~ Excerpt ~
Copyright © 2014 by Karen Wojcik BernerChicago, 1970
We all have a first memory, one dug deepest in that part of the brain that commemorates the dawn of our cognizance. For some, maybe it’s their first plush toy. Others might recall bouncing on their fathers’ knees. Thaddeus had none of these. His awakening began the first day his mother brought him to the library.
“Bundle up, sweetie.” Maureen Mumblegarden pulled five-year-old Thaddeus’s coat collar up around his neck. “Can’t forget the mittens.” She snapped them onto large strings dangling from his coat sleeves, and yelled down the empty hallway, “Let’s go, Addie.”
His sister slogged to the foyer. “Why can’t I stay by myself? Granny’s right downstairs.”
“You’re not old enough. What if you start a fire trying to heat up some SpaghettiOs?” Mother zipped up her Borgana coat. “The whole place would be up in flames before Granny could even make it up here.”
“But I’m nine!”
“She’s gonna make me watch As the World Turns!”
Mother grabbed her purse and keys. “Bring a book or something to occupy yourself while Granny watches her soap operas.”
“Enough! This is a special day for your brother, and I won’t have you ruining it.”
At the bus stop, Thaddeus stood perfectly still, afraid that if he moved even an inch, one of the cars whizzing past would roll over his foot and crush his big toes. His left hand grew sweaty inside its mitten from gripping his mother’s glove so tightly. A few feet away, cars lined up on the street in front of a dark-green shack. An older man with an apron tied around the waist of his parka handed newspapers through passenger-side windows. Pedestrians grabbed their copies from huge stacks and threw dimes in an old cup. Overstuffed racks held magazines, some of which Thaddeus recognized from the coffee table in the living room.
Maureen purchased a copy of Highlights for him and a Ladies Home Journal for herself. “Something to keep us busy on the bus.” She tucked them into her purse. “Here it comes. Stay close.”
“Wake up, honey. This is our stop.” The mother nudged her boy awake.
Thaddeus stumbled down the street, his post-nap haze lifting with each step. Businessmen marched down the sidewalk, briefcases swinging in unison. Car horns beeped. Messengers zigzagged through traffic with large canisters on their backs. Past restaurants and stores mother and son trod, tall office buildings blocking out the sun.
Their destination was a massive gray building, one full block in size, which he thought looked like Aunt Barbara’s wedding cake, each tier more ornate than the one below, with arches and columns and words he had never seen before.
“What is this place, Mother?”
“It’s the library.” She opened the doors to reveal crisscrossing marble staircases.
Little Thaddeus navigated the stairs, picking his legs up extra high so he didn’t fall. Mosaics of green-colored glass, gold leaf, and mother of pearl guided him toward the main room. His nostrils filled with the scent of paper and a hint of dust.
“What does that say?” He pointed to one of the many quotes lining the third floor’s outer hall.
“‘He that loveth a book will never want a faithful friend, a wholesome counselor, a cheerful companion, or an effectual comforter.’ It’s from Isaac Barrow. Follow me, sweetie.”
They entered a grand room capped with a gold-rimmed, blue–stained glass dome. The ornate ceiling sparkled when sunlight shone through. His mother bent down and whispered in his ear, “That is the world’s largest Tiffany dome. See those symbols at the top? Those are the signs of the zodiac. People born under the same sign usually have similar characteristics.”
Thaddeus didn’t know who this Tiffany was, but she sure made some beautiful art—all those pieces of glass put just so. He couldn’t take his eyes off of it and ended up walking right into his mother, jostling them both.
The woman perched behind the circulation desk peered down at him. “May I help you?”
He gulped, his eyes begging for his mother’s assistance.
“My son turned five last week. We would like to get him a library card.”
Thaddeus puffed out his chest. After all, he was old enough to be in a magnificent place such as that.
“Why certainly, ma’am.” The woman turned to Thaddeus. “Happy birthday, young man. Let’s get you started.”
He printed “Thaddeus Mumblegarden IV” in his best hand, careful to make each letter small enough to fit on the line provided, while still being legible, quite a feat for one so young.
The librarian returned and handed him his card. Thaddeus beamed. A glorious bibliophilic universe was at his disposal! Well, at least the children’s section.
“Reading time starts in ten minutes downstairs in Room B. Enjoy your great adventure, young man.”
On the way down, Maureen read him every quote adorning the walls, nuggets of wisdom passed down from great thinkers of every world region in praise of books and reading. Thaddeus didn’t understand it all, of course, but he could feel it was a sacred space, a special place where the tales of generations could be passed down to those who had the same card as he.
An elderly gentleman clad in a tweed jacket and corduroy pants waved them into Room B. Thaddeus took a spot in the front row among the other children while Maureen joined the other mothers near the back.
“Greetings, young lad,” the man said. “I haven’t seen you here before.” They spoke the same language, yet he didn’t sound like anyone Thaddeus had ever heard.
“I got my library card today. My birthday was last week.” The boy beamed.
“I see. You’ve just picked up your passport.”
“Library card,” Thaddeus corrected.
“Bring it here, son. Let me see.” The man examined the card carefully. “Ah, this is not merely a library card. With this, you can travel the jungles of Africa with Rudyard Kipling or traipse the moors with Emily Brontë.” He patted Thaddeus on the head and sent him back to his seat. “All right, children. Today we are going to read Winnie-the-Pooh by A. A. Milne, who happens to hail from my motherland of England.”
The man’s voice danced in Thaddeus’s ears. Beautifully rounded vowels waltzed alongside perfectly pronounced consonants, all joining together to tell the story of Christopher Robin’s sweet teddy bear.
Before catching the bus home, Thaddeus and Maureen Mumblegarden stopped in Marshall Field’s for a cup of hot cocoa and a cookie.
“Mother, look!” Thaddeus tugged at her coat. He picked up a Pooh bear from a display and hugged it tightly.
He cuddled the bear throughout the entire ride home, careful not to drop his new friend on the dirty bus floor.