Remembering the library
It was Doris’ idea. Our father had died on the first day of that year, and Doris wanted to share an experience that meant something to both of us.
I knew that she also hoped to spark my interest as a high-school junior who had never set the woods on fire in school.
Doris was waiting for me in the old Birmingham library. In hushed tones, she guided me through that marvelous old Birmingham home of many books. We went into quiet little rooms with long wooden tables, sneaking carefully around an occasional stranger who was engrossed in some book.
Shelves of books surrounded us; it was very unlike Hueytown High’s library where Mrs. Griffin sat behind the counter, scowling, justifiably, at those of us who had so little sense as to talk and giggle and (I now know) generally desecrate what to her was a special sanctuary.
I did not talk out loud or giggle as Doris and I made our way from room to room in that monstrous public library. She whispered now and then about her favorite spot, or pointed to certain books that were especially meaningful to her. Even then, I did not know that pathways to the mysterious outside world – the world outside my own confused and chaotic Self – were within my grasp on dozens of shelves and books.
Then we entered the art room. Paintings hung on shadowy walls. Huge books lay everywhere. Doris opened some of them and we looked at pictures of paintings and sculpture. (I understood and did not show my amusement when Doris carefully editorialized: “I don’t care for these much” after she had accidentally turned to a page of nudes.)
I felt good, being in that art room with Doris. I felt good about that entire Saturday afternoon. I liked the smell of the place and the quiet dignity of it. And I liked not feeling hostile toward books and study and, yes, even learning.
A young man complained to me years later about demands being made upon him in a college reading class, saying he was sure he would never again, in “real life” have to tell someone the main points of something he had read. That bright young man reminded me of the Alabama kid who stood in the cold that day long ago, a few miles away from a world of book, yet a long way from my understanding how much those books had to do with me.
When we walked down the gray stone steps of the public library into the smoky twilight of old Birmingham, I had not been miraculously transformed. But I had been given a glimpse, and I did go back myself, to sit at one of those long tables and to tip-toe into the pages of a few of the dusty books. For me, this was the start of a very real part – and a very good part – of “real life.” I’m quite sure that my doctor sister still remembers our casual visit to the old Birmingham library. I also know that I never forgot my first little trip to the building with many interesting books, and I’m pretty sure that she also remembers my first trip to that interesting old library.