The walk of temptation was extraordinary for a five year old. My mom parked the Chevy Impala in front of Ben Franklin that Saturday morning. I could already see the candy through the double glass doors. My impatient feet jittered up and down next to the parking meter as she rummaged through the bottom of her purse for a quarter. I rolled my eyes as she pushed aside Kleenex and breath mints. “C’mon,” I would never say out loud, but released through the clenching and unclenching of my chubby fingers. The coin dropped and the red flag moved aside. We were free. I raced past the front cashier and stood in front of the penny candy. If I saw it today, with grown-up eyes, the square plastic bins stacked on an end cap, might not seem so magical, but then, oh, then, it was glorious! It was Tinkerbell’s wand waving over a colorful rainbow of sugar. I could feel my chin drop. “Wait!” I said as she led me down the aisle. “Can’t we just get a little bit..just one color even…just a piece of red…” “Next time,” she said, “We have better things to do.” Better things, I grumbled underneath my breath. Impossible, I thought. And dragged my bumper tennis shoes along. The aisle became stacked with toys. Beautiful, plastic covered toys! Yes, I thought. These must be the better things. I began to touch everything. I wanted it all. Or anything! Something pink and shiny! Please, I begged, perhaps out loud, or just with heart-reaching urgency. I felt her hand on my shoulder again. “Better…” she promised. It couldn’t possibly be, I thought. Yet, she had never lied to me. But here, in the center aisle of the Ben Franklin, I must admit, I had my doubts. We walked through the back door. A large pillared building stood in front of us. I began to near the grass, but she pulled me to the sidewalk. “You need to see all of it,” she said. We stood in front. The Alexandria Public Library. It was beautiful, but what was inside? “Books,” she said. “They give them to you. With just your name.” I could only breathe the word, “OHHHHH…” We walked up the stairs and opened the doors. “It smells like words,” I said. She smiled and led me down the stairs to the children’s section. I could barely move. Every spine, every cover, called to me. “Take your time,” she said. Each letter tugged at my sleeve until my arms were filled. I signed (printed) my name on the small mildewed card. My heart beat sugared from the inside. “Do you want me to help you carry them?” I shook my head no and carefully maneuvered myself and the precious cargo down the stairs. I started walking up the sidewalk. “Don’t you want to cut through?” she asked, pointing at Ben Franklin. “No,” I said, “this is better.” We walked the long way to the car. Books in hand, I held the keys to the kingdom.
According to the song, we were not yet even “puppies,” but each morning around 8:15 — just after being dropped off of the school bus at Washington Elementary, and just before Miss Green began our 5th grade class — we sang alongside the turntable with Donny Osmond, “And they called it puppy love
Just because we’re in our teens…”
Of course we weren’t in our teens, but even just having a record player, we felt old enough to experience all the emotions. The closest we actually got to boys was playing four square on the playground. We rotated through the boxes, never touching, hovering somewhere between wanting to beat them and wanting to be liked. I suppose we thought the answers would come in the next song. But none of us actually had the money to buy a new 45 at Carlson’s Music Center, so we sang it again and again, “
Someone, help me, help me, help me please. Is the answer up above? How can I, oh how can I tell them,this is not a puppy love.”We began to lean on Mr. Iverson, our music teacher. Each week he gathered us together to learn a new song — new meaning new to us, but certainly old, perhaps older than our parents. We were desperate for new. “Please please please,” we begged, “let us sing something from the radio.” Our hands shot up straight in the air when he asked for suggestions. “Seasons in the sun” was the overwhelming response. They played it constantly on KDWB, the radio station that intermittantly came in from Minneapolis. Unfamiliar with the lyrics, he said he would play the record and decide. He placed it on the turntable and immediatlely his face turned. None of us had heard the actual verses. We were all just mesmorized by the chorus — “We had joy, we had fun, we had seasons in the sun…” Unfortunately, the majority of the song was about dying. Somehow we had missed that. He scratched the record racing to get the needle out of the groove. I guess we were all in such a hurry to become older, at least puppies, that we missed it.
And that’s the gift, isn’t it? I’m always surprised as summer turns into fall. It happens year after year, and I’m still hovering between the bus ride and when class actually begins. Luxuriating in the 15 minutes of unsupervised freedom. Still ready to believe. To become. To begin again.
I don’t know when it changed — the moment we dropped the word story and just started calling them books. A part of me wants to bring it back.
The story books were in the basement of the Alexandria Public Library. Maybe it was because we didn’t know how to use the card catalog yet, but so many were on display, not by spine, but full cover. I can still see the bright blue cover of Jonathan Livingston Seagull. It was still above my reading grade, and sat perched on the very top shelf. I thought if I finished all the books on the lower shelves, read each and every story, worked my way upwards, that I too could fly.
My mom dropped me off every Saturday morning. I climbed up the outer steps, then climbed down the inside ones. I read for hours. Just before my mom picked me up, I checked out as many books as my orange book bag would hold, and the librarian would allow. She never complained about having to come in and get me. Most of my friends from school sat outside waiting for their rides. Running around in the grass, soon and easily fed up with the quiet words of the basement. But not me. I wanted every moment. And my mother, being an avid reader, understood. She parked the car behind the Ben Franklin store and walked over to get me.
