Books. I love them and the different roles they’ve played in my life. Even writing these words I’m recalling the spines of books I stared at as a child; the one with dark green fabric and frayed edges, the thick brown book with the deep emboss, and the navy with gold, raised letters. I would cradle them like baby dolls as I rearranged the long shelves of books before I was even ready for the words between the covers. I simply wanted to be near them, knowing at some primal level that they were thick with treasure.
I remember story books, the anticipation as I waited for mom to get to the next the page. Her fingers as familiar as my own, the sound of her licking a fingertip to turn the page, and the warmth of her body all a part of my greatest comfort. There were flutters in my tummy as the page would turn and Little Bear, Frog & Toad, or Francis would appear. The reliability and intoxicating combination of connection and escape set me on fire. There were times when a bad book in my hands was better than no book. When I wasn’t reading books, I was collecting them. Hand-me-downs from friends, gifts from my mom, and the steady trickle of books being passed down to me from my grandmother, and later, my grandfather.
Watching my girls embark on their own odyssey of what is magic has been humbling. For every time I’ve tried to construct a scenario or impart a certain thing, it’s failed. There is no choreography to passion, which is why the way they have come into book love has pleased me on a level I can’t explain.
Briar now loses herself in books, Finley has favorites, some of which are books she reads, others are simply books that she adores, stories be damned. Avery is following the path she’s always preferred, picking books with black protagonists, or Asian, or Hispanic, the recurring theme being a skin color darker than her own and stories never told by Barbie, My Little Pony, or Disney.
I have a daughter almost in middle school, a daughter almost out of elementary school, and a first grade in hot pursuit of her sisters. We are making it up as we go. Thursday nights Briar takes a sewing class, while she is there I hang out at the library with her sisters.Last week Finley had a book called Akiak, it was about a ten-year old dog participating in the Iditarod. I wept openly as we read the book.
They know that Library Lion makes me weep. So does Otis, so does, City Dog, Country Frog, so does Little Bear and the Robin. Ok, as Sean says, they all make me cry. After Akiak I said to Fin, “You sure know how to pick the books that go straight to my heart.” They watch me with every book , waiting to see if I’ll cry, if there will be tears that they can catch. There is a part of me that doesn’t want to embarrass them, but there is another part that wants them to know how close to the surface they make my heart exists.
Tonight Ave picked a book and said, “I hope you’ll read it to me.”
“Of course, honey. I am here to be able to do this and this looks like a great pick.”
She settled into a chair next to mine, Fin sidled up in one of her own. We began. The illustrations were simple. Having a dad working in design with a degree in illustration, sometimes the books choices are based as much on visuals as they are on content. We started getting to know Mary, with her brown skin, bare feet and new, harsh neighborhood. Mary played piano, remembering songs after one listen, and instinct guided her fingers across the keys. The girls never looked for “white skin” or asked about how she didn’t have shoes. They wanted to know more about her. Their faces scrunched in pain as Mary was taunted and ridiculed by a neighbor with pale skin and long curls.
I followed Mary’s story and did my best to keep pace in such a way that they weren’t impatiently waiting for me to turn the page. I found that I was getting lost in they story. Mary moved to Pittsburgh and a few of the geographic names tested me, but we made it through.
As I read about Mary referring to the teasing and slurs as “bad sounds” I felt a lump in my throat. We ave talked about kids being mean, but we have only lightly broached race. I read the words, “She crooned and whispered and shouted out until her spirit was lifted free.” As they story went on the girls heard the tell-tale sound of the tightening of my throat. They turned to watch me, Avery raking her scarf gently along the tops of my cheeks, “I’ll catch your tears, Mama.” Finley looked at me, never saying a word, rather measuring the effect of their choices through my tears, the more, the better they’d chosen.
“You hear that girls? She fought the hurt from school with music.” I wasn’t trying to suggest that everything can be fixed, rather we all have something and the ways in which we each deal with our pain is different. Mary’s music became a part of her neighborhood, with adults finding ways to encourage her playing. She grew up and continued playing.
As we got to the end of the book, I read the afterword. Our Mary was in fact a major player in the music industry. The word feminism leapt from the page. I crinkled m eyes and thought, “No sense trying to navigate someone’s passion when they can do just fine by themselves.”
Feminism. Barrier. Talent. Spirit. Soul. Childhood.
Sitting there in the library, the world outside dark and cold, I was reminded once again of the way books can soothe and connect us.
*The book is called The Little Piano Girl and is about the story of Mary Lou Williams.