Friday, June 3, 2011

The Library That Saved My Childhood

Patti's post about the importance of libraries brought to my mind the essential nature of my own childhood library, the Ernie Pyle Memorial Library in my hometown of Albuquerque, New Mexico.

A newly-discovered portrait of the famous WWII journalist Ernie Pyle is his last: a photograph taken just moments after his death. The body that housed all those words lies still and immortalized in black and white.

Ernie Pyle housed other words in a very literal way – words that meant survival to me, long after he was gunned down by a Japanese machine gun on a Pacific Island in 1945.

When I moved to Albuquerque as a ten-year-old girl in 1962, I devoured the written word. From the time I was a toddler I had wondered at the magic of black marks on white paper and determined I would solve those mysteries; and once I learned to read I was voracious. Previously living in the raw-boned boomtown of Farmington New Mexico, I never went to a library. One Christmas my mother gave me six cheaply-bound books: Alice in Wonderland, The Five Little Peppers, Black Beauty, Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm, Little Women, and Treasure Island. I read each of them seven times.

But once we moved to Albuquerque I discovered to my delight that there was a library just ten blocks away, down the Chinese-elm-lined street of Girard Avenue. I discovered the Olive Book of Fairy Tales (and the Red, and the Blue, and the Yellow, and the Brown…) I delighted in every Oz book Frank Baum ever wrote. I found a whole collection of books about American Indians, and read every one in the little library, even the adult and scholarly ones. (I once even read a book called the Chisel-Tooth Tribe, thinking that the author would stop talking about beavers and other mammals and get around to talking about Indians.) Then I discovered the books about ancient Egypt, and I adopted another culture.

The walls of wonder in that library were a cosmography for my young mind.

Every few days I would bicycle furiously down the street with my wire basketful of books secured with a belt. On the way home, I would often stop pedaling altogether as the strapped-down open book on top snagged my attention. I would scramble off the bicycle just before it toppled. The books and I would sit under a stranger’s tree until I finished a chapter, and I would pedal home.

I didn’t want to return there, to where I lived. It was a place of fits of rage, of crazed threats and screams in the night. It was a place where the emotions of adults ambushed children. I didn’t have the language to express it then. Now I would speak of mental illness, of schizophrenia.

The only refuge was high in the weeping willow tree, or hiding on the cool flagstone beneath the lilac bush. The only insulation was the world of books.

I survived that world, outlasted it, really. I went away from it to college, deliberately forged my own sturdy and loving family.

I write my own books now, sixteen of them published so far. I have written books of faith, to help other women have hope. I have written a book about a child who has bad dreams and is helped by a multi-colored quilt and dreams of escape to wondrous worlds. My newest books explore mysteries -- mysteries of plot, mysteries of the human soul.

I go back to that little library sometimes. What once seemed a kaleidoscope of ideas I now see as a tiny residence, where books, up until recently, were even shelved in the bathtub. It is the modest “little white house and picket fence” that Ernie Pyle often wrote about, the one he and his wife built, made into a public library after his death. His dog Cheetah’s grave is still there. Ernie built that very picket fence. It is a library that demands also to be seen still as a home.

I look at the photograph, the serenity of Ernie Pyle’s face in death.

I thank him for his home, the safe haven for my young mind.


Anonymous said...

Latayne, what a beautiful, beautiful post. The words became 3-dimensional as I sensed myself in that young girl's world -- your world. My heart breaks for sad, lost childhoods. You emerged a strong, compassionate, loving woman, brimming with the fruit of the Holy Spirit. Your gifts are many, not the least of which is your ability to pen stories as vivid as the scene you created in this post. I loved it.

Marti Pieper said...

Ernie's story is a unique one.
So is this post.

Your description of your childhood bicycle rides with a basket full of books reminds me of myself, staggering under an armload of books culled from a fledgling Ohio library. This one found a home not a former residence but in the basement of our elementary school. Books overflowed the shelves and soon, my heart.

Thanks for the beauty of your memory and for sparking my own.

Anonymous said...

Oh, wow. Thank you for sharing your story. I'm also the child of a schizophrenic parent. I feel almost that you told my story...just set in a warmer State.

Books were my hide out, too. I read a lot of books about human rights, people overcoming impossible odds, survivors. Little did I know that I was attracted to these books because I saw myself in them.

I guess that's one reason I'm a writer. I want people to see themselves in my stories/novels. And I want them to see the hope that is within their reach.

Great post, Latayne. You warmed my soul today.

Latayne C Scott said...

Sharon, I love you dearly. Thank you for your kindnesses to me-- not just today, any day.

Marti, I think this story is resonating with anyone who loves books. And how much it seems like libraries are often refugees -- going wherever they can thrive.

Susie, we're here, we survived, and now we can help others. What a glorious calling is ours!

Anonymous said...

You know, with the advent of the internet, research for writing is at our fingertips, but since I've begun researching online I haven't spent nearly as much time at my library, and I feel the loss.

Bonnie Grove said...

I'm going to carve out some time this week to take my kids to the library. Promise.

You are an inspiration, Latayne.

Debbie Fuller Thomas said...

I so appreciate your transparency. Only wish I'd known you as a kid. We would have lugged out books home from the library and laid out under the giant oak tree and my mom would have brought us Oreos and milk or Koolaid in aluminum cups. (Didn't you love the 'tang' from the sugar in the aluminum?)

Meg Moseley said...

Thanks for sharing that, Latayne. I'm glad you had books to escape to. My childhood wasn't nearly as chaotic as yours, but I had my reasons for hiding away with my library books, often on the rooftop where nobody could find me.

What Sharon said resonates with me, too. I need to get back to browsing in the library instead of reserving books online, grabbing them off the "express" shelves, and doing the automatic checkout. There's something wrong with a trip to a library that doesn't even involve another living soul.

Latayne C Scott said...

Bonnie, dear, bless me by blessing your children with a trip to the library. I believe in imputed grace!

Debbie, I say the next time we see each other we eat Oreos and drink milk. Just because we can.

Karen, thank you so much.

Meg, it reminds me of DIckinson:

There is no frigate like a book
by Emily Dickinson

There is no Frigate like a Book
To take us Lands away,
Nor any Coursers like a Page
Of prancing Poetry –
This Traverse may the poorest take
Without oppress of Toll –
How frugal is the Chariot
That bears a Human soul.