The story of a story
It’s a mysterious thing how some of the books we read in childhood stay with us. Some wait patiently for us, boxed away in our parents’ attic. Some are read and re-read every year, treasured, shared and never forgotten. And then there are others, books whose influence is subtle, who get lost, then remembered, then forgotten again.
I’ve already spoken about some of the books of my childhood. But there was one book, the memory of which was slight and elusive, like the echo of a whisper. I didn’t remember much about it, except that the characters were siblings, all spaced two years apart. They were either 10, 8, 6, and 4. Or 11, 9, 7, and 5. And one scene in which some of them went to a candy shop and bought half a penny’s worth of one kind of candy and half a penny’s worth of another. Then they brought it home and ate it secretly in bed at night. That’s it. That’s all I could remember. But a few years ago, I began to search. Not deliberately, not seriously, but I began to think about the book and look around for it.
Because my family is English, many of my books were from England. The English had ha-penny’s, so it was probable that I was searching for an English book. I asked my sister and she suggested it was “The Family from One End Street” by Eve Garnett or one of Garnett’s other books. I thought maybe, the dates were certainly right and I know I read those books. Other contenders included “Cheaper by the Dozen” (lots of kids, actually took place near the town I grew up in), and “Up the Down Staircase” (only because of the title – this book is in fact nothing like what I was looking for). But I wasn’t convinced. Or terribly concerned. After all, I do have a life to live, children to raise, a book to write. I don’t have all day to chase echoes.
And then, one day while I was working in a library, a young lady brought back an old tattered paperback. I looked at the cover and my heart skipped a beat. I grabbed the girl’s arm, barely restraining myself from hugging her, and told her I thought this book might be the one I had been looking for for twenty years. I asked her about the “eating candy in bed” scene and she said, yes the book had a scene like that. I thanked her again and again for her part in helping me find this long searched for book. She, of course, thought I was a raving lunatic. She could not understand why the librarian was so excited about some old book about random girls from long ago that had frankly not interested her very much.
And the thing is, it’s not English at all. The girls are Jewish and they live in Brooklyn. HA! I was searching the wrong continent!
And then. Then I began to read it. Here is the first page:
I almost fell off my chair. I started to read and different parts of the story began coming back to me, as neurons long asleep deep in my brain began to perk up and look around. The Library Lady. She is idolized by the girls. One of them has lost a library book and approaches the librarian with dread and terror.
Here is what one of the sisters, Sarah, feels when approaching the librarian:
Sarah studied the new library lady anxiously. She looked so fresh and clean in a crisp white shirtwaist with long sleeves ending in paper cuffs pinned tightly at the wrists. Her hair is light, just like mine, Sarah said to herself. And she has such little ears. I think she has a kind face. She watched as the librarian’s slender fingers pulled the cards in and out of the index file. ….. The library lady smiled. She has dimples, Sarah thought. Surely a lady with dimples could never be harsh. The smile on the library lady’s face deepened. In front of her desk stood five little girls dressed exactly alike.
And later, the girls’ mother meets the librarian and describes her: “all the children are always telling me such nice things about you. How you’re always ready with a suggestion about what they should read, and how interested you are in discussing the books with them. I appreciate that.” To which Miss Allen replies “It’s a pleasure to help such eager readers.”
I don’t know if this had an effect on my eventual choice or profession. If so, it was not a conscience one. My decision to be a librarian came much, much later after years of doing other things. And the character and scenes with the librarian were not ones that I had remembered. But what if? What if somewhere deep in my subconscious this story, these words, were buried deep working their magic.
Miss Allen, the beloved Library Lady, continues to drop in and out of the pages of this delightful book, along with gentle stories of the girls’ childhood growing up in a poor Jewish family, their father a peddler of rags, their mother doing the best she can to raise her girls correctly under difficult circumstances. Re-reading the book was like reliving old buried memories, like driving through an old neighborhood you haven’t seen for years. And the scene of the girls eating candy secretly in bed had not lost any of its charm.
It’s been fascinating finding this book again and thinking of the possible implications. Some would say that there are no coincidences. That my searching sent out messages into the universe, guaranteeing that I would cross path with this book again. I don’t know about that, but I do know that at the end of the story, the wonderful Miss Allen’s first name is revealed. What is it? Kathy, of course.