“Up there, those things, the no touch things. I want to touch them.” That’s the best translation I can give of the toddler consciousness my two year old self possessed. Having mild hyperthymesia can be a drag sometimes, remembering almost everything that ever happened in life, especially when it comes to trauma, can be a lodestone weighing you down. Yet, if you learn to sift and sort, make filing cabinets in your mind, then it becomes manageable. This particular memory is kept in a fancy treasure chest on the right side of my left frontal lobe. It’s where the best and favorite memories are held, the traumatic ones are in a lockbox in the back keeping them well away from my amygdala.
The memory is fuzzy like an out of focus film, probably because I needed glasses and no one figured that out until I was seven. What I see and feel is a bumpy floor rug, the heat coming out of the fireplace and a shaft of light coming in from a window up and to my left illuminating shelves holding my great grandfather’s books out of reach. This is how I met them, lifelong friends who educated me well for the 19th century.
Sitting on the family room floor, the antique braided rug warm and bumpy, perfect for running fingers over to explore the hard and soft cottony textures. The fireplace roaring, screen in front to stop the hot coals from jumping out. It was mesmerizing to watch the flames jumping and dancing yellow with orange tongues. I stared at the fire and ran my fingers over the rug finding threads to twist and twirl. For some reason I cannot recall I looked up and spied the shelves of books on either side of the fireplace. My memory 60 doesn’t call them books, no, my recollection says they are “no touch things.” Staring at them they seemed to beckon to me, asking me to greet them.
Lifting my bottom heavy frame from the uneven surface of the brown and cream braided rug, I toddled to the brown sofa to the right, it was close enough to the “no touch things” that I could if I climbed, get close to them and make friends. The brown couch was tall and slippery, I stretched as far as I could and pulled myself up, up, up on top of the big cushion. It was hard to get up on the brown sofa and I had to sit for a minute on the cool seat, much cooler than the rug, to rest. My fingers running over the cold slick surface of the couch, my nails catching on the surface made a funny scratching sound so I scritched and scratched, little white marks appeared where my nails scratched and I marveled at the patterns. Distracted by this new found experience I spent some time scratching marks into the smooth cool surface of the sofa.
Out of the corner of my eye the “no touch things” came to view and I resumed my disobedient expedition. I stood up and the floor seemed a scary distance away, so I quickly flopped down onto my bottom, then got on hands and knees. I didn’t wobble as much that way, it felt more certain and solid, less scary. There was a big brown block like thing at the edge of the couch, crawling to it, it felt much more stable and hard like the floor. I crawled to it and turned around and lifted my bottom to sit on it like a chair, my feet planted on the cushion. The floor still looked very far away and I decided I didn’t like looking at it and looked away as I turned on the smooth surface to face the “no touch things.”
I couldn’t quite reach them from sitting and the desire to touch the “no touch things” was stronger than the fear of falling to the far away floor. I flopped backwards onto the cushion and bounced a little, that was fun, so I did it again, and again one more time. The smooth cushion was soft when I fell, so I felt safe to crawl back to the brown block on the edge of the sofa and gingerly get to a standing position holding the back of the sofa when I wobbled. I reached out a hand and touched the first “no touch thing” I could and it felt hard but soft. I leaned into the “no touch things” on the wall, my little legs stretching from the arm of the sofa, my bare toes gripping the edge. Suddenly I spied a bunny on one of the “no touch things,” I loved bunnies and I wanted to see it, so I moved my hand to the whitish brown “no touch thing” and worked it out of its place. I clutched it to me with one hand, then realized I was stuck. The floor was a very long way to fall and I didn’t want to bonk my head. Remembering that the couch was soft, I pushed back with my hand but not hard enough to fall backwards and bounce. So, I did it again, push, wobble, push harder, wobble, a lesson in physics happened as I pushed and built momentum so I could fall back and bounce. It seemed to take forever but at last I found myself flying backwards onto the sofa, “no touch thing” still clutched to me. I put it on the cushion and sat up feeling very pleased with the adventure. I picked up the “no touch thing” and turned it around in my hand and slowly it dawned on me that this wasn’t a “no touch” it was a book! It was different from my books that had colorful pictures and very few words. This book was black and white with lots of words and very few pictures, but the pictures were of a bunny. He was a funny bunny that wore a waist coat.
My memory goes fuzzy and fades out from there until what must have been on the same day and logic would say not long after I was tugging on my mother’s pant leg in the kitchen holding the book.
“Mama, I can read.” I tugged her at her leg.
“Uh huh” Mama’s reply.
I opened the book and began to haltingly read the words on the old musty pages. I can still see the opening lithograph of the bunny named, Uncle Wriggly.
I don’t know how much I read before Mama stopped me and took the book out of my hands then softly asked me to try reading from a new place. She had opened the book to the middle and pointed to a paragraph. I was annoyed, that’s not how stories work, you read from the beginning and I told her so. She laughed and asked me to try it anyway, so I did, I read a few lines stopping to ask how to say certain words, I don’t remember which ones, but I do recall the moment my mother walked slowly back from the stove and sat down on a chair. Her belly big with my brother inside obscuring the view of her face until she leaned towards me. “Oh Laurie, what am I going to do with you?”
This left me confused, I had felt excited and triumphant reading this book with few pictures, though I thought it should have more, and somehow my mama was upset.
The memory fades to black, and I know it’s a real memory because I asked my mother when I was a teenager if this odd fuzzy memory actually happened. She assured me the part in the kitchen was, me climbing up to grab the book had to have happened because she would not have handed my great grandfather’s book to a two-year-old.
