On my way from Manchester the Tiny White Box in Pittsburg, I took a detour through Lee and Durham, two towns where I lived for more than a third of my life. Since I was meeting my childhood best friend Jonas for lunch, and had an extra 15 minutes, I did something I’d never done before—went into the Lee Library. It wasn’t that I’d been banned, but I’d always kept my Durham Library card, and when I was a boy, the town of Durham and the University of New Hampshire shared a library. One of the funny things about growing up in a small college town is the notion that every town provides readers with an ocean of books, newspapers and magazines. I could set sail with Dr. Doolittle one day, the New Republic the next and Henry James The Varieties of Religious Experience the third, all while surrounded by UNH students who were excited to introduce me to these—all before I was 13. The Lee Library was no ocean; it was, in my mind, a pleasant swimming hole. Thus, I never went there.
While I was in the Army, and for years afterward, my mother did. A reader of voracious if indiscriminate appetite, my mother was as likely to read Sidney Sheldon as John Updike, Irwin Shaw as Philip or Henry Roth. Although she’d grown up in Durham, she transplanted her loyalties to the even smaller-town library. When she died in 2001 (in winter, so before 2001 became 2001!!!), instantly and painlessly of an acute brain hemorrhage, my family asked that in lieu of flowers donations be made to the Lee Library. At some point, my father brought this photograph, framed, of my mother and her younger brother to the library and asked it be placed on the wall.
Taken by my grandfather in, I’d guess, 1937, it’s an odd picture, really. I mean, the princess sits with a book set on her lap, with her vassal looking down, unable to see anything but worms on a page from that distance. No matter, for he likely can’t read, existing as he does to do her bidding. But maybe I’m reading just a bit too much into a picture. Maybe. Strange or not, it’s a great picture for a small-town library—even if she is reading The Bobbsey Twins in a Radio Play, not one of the classic volumes about Freddie, Flossie, Bert and Nan (yes, even if it means I am no longer seen as a real man, I did dip into the Bobbsey oeuvre).
Since more than 15 years had gone by, I assumed the photograph had been taken down, packed in a box and taken to the dump at some point. When I walked in, mumbled something about “A picture of my mother and uncle from the 30s,” though, the desk librarian knew exactly what I was talking about, and led me around a corner to where it had pride of place in a reading room. The librarian remembered my father bringing the picture in, and even the stories he’d told about my mom. How she’d been brought into the world with her grandfather as the attending physician, spent her first few years in Colebrook, where her father was schoolmaster, before moving to Weare so he could be principal and finally, when she was seven moving to Durham, for her dad to be the founder and first director of the Thompson School, having the ugliest building on campus, Barton Hall, named after him when he retired. She remembered my mom. She remembered my dad.
And the Bobbsey Twins will live on, performing that damned radio play.