When I was a little girl, about nine years old, I lived in Jackson, Mississippi. This is where I was born, moved away from and moved back to for one hot year in 4th grade. My mother, sister and I moved in with my grandparents Gardner in a small house with a large porch and the widest, greenest backyard a girl could want, fenced only by a meandering forest.
The summer was hot. Stifling heat that lay curled in your mouth like a dead cat. Oppressive heat that drove me to the cold bathtub three, four times a day. My grandmother Elizabeth played the piano with sticky fingers and cooked dinners with flushed cheeks. My sister spent hours drawing and painting, a gift that she had young, like our grandmother. I read. And read, and read and read. I spent hours with my head plastered in a paperback Pet Cemetery by Stephen King, and didn't sleep for years. All right, not years, but it felt that way, lying in bed in the dark, waiting for a dead cat or child to come up and put their freezing fingertips on my legs.
Perhaps my grandmother noticed my literary inclinations and wanted to save me from them, or perhaps she knew that I was small and sad and worried, or perhaps she just wanted me to love something that she loved. She handed the books to me with her soft eyes, and smiled. Anne of Green Gables, the cover read, by LM Montgomery. A small redheaded girl sat on the top, her fierce little face just waiting to light a fire under any unsuspecting little girl who came along and needed one. I did, I needed a fire, and I needed Anne ( with two 'n's ), and her constant chatter, and dead parents, and grim Auntie, and sweet souled Matthew, and Gilbert, and freckles, and poetry and beauty and enough sass and gumptom to keep my soul alive through my childhood.
That book. That one book. There had been books before, and there would be books ever after,
but this was the book that stamped and typed and wrote it's way into my heart and mind, and took up shop, changing me forever. I had been saved by art.
The entire series of Anne and her growing up, follies and foibles (all terrificly and endearingly and refreshingly innocent ) and then her inevitable marriage to Gilbert, and their children, and Rainbow Valley, and the death of her son: this series of books taught me about true love, true personhood, how a person can be simply pockmarked with faults and still dearly, truly and deeply loved. I needed to learn about love. I learned through books.
It was Pippi Longstocking and The Black Stallion and Izzie (with her amputated leg) and Lad: A Dog; it was Sophie's Choice and The Path Least Taken and Anne Frank who taught me about courage.
It was Gone Away Lake and Bedknobs and Broomsticks and Mrs Marsham's Repose; it was The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe and The Littles and The Borrowers who taught me real magic.
It was The Bridge to Terabethia and Greek Myths, it was Of Jacob Have I Loved and The Witch of Blackbird Pond who taught me I was not alone in my pain, that life was hard for many, many people, terribly hard, and there were ways, secret ways, of surviving it, heart and soul intact, and I would find them, if only
I would read.
And I did. I read through my parents entire library of books, quite formidable for poor people. I read Henry Miller and Socrates, I read the entire Rabbit series by Updike, I read Good Sex by Dr. Ruth, The Biography of Hitler, US History, Shel Silverstien, RL's Dream, My Antonia, Robert Frost, and many more.
I read to escape, but more, I read to understand. I wanted to understand why my father broke my mother's vases and smashed the fruit bowl to the wall, why he put his fist through the car windshield and why he hurt the cat, why he scared me before I knew the word fear, and why my mother never talked about it. I wanted to understand why my mother went into her room and locked the door and didn't come out for hours, and why I was mean to my sister when I didn't want to be, and why I hurt the cat. Why were we so poor? Why did the man in the alley scream and howl at night? Why did the next door neighbor girl poop in her underwear and hide them? Why was sex so scary? Why didn't anyone ever ask me the simple, simplest question in the world, ' Maggie.... What Is Wrong? '
Why, if they had asked, could I not tell them.
Something is wrong in my house, I wanted to tell someone. I thought that something wrong was me. My existence, my filter, my soul was warped. This explained the way my home felt, my mother's eyes looked, my sister's fragile face, my father's swollen angry one. I saw things, felt things, experienced things Wrong.
Literature beckoned for me to see myself through it's porthole. ' Something is wrong with your Mother. Something is wrong with your Father. You are a little girl. You are being hurt. Your sister is being hurt. It won't always be like this. One day, you'll grow up. And you will be like these people in these novels, fucked up, yes- but FREE. You WILL BE FREE. '
And so I was, and so I am:
And so it goes.
In my books in the above picture, I have both a Henry Miller first US edition and a first edition Rabbit at Rest. This makes me ridiculously happy.