It was this event that set my life path, because sometime shortly after Mama packed me into the red Volkswagen Bug and drove me to the Oregon City Library. I didn’t know what a Library was so remember nothing of the drive or even arrival until we were perhaps three steps into the descent into the Children’s Library which at that time was in the basement.
Holding my pregnant mother’s hand we walked slowly down the steps and what I spied with my little brown eyes was branded into my brain. On the left was a big wooden counter, in full view were shelves packed with books. A feeling or knowing filled me, in this place was treasure.
Mama says she took me over to the librarian and explained that I could read and wasn’t sure what to do. The librarian handed me a book, something like a Dick and Jane book and asked me to read it, I did so easily and asked for more. Like a hungry waif, I devoured what I called baby books sitting on the tiny chairs at the table in the little kid section while mama and the librarian discussed the best routes for my education. It was that day that I first heard the word genius. We checked out five books and I had one finished by the time we reached our house in Oak Grove.
The rest were consumed in a day and I begged to go back to the library. Mama says we went three times a week because we could only check out five books on her card. I wanted my own card, these library cards were made of magic. Salmon pink card stock with a numbered metal plate, it was used to stamp the books check out. There was always ink left after the stamping and you could transfer it to your thumb if you moved quick enough.
The librarian said if I wanted my own card I had to be able to write my name. I was puzzled, write my name? I didn’t know how to write, it sounded hard. The carrot on the stick was that children got to check out ten books at a time, if I got my card I could check out even more than Mama. Determined to be able to have fifteen books to read a week I begged Mama for the library card.
It took six long months to learn to write my name. My brother was born which interrupted the process, brothers interrupt a whole lot of things when you’re almost three.
A hazy memory of sitting at the kitchen table with a handwriting tablet, a pencil too fat for my toddler’s chubby fingers, tongue between my teeth in concentration having finally formed my first name, L a u r i e. I had my last to write and I was tired, I was upset that I had two six letter names and asked why I couldn’t be named Bob or Mary.
I tried to write the capital R of my last name and made a mistake and threw the pencil, crying in frustration. I just wanted the library card, this writing thing was horrible. Mama told me I was done for the day and if I wrote my name the next day we’d get the card if I didn’t throw a fit.
After months and months of practice, and not until I could write my name without looking at it, I had finally earned the right to gain my very own library card. As in all great tales of quest and treasure the protagonist does not win in a straight line. We had planned to go get my library card on my birthday, however a bout of chickenpox delayed me getting the magic key to unlock my cave of treasure. After six months, a baby brother and a case of chickenpox, sometime in August of 1972, I toddled into the Oregon City Library with my mother and brother to get my very own library card.
I will never forget climbing the steps to the counter that helped little people reach the tall surface to check out books. The steps seemed huge and far apart to my little legs, but in reality it was nothing more than a wide solid kind of step stool. The librarian as always greeted us with a smile and her kind soft voice congratulated me with pride. She had been highly invested in my quest, always encouraging and very sympathetic regarding the difficulty of correctly shaping vowels compared to consonants. My name had four vowels in the first name alone, it was tragic, I often explained morosely. Yet through it all she was my champion, raven hair, soft spoken, with cherry red lips, she was my personal Snow White, and her pep talks spurred me on every other day for months.
When she handed me the slip of paper to sign my name, I stared at it intently and was determined to write my full name well enough someone might think I was five-years- old. It wasn’t easy, I had to use a pen, I had only used pencils before, but I managed with tongue between teeth, to sign my whole name.
My library card smelled of mimeograph ink, the metal numbered plate was shiny tin, and freshly made it was warm in my hand, unblemished. Standing on those steps at the counter I had full view of my new domain. Shelves as high as the ceiling lined the “big kids section” that’s where Nancy Drew and Sherlock Holmes would guide me to my inner detective and where Call of the Wild and Three Musketeers egged me on to adventure, though much later, I was eight when I discovered those gems. The other rooms held picture and story books, those were much more to my liking as a big girl of three.
I checked out faerytales, a book on bunnies and joke books that day to read them over and over to my mother because I loved to hear her laugh. “What’s black and white and read all over?”
“I don’t know? Read me the answer.” Mama would say.
I giggled each time I read the answer, “A newspaper.” Funniest joke ever written, 47 years later I still make people giggle with the telling of it.
That day I vowed every book in the children’s library would be read by my eyes and I was determined, it only took six years to achieve, then graduating to fight the dragon guarding the adult library upstairs, but that’s another story.
It was this love of books and reading that led to writing, something I’ve never been able to stop doing, maybe because it wasn’t so easy in the beginning, or maybe it’s because I learned so young that words are magic things. Words hold power, they unlock knowledge, create worlds, absorb you into magical realms or take you back in time, they teach, they cause laughter and often they cause tears, 66 and they make friends you can visit again and again.
Gaining access to my cave of treasure opened the doors to world travel, adventure, romance, education and my vocation. Having by-lines from the age of twelve, I can say it never gets old. Though I write using my initials it’s not because I find my name too long to write, it’s an aesthetic choice, however I’m grateful now for not being named Mary. I do still sort of wish they had named me Bob, it would be a funny name for a girl.
L.A. Rivers spent her youth gathering tales of adventure while writing marketing copy and training manuals for companies around the globe. Her travels took her to West Africa, The Persian Gulf, The United Kingdom, and on 100,000 miles of road trips in the Western USA. Under a pen name she’s authored six books, 1600 blog posts, and countless email campaigns for creative small businesses. Some would say Rivers took being Hemingway’s birthday twin a little too seriously and her writing career really did commence at the kitchen table in the quest to attain a library card. You can find her latest musings at 1001lanights.wordpress.com