I love hearing that her childhood included countless hours of being read to in every corner of that house, whether cradled in her mother’s lap in their rocker, “…which ticked in rhythm as we rocked, as though we had a cricket accompanying the story,” or in the kitchen while her mother, “…sat churning (butter), and the churning sobbed along with any story.” Wondrous too, that the Welty home included a “library”—the living room bookcase—encyclopedia tables, and a dictionary stand under one window.
Looking back at my own childhood, I’m not sure where I found my love for reading. No one read to me after a very young age. And we had no library to speak of. But we did have a single bookshelf, whose presence I attribute to my dad.
But that came later. Before my dad was in the picture, my mom read to me when I was very small. She read from a series of books a door to door salesman talked her into called The Child’s World. This large, leather bound set included volumes on other cultures, other countries, and plants and animals of the world. But the one I loved (and this I have in common with Welty and probably a zillion other kids raised with similar-sounding collections) was the volume of stories and poems.
These were beautifully illustrated with deep, vividly colored inks and fancy scrolling titles. Pages I poured over for years until passing them down to my younger siblings. Once these siblings came along, Mom no longer had time to read to any of us, but the damage was done. My older brother and I took to the streets, setting up mock stages around the neighborhood and acting out the stories that swirled in our heads.
When I turned six, this same brother and his friends terrified me with stories of the first grade teacher who (how could I doubt it?) fried you in an electric chair hidden in her broom closet, should you fail to learn your lessons. Mrs. T was as tall and square shouldered as the first letter of her name, and wore a perpetual grim face accompanied by long, dark dresses. Just the sort of appearance you’d expect of an executioner!
I decided on my first day of class, that should she try anything with me, I’d be out the door in a nano second, headed home. (Or at least back to kindergarten, where the sweet-faced teacher let you play in the sandbox and delivered cookies at noon. And whose very name—Mrs. Spain—conjured the rolling hills of a far away country.)
But Mrs. T had a surprise in store for me, and I never ran away. She seduced me with the alphabet, and subsequently unlocked the deeper mysteries of language. How I loved drawing the fat bellied a’s and b’s, the loopy g’s and j’s, the dottie i’s, and rambling m’s and w’s. Suddenly I was not only reading without pause, I was conjuring my own words—my own stories!—on the page.
By this time my dad had left his previous marriage and come to live with us, and he brought a few possessions. Among these were a mysterious looking deep sea diving suit and his carpentry tools, and that single shelf of books. It was the first and only authentic bookshelf our family ever owned. I never saw Dad read these books, but I remember them with a reverence that he somehow passed down.
Enter Scholastic Book Club, whose monthly book sales swallowed my allowance. Money carefully hoarded and divided between the titles. Oh, the agony of choice—the main title—more enticing and expensive—or those older titles bundled together for discount. I devoured countless middle grade mysteries, adventure stories, and mainstream fiction on my way to being broke.
It was Dad who was responsible for the allowance that gave me a chance to hoard and spend on these books. And I suppose I was also inspired to acquire by that shelf of his. I was just like a grown up, owning books. And I soon graduated to libraries and a hopeless infatuation with Zane Grey. Grey was, after all, writing about the western landscapes I knew (however idealized).
Then on to the classics, whose far off lands beckoned me further. Dickens, Brontė, Melville, Tolstoy, Guy de Maupassant. “Books that took the back of my head off,” as Emily Dickinson put it. One day I would travel to the far off lands in these books, in real time.
As for Dad’s bookshelf, we weren’t allowed to mess with it. The contents were precious. There were books with full color plates, and titles from his childhood such as; Adventures of Tom Sawyer, Treasure Island, Pinocchio, and dearest of all Ferdinand the Bull. These old fashioned books enchanted me, sitting as they did beside dark adult reads by Émile Zola and Thor Heyerdahl, and a full set of studiously bound Encyclopedia Britannica.
Later, I was allowed to use the Britannica when writing school reports, which I did for years. But it’s the Twain, Zola, and Stevenson I’ve held on to.
Somewhere between the book shelf arriving in our home and my growing up, I lost my dad. When I lost him, I stopped reading for a while. But books will find you if you let them. And it was first my dad’s books—the shelf no longer untouchable—their stories, their messages and meanings, their wide world of possibilities, that helped save me when I was most lost.
I suppose, like a parent you love, books never lose their hold on you once you fall for them. They never lose their connection. Not just the stories but the actual books. The inky perfume, the paper moon smell of pages. The tandem of art and text so locked together that nothing else will do but to anticipate again and again, turning the page to find that next illustration. The back jacket, with its promise. The cover you can dissect, looking for the girl in the book, and perhaps not finding her because you picture her some other way. As some girl you’ve conjured much more clearly, alive from the words on the page.
I indentify with Ray Bradbury who noted in the title to his famous essay, “How Instead of Being Educated in College, I Was Graduated From Libraries.” Because a single book shelf, then libraries and the books within them, graduated me in the difficult times. And later gave me permission, as the saying goes, “To write for the dead I loved.”
I think of my dad’s old books as Father’s Day comes around. I wish I could reminisce with him about them. If I could, I’d ask him why he brought these particular titles when he came to live with us. What they held for him between their pages. What memories they conjured, and dreams they kept. But mostly I’d just soak it in, having my dad to talk books with.
This quote says so much about the meaning of story. It’s from the write up of Ray Bradbury’s book on childhood, Dandelion Wine: “It is yesteryear and tomorrow blended into an unforgettable always, which attracts us.”