Barbies. That's what other little girls got when they brought home superior report cards, behaved for the babysitter, or bravely faced the dentist. Those girls stood in toy store aisles, drooling over the seemingly endless possibilities.
They were, after all, faced with the choice between Pink & Pretty Barbie, Day-to-Night Barbie and the much-coveted Dream Date Barbie. They’d pick one up, fondle the plastic box in an attempt to make the right decision, then slowly place it back on the shelf and move on to the next. My process was similar, but rather than a blonde, tippytoed icon, I stared in awe at the vast stream of books that lined the library shelves. Instead of a trip to the toy store, my mother trained me to salivate over visits to our local library.
I can’t remember a time before my mother introduced me to the library. She and I combed the narrow stacks for hours, both of us on our hands and knees on the faded orange carpet. It was a scavenger hunt without clues, and a host of satisfying answers. She taught me the Dewey Decimal System and quizzed me to see how quickly I could return victorious, book raised high over my head. I heard the second hand of her watch tick as I raced around corners of the methodical maze.
I was only allowed three books a week, and choosing seemed a tragic feat. My mother waited patiently as I made my selections, running my fingers over the kaleidoscope of books. After pulling one from the shelf, I carefully cracked it open, tingling at the sound of the crinkling plastic. The card sat proudly in its pocket, revealing the book’s history, linking together the lives it had touched. I then lifted the yellowed pages to my nose, drinking in the euphoric smell. My mother watched without complaint, a pleased smile on her face, understanding the magnitude of each decision.
I continued to pay homage to the library throughout my youth, visiting every day after school. But I no longer went with my mother, as we began to experience the distance of adolescence. The serene hush of the library had been replaced with arguments and door slamming. I swam in teenage angst and had long forgotten the days my mother and I had spent embraced in the yellow glow and cushioned armchairs of the library. It was then that my mother suggested we take a day trip into the city together. The further we drove from home, the more I felt the confines of our relationship begin to melt with the last trace of springtime snow.
When we arrived at the Boston Public Library, my stomach danced up the concrete steps. We stood in the middle of the reading room, where luminous, green lamps sat atop mahogany tables. Our heads swiveled as we gazed at the shelves that climbed toward the arched ceiling. The wooden floors creaked beneath our shifting weight, echoing amid the sole sound of delicately turned pages.
My mother faced me, tucking an escaping piece of hair behind my ear and, in a whisper, revealed something she had never shared with anyone before. She told of how, at my age, she had played hooky from school one day, only to spend it in this library. I realized then that she was sharing a vital piece of herself, searching for the connection we had lost through the years. It marked a transition more profound than any saliva filled first kiss or shopping for that white, cotton training bra. I had graduated to the Boston Public Library and simultaneously passed through the doors of womanhood. It was a moment between a mother and daughter in a place that spanned generations. She was inviting me in, handing me the key to this delicious world.
Some mothers hand down family recipes to their daughters. Others pass along antique jewelry. My mother gave me something much more valuable and life shaping than this. She instilled in me a love for the written word and the magic that lives inside the walls of a library. The library was our special place, where we could lose ourselves and find each other.