Repository of Memory

1 03 2012

I sometimes astound my friends with stories about my childhood – their surprise generally surrounds either the fact that my five siblings and I never killed anyone or the concept that I was allowed to go places without my parents. Yes, friends, I am that old – I grew up in a time when no one was worried about children being snatched.

We lived, back then, in a house on a bluff, overlooking the Mississippi River and the flat valley it had carved into the landscape. The downtown, and many places of significance in my childhood, were located in those flats. Most forays both within and outside of my neighborhood involved negotiating either steep streets or flights of endless stairs carved into the bluffside.

Two blocks from my house, at a point where the street turned a corner and opened into a spectacular view of the city and river below, there stood a curious handrail. In the street itself, surrounding a hole in the pavement. As one approached closer to the hole, stairs could be seen, disappearing under a graceful arch of carved limestone blocks. At the bottom of those stairs, a walker was forced to navigate about half a block of very steep sidewalk, often broken and littered with glass, before reaching flat land. Positioned exactly there, an immense and imposing edifice became one of the happiest locations of my childhood.

The Carnegie-Stout Public Library. (click to see an old postcard of the edifice)

I can remember my mom coaching me the first time I was allowed to go to the library by myself. I was never very confident doing things on my own, so it is a measure of my desire that I was unwilling to wait for a parent or siblings to make the trip. Down through the hole in the street I went, taking my time on the stairs and the steep sidewalk (if I remember correctly, mom was watching from the street above, and I wanted to prove my maturity by not running and, inevitably, falling.)

I always chose the grand main entrance, though the side door led directly to my final destination. However, I loved those broad stairs, colonnades, and the stone lions guarding the massive wood doors. Inside, the reading rooms flanking the main hall, beckoned. One had comfy, overstuffed leather furniture, the other library tables with reading lamps. But I was afraid of the serious old men in these rooms, perusing their big city newpapers, so I generally passed through quickly. I always visited the adult literature section, not because I wanted to check out the books, but because of the winding iron staircase leading to the glass-floored loft in that section. I loved the surprise of the glass floor, the tall black stacks full of books, the iron railings which allowed a view of the open main floor and its lofty ceilings from a higher vantage point.

The second floor was not officially off-limits, but it was filled with offices and meeting rooms. Adults I didn’t know always asked if they could help me, and I got the impression from their tones that children weren’t completely welcome on that level. Typically, I scampered back down the marble stairs fairly quickly. Straight down to the basement where, as far as I was concerned, the real magic happened: the children’s room.

The room was bright, if shabby, and full of stories waiting for me to discover them. The librarians knew me, and knew what would interest me: at first, stories about pixies and fairies; then chapter books about families like “The Five Little Peppers”. Eventually, books and authors I could sink my teeth into. Frances Hodgson Burnett (A Little Princess, The Secret Garden, Little Lord Fauntleroy). The Boxcar Children. Nancy Drew. Any- and every- thing ever written by Louisa May Alcott.

As a child, I had many fancies about my world: our yard, our neighborhood, our town. This helped to make the world feel intimate and comfortable. As I grew older, I realized that the world was huge and not particularly cozy. Its vastness began to frighten me. When I discovered reading, particularly novels, I found that there was another, equally vast, world inside my own imagination. In this vastness, whether the setting was familiar or alien, I was always safe – if sometimes challenged to be more or think more deeply and broadly than before.

Sometime after I left home, the library built and addition and moved all the public spaces into it, closing off the original grand library (turning it into offices and storage rooms). I was incensed by this. Recently, though, the library underwent a renovation. I had an opportunity to visit, and was pleased to see that, in the renovation, someone had cared enough to upgrade while paying homage to the original detail. It isn’t the same, but it evokes similar feeling. The children’s room, in its traditional space in the basement, is bright and interactive. Perhaps today’s children will find magic there, just as I once did. I hope so.

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Friends: I would like to invite any of you who may be interested to submit a guest post to Jenion. Guest posts are a great way to test the blogging waters (for those who’ve wanted to blog but are unsure of the commitment) or, if you already have a blog, to share something that doesn’t fit your own blog’s theme. Here at Jenion, its all about aha moments, personal transformation and/or growth, weight loss, emotional development. Honesty and humor are both welcome! If you have a story along these lines you’d like to share, please email or write a reply to this post and we’ll “talk”!

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3 responses

1 03 2012
crgardenjoe

You made me think of the old library in Clinton, Iowa–another grand 19th or early 20th Century mansion of memories. I love the grand old buildings, and am sad that Cedar Rapids is losing yet again and irreplacable treasure this month. Anyway, one of my favoirte rooms in that library was outside of the kids room–located on the second floor in this library–where the old stereoscopes and boxes of 19th Century 3-D carboard stereo photos were kept. Those were cool.

1 03 2012
Patti Roman

You made me think of fond memories of the Dubuque area.

5 03 2012
jenion

Patti and Joe: I love that my reminiscences about my childhood library brought up fond memories for you! All the places that we have loved in our lives become part of us, don’t they?

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