I wasn’t thinking about it when I wrote the book Bird Song. Covered in the same blue, it is a collection of stories (a story book) told by the beautiful wings that carry them. But of course it lives within me. The days at the public library. Each word read. Each shelf climbed. I know they brought me to this place. They lifted me. Dared me. And faster than any childhood Saturday morning, I learned to fly.
The stories we create are not weights, but branches. Out on the morning limb, I heart gather all the words – of mother and love and youth and chance and choice and story — I spread my wings, and I fly.
It turns out the coffee I held in my hand was not really a coffee at all, but a Time Machine. I hadn’t seen him in years. It was Dominique who saw him first – this man staring in our direction, watching me. I was busy touching every book cover, reading every title in this Barnes and Noble. I almost ran into him. I looked up and seeing his face my brain flashed with words of Emily Dickinson, for he had always given me books of poetry. I wanted to say, “In the name of the Bee — And of the Butterfly — and of the Breeze — Amen!” But all I could say, all we both could say was, “Oh, my gosh! Oh my gosh! Oh my gosh! The words squeezed between us as we hugged away all the distance of space and time.
Words tumbled out, almost incoherent, as I tried to introduce him to Dominque. I said something like spiritual leader, guide, friend, I don’t know. Because as Roethke said in his poem, he had no rights in my matter, he was “neither father, nor lover.” But oh, how he mattered to me.
Dominque and I just celebrated our 8th anniversary, but it was here, in this Barnes and Noble, I was walked down the aisle. He told Dominique how very special I was. How lucky he was. Words I would have imagined to hear from a father or brother. Words I never really even let myself dare the hope to hear, but he offered them so freely yesterday. Above the din of all the stories, he said mine aloud. Maybe it’s not even correct anymore for a girl, a woman, to want to hear it, need to hear it, but I can say now, how good it actually felt. He told Dominque to take care of me. He said I love you. And on this day before Valentine’s Day, I felt like I got married again.
Happy Valentine’s Day, Dominique! I love you! I would marry you again and again. I will say all the words above the words and write new ones and arrange them to tell you I love you, now and forever.
And Happy Valentine’s Day to all those along the way who show us that love is possible. That we are possible of giving. Of receiving. Love.
Perhaps it was in the first grade that I was taught how precious time was. Mrs. Bergstrom stood from her desk and smoothed the lines in her pencil skirt. We wriggled in our seats. It was Wednesday afternoon, and we knew what was coming. She lined us up by the door. She waited for us to get rid of our squirms, opened the port to our freedom, and told us to go to our respective lavatories. Oh, the bathroom. Our shoulders sank. We always forgot about the bathroom. We elbowed each other under the flowing sinks. Hurry. Hurry. Then back in line. We walked on tip toes of excitement. Up the stairs. She turned to us with one last warning. She cocked her head and looked down with raised eyebrows that meant, “Respect this place.” And for the most part, we did. Maybe not to the extent that I revered it, with all my heart and soul and wiggling fingers that tried so hard to choose the right book, but it was the library after all.
Every Tuesday night. Snuggled with worry and anticipation, my mother and I read, and reread that week’s choice. I pulled on each letter. Each word. Each sentence. Gathered them in. Promising to never let go. And I didn’t. Even when I returned it the next day, I knew it would always be with me.
They tried to prepare us, I suppose. But I’m not sure it’s possible.
I slowed down my reading last night. Nearing the end of this book. Not quite ready to give in to the “Wednesday” that was approaching. I snuggled into the prayers said under my grandmother’s quilt, the sound of my mother reading, and I promised the words — promised us all — this was our story, and I would never let it go.
In Kindergarten, Mrs. Strand had the audacity to leave us mid year to give birth to twins. In the first grade, Mrs. Bergstrom, hair pulled back in a bun, wore her long pencil skirt and wool sweater all the way until summer break. We knew she would never leave. She taught us the meaning of the word trust, and then taught us how to spell it. She was opening our worlds. Then one day, she lined us up, single file, and quietly led us up the stairs, turned us to the left, opened the big wooden door. All was silent but for the singing of my heart’s choir! The library! All those books. A conversation from wall to wall. Information. Entertainment. Belonging. Yes, most of all the belonging. I knew I would be both comforted and launched — I suppose the perfect definition of home.
And I was home. Here in the words.
Yesterday we arrived in Laurel, Mississippi. Being an HGTV fan, I wanted to see it all. Where they filmed. What they made. The houses they transformed. People have told me, oh, you’ll be disappointed – it’s only make believe.
We pulled into town and the first thing I saw were the giant books painted on the side of the building. I smiled. I have always been one made to believe — the very day I stepped through the big wooden door at Washington Elementary. I know all is not always as it seems. But it is always what you choose to see. Today I choose to see the magic of it all — from the giant books on the side of a building to the promise of a small home town. It’s hard to hear the doubters over the singing of my heart.