"There are perhaps no days of our childhood we lived so fully as those we spent with a favorite book." --Marcel Proust
The drawing above is one of my favorites. It illustrates a scene from a children's book my sister Laura wrote about author, Lillian Hellman. In her memoir, An Unfinished Woman, Lilly tells of how at age eight she would ditch school unnoticed and hideout in a fig tree next to her home. She rigged a pulley rope for her lunch basket, and made a sling to hold her schoolbooks. To keep her dress and shoes neat she hung them on a nail. It would never do to raise suspicion of her whereabouts. The finishing touch was a comfortable pillow to sink into. She did this once or twice a week. It was here that Lilly learned to read and found a refuge from the adults in her life. The fig tree was her sanctuary where she fell into the holy, wonder of the written word.
"A book, too, can be a star, a living fire to lighten the darkness, leading out into the expanding universe." -- Madeleine L'Engle
My sister and I loved that anecdote about Lilly. Being avid readers and tree-climbers in our youth, we understood the haven she had created in those branches. It was her way of having power in a world where she was powerless.
As girls books gave us that same kind of comfort. We not only read to be entertained but unknowingