") and her friend, the mother of Victoria on the other side of the fence ("Zia Maria Antonia"), keeping a weather eye out down the driveway and to the street. Mom would finally approach, walking from the bus stop, and when she finally entered the yard, it was okay for me to dash to meet her.
"Did you bring me a book?" I'd ask.
I hungered for books the way other kids coveted the latest toy, caring neither for Barbies or baby dolls. Had my father not worked in a factory and had my mother worked, with the resulting larger income, the house might have been well-insulated with paper. But initially I had to settle for small paper-covered children's books from Woolworth's and Kresge's, because even the hardcover Dr. Seuss was out of budget reach. I knew Bartholomew Cubbins and Horton only because they were read to us at school (the Grinch I'd only met on TV).
But these tiny books instilled the passion in me. The one I particularly recall was about "the naughty soap." It was a verse story about a little girl taking a bath--
the soap kept slipping out of her hand and falling to the bottom of the tub, where it was difficult to find.
Even at six I saw the illogic of the situation."Mommy, why doesn't she use Ivory?"
Too, there were Little Golden Books. My favorite of them was Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, but another one read almost to pieces was a Lassie story, something about a heat wave and a colt being trapped on the railroad tracks. It confused me because it didn't have Timmy in it, and it was only later I learned about Jeff and his mom and Gramps.
By the time I reached second and third grade, I was old enough for Whitman books, hardbacks sold in Woolworth's and Newberry's for 29 cents each. I had all the Lassie novels and the Donna Parker series, plus classics like Call of the Wild, Black Beauty, Beautiful Joe, the Five Little Peppers, and Heidi. (Oh, and Little Women, but that took me years to read--
until my mid- teens-- since I thought the "romantic goop" with Meg and John Brooke awful. Knowing that, it probably won't surprise you to know that I also gave the very- popular- at- that- time boy/girl books by Betty Cavanna a very wide berth!) I longed for Trixie Belden, but she was yet another price tag out of reach.
School brought the best gift of all, the library. I immediately established my favorites and ended up withdrawing them endlessly: Anne H. White's The Story of Serapina (cat with a prehensile tail) and A Dog Called Scholar (undisciplined Golden Retriever becomes an obedience champ) and Prince Tom: Champion Dog (runt cocker spaniel becomes an obedience champ) and Misty of Chincoteague and Brighty of the Grand Canyon. (Do you sense a theme here?) I fell in love with Charlotte Baker's The Green Poodles so badly that my mother spent three months tracking down the book for me for Christmas, only to discover it was out of print. She did manage Johnny Tremain.
(The pattern carried on to junior high, where I raided the library every Friday afternoon: The Story of Walt Disney, The Family Nobody Wanted, Kate Seredy's The Good Master and The Singing Tree, Susan Coolidge's What Katy Did and What Katy Did at School, Gladys Taber's Especially Dogs, an anthropology book called The Morning of Mankind, and my very first readings of two special favorites, Madeleine L'Engle's A Wrinkle in Time and Robert Heinlein's Have Space Suit, Will Travel.)
Book longing was still acute.
You may ask why the public library was never an option: for good reason--
the two closest libraries were two to three miles away and my mother didn't drive (let alone have a car). Dad worked eight to ten hours a day, standing on his feet crouched over a polishing machine, and we thought it only fair to let him have his Saturdays-- that is when he wasn't cutting the lawn, repairing something, or doing maintenance on the car. Truly Daddies' work is never done, either.
Once in a while I would get to go to one of the libraries and it was a treat, although ultimately not fulfilling.
The Arlington Library at that time was in a cozy, old brick building no bigger than someone's cottage home. The children's books were downstairs in a dark room paneled with dark shelves, furnished in dark tables and chairs. While now I would give a fortune to see those elderly tomes, in my youth it discontented me. The books were all from earlier in the century--
I once complained to my mother that the heroine of the newest book they had at Arlington was driving a car with a running board!-- and for an animal- crazy child who wanted to read Marguerite Henry and Walter Farley, 1930s girls- growing-up stories and old fairy tales were mind- bogglingly dull. I did like a book about a European police dog named Flax and also the Thornton W. Burgess Mother West Wind books, but for the most part a Saturday hour at Arlington was as dark as the furniture.
(I must have complained too much, because the city later rebuilt Arlington. Instead of replacing their huge children's section with newer books, they simply canned all but the classics. Now the only complaint was no books at all...)
Auburn Library, in a storefront on Rolfe Street, was better--
newer books, if not many of them. But Rolfe in those days was basically the "downtown" section of Cranston and Daddy hated the crowds. I didn't start going there regularly until college age when I had my own car.
Luckily by that time I was also old enough to take the bus and head for Sheer Bliss: the Providence Public Library. I was rather past the children's section by the time I got enough guts to go downtown by myself, but I'd still wander in there to find my old favorites, like Vian Smith's Pride of the Moor.
The saving grace was a little thing called "an allowance." Trust me, it was a "little thing" back in 1965: only 25 cents to start! About this time I discovered paperback books--
not just paperbacks, but ones based on my favorite TV series. It would take me three weeks to save up for a Get Smart book (at 60 cents), and then I would devour it (being a fast reader also has its down points, and I do read at a clip: I finished Gone With the Wind in four days, ones that included two school days with algebra homework).
Mom compounded the addiction by giving me a book for every good report card. Since I always got good report cards, that was four additional paperbacks a year.
Not to mention that World Book Encyclopedia my parents had bought me when I was seven. The solution from then on when I had a question was "Go look it up in the encyclopedia." One thing always led to another and I might end up reading the encyclopedia rather than watching whatever prompted the question. Certainly I read the encyclopedia through several times (except the snake or worm articles). One of the first things I bought when I went to work full time was a new set of the World Book. Eighteen years later, my mom surrendered. For a housewarming gift, she gave us the latest edition. No one could ever fault Mom for her taste. <g>
Daddy always complained about the books. He wasn't anti-knowledge, he just wanted me to go outside and "get fresh air." As many grasses and plants as I was allergic to, it was more like fresh air was out to get me. Plus a sensitivity to bright lights usually sent me retreating to a dark spot on very sunny days, where I nursed throbbing headaches. And both Mom and Dad wanted me to "exercise." This was fine once I talked them into a bicycle, but my attempts at organized sports were hopeless. I couldn't bat a ball--
or catch one with any reliability-- and even my punchball skills were terrible. If I did catch a baseball, I never knew what base to throw it to. No one wanted me on their team. I was relegated to right field where no one ever hit the ball. The only "team" sport I was good at was tag, but it was considered "babyish" after the age of ten.
They also worried about my socialization skills and I guess I couldn't blame them: fitting me into the world I grew up in was like fitting that proverbial square peg in the round hole. My parents were borderline 40 when they had me, so here I was, a fan of their music (Perry Como, Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Bing Crosby) growing up in what I thought was an incomprehensible world of rock music, hippies, and the burgeoning drug culture. It was my mom who shortened my skirts to proper miniskirt length, remembering how she had been teased for being out of fashion at school age. Me, I thought the whole business was ridiculous. I had nothing in common with most of the kids, especially as we hit puberty. At fourteen, while the girls were drooling over Bobby Sherman, makeup, nylons, and gorgeous dresses, I was happy back in my corner writing stories (or sneaking upstairs in friends' homes to read their books). Writing was what I wanted to do. Luckily I found a best friend who shared most of my old-fashioned attributes, so we skated the unfashionable backwater of the popularity pond and survived.
And boys? Well, I did know some interesting boys--
they were smart and did well in school. The rest of the species seemed alien: they made rude noises, farted for effect, and seemed to have the oddest fascination for either running around outside in fields banging into each other or the workings of the internal combustion engine. Since I couldn't understand the attraction of some pea-brain who wouldn't know a Shakespearean tragedy if it slapped him in the face, the jock-worshiping cult passed me by.
The other girls were deceived by the glamour--
the prom, dates, flowers, the big wedding. Me, I looked and listened to the women around me. I knew after all the pretty stuff was over, I'd have to clean the big lunk's house and make him dinner and do his laundry, leaving no time for reading or writing. The choice was simple.
(Of course I changed my mind eventually. But I was lucky--
I found one who liked to read, someone who thought bookcases and not curtains and fancy sofas were the requisite in home decorating. <g> As a bonus, he cooks, too!)
Poor Daddy. When I finally went to work, he probably harbored hope that I might frequent the aisles of the dress departments with my newly acquired income. Instead it bought me all those Trixie Beldens I always wanted, and Marguerite Henry to boot. Filene's and Jordan Marsh and Cherry and Webb were ignored for the more golden temptations of Waldenbooks, BDalton, Barnes & Noble, Borders, and the inimitable new and used bookstores that crowd downtown Boston and Harvard Square, later Oxford Books and Wolf's Den in Atlanta.
The dawning of the Internet just brought a new layer to bookaholism. Not only was there this wonderful medium called the World Wide Web to read as well as write for, but there were things like the rec.arts.books.childrens topic on Usenet, which assured you that you weren't the only adult out there still reading and enjoying those companionable stories you grew up with. But the apex, the pinnacle of all were the book search sites on the Web: veritable wish lists of all those books you always wanted to own. Add E-bay as a furthur source and it was enough to send me into transports of joy.
Mom couldn't find The Green Poodles, but I did--
and Serapina and Scholar and John Verney's Callendar family and Seredy's The Open Gate and sequels to both Beautiful Joe and Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm. Best of all, the Internet brought the marvelous bound volumes of St. Nicholas magazine. My very early wish to have a library like Ward Cleaver's may someday come true.
Only trouble with all this book finding is then finding the time to read them all.
But the bookstores are still the best. Going into one always reminds me of a scene from the movie National Velvet, where Velvet waits at the Aintree enclosure, surrounded by the things she loves most in the world. With a beatific face, she draws in a breath and sighs "Horses."
I'm kinda like Velvet: I drink in that perfume of paper and bookprint and am in heaven. As an inticing aroma, it's better than Chanel, CK, and all the White Shoulders in the world.
Return to Linda's Nostalgia Place