At six, I had my first passionate love affair, Platonic, of course, but it was the major mind-altering experience of my childhood. I learned to read and fell madly in love with books! I was awed and captured by the incredible power of reading.
Lucky for me I was first read to by my favorite aunt, ‘Poor Frieda’. I really thought ‘Poor Frieda’ was her given name. It turned out the ‘Poor’ was pity because no man had married her!
“Her nose was always buried in the books,” my mother whispered, soundlessly mouthing the word: books, like it was a dirty word.
Well! No man married me until I was twenty-five, but I grew up in gentler times. Poor Frieda loved to tell stories and read aloud and she mesmerized me with wonderful tales.
She also gave books with gorgeous colored illustrations as gifts, while everyone else gave cotton under-pants and vests or other such ugly sensible things. My most precious childhood possessions were the “colored” fairy tale books edited by Andrew Lang: THE GREEN FAIRY BOOK, THE YELLOW FAIRY BOOK, etc. Poor Frieda painstakingly explained to me what “edited” meant. “He read them all and picked the very best ones.”
My parents were literate and respected learning, but time for reading was a luxury that poverty denied them. My father, a clothing presser, read Talmud on Saturdays; weekdays he was content with the daily newspapers he picked up on the BMT subway trains he took to work. These 2-cent Daily News and Daily Mirror tabloids were my joyous reading too. I loved the comics. “Terry and the Pirates” was my favorite and I yearned to grow up like the exotic-eyed Dragon Lady in slim slit skirts and skin-tight blouses with stand-up collars. Alas, my pudginess and my flat cheekbones doomed me!
In the 1930’s our public library was a miracle, a free- standing architectural jewel set right in the middle of the Williamsburg, Brooklyn Orthodox Jewish slum. It was safe. It was open all day on Saturday and it didn’t cost money. It was always warm (we lived in a cold–water flat), it was quiet, and it was CRAMMED WITH BEAUTIFUL BOOKS THAT I COULD BORROW ON MY OWN CARD.
The Children’s Room was seasonably decorated with oddly shaped gourds, dried, bright multicolored Indian corn, evergreen boughs, and in the summer an abundance of fresh flowers. Sometimes there was a special display of American Indian pottery or Eskimo art. I, who had never been to a museum, was fascinated. The library was a haven in which one always spoke in whispers and NEVER chewed gum or ran.
Eight decades have passed since I got my library card. I am now, alas, legally blind. I read and write these days with mechanical aids, and I remember with great joy the early days when I first got my library card. That access to books changed my life!
Would that all public libraries today welcomed children as cordially and – DAMN BUDGET CUTS! – kept their doors open as many hours as the Williamsburg Branch of the Brooklyn Public Library during the Depression.