In honor of Library Card Sign-Up Month we are delighted to share this lovely story from Nancy Jensen, author of THE SISTERS, about her first library card.
My grandmother taught me to read.
While she cooked, I would sit at the kitchen table, drawing row after row of variant loops and squiggles on lined paper, from time to time calling, “Are there any letters here, Grandma?” Bless her, she found one every time, and right then she would stop and write the true letter plainly for me to use as a model for practice. It wasn’t long before I could write all the letters, quickly learning the order from the alphabet song. Words followed, and to teach these Grandma used my sister’s first grade readers—I can still see blond-haired Jane with her blue ribbon, running in her white dress and black Mary Janes alongside the brown-haired Dick, accompanied by the energetic Spot. After that, Grandma started letting me choose books during the weekly trip to the library, checking them out on her card. Soon, though, my appetite for books exceeded the checkout limit, meaning Grandma had to forego getting books for herself, and so she asked that I be given a card of my own.
When I think of this now, I’m in awe of what she did in that moment. Firm and powerful as she was at home, Grandma was almost debilitatingly fearful of drawing attention to herself in public. The library’s rule was that no child under six could have a library card. I was only four. I imagine her asking, being told I was too young. The grandmother familiar to me would have blushed, looked down, softly breathed an apology to the librarian—a girl less than half her age—and left in shame. Instead, she persisted, arguing that it was silly that a child who could read couldn’t have access to books. She had taught me to care for books—“A book is your friend”—and to treat them with respect, never to mark in them or handle them roughly or with dirty hands. She told all this to the children’s librarian, acknowledging the many gum-stuck pages she must have dealt with, and assured her that she would take full responsibility for any books I might borrow.
I remember being lifted onto the counter, Grandma challenging the young woman—who to me looked as beautiful as a Miss America contestant—to choose any book at all as a test of my reading skills, determined to disprove the librarian’s suggestion that I might seem to be reading when in fact I had only memorized the story while being read to.
I don’t remember anything about the book I was given, except that I read it out loud and that while I did so, several more grown-ups gathered to listen. Mostly I remember looking up into Grandma’s face, her eyes and smile triumphant and radiant. She—shy, backward, eighth-grade educated Geraldine Jensen—had done this marvelous thing, conquering the Floyd County Library establishment for my sake.
Before we left, the head librarian herself pressed my card, and I showed it proudly to Grandpa when we climbed in the car, pointing out how the tissue-thin return slips were imprinted in fuzzy blue type with my name. He stole a glance at Grandma before reaching across my lap to squeeze her hand.
Excerpted from the essay “Blue Belt” published in WINDOW: STORIES AND ESSAYS, Fleur de Lis Press, 2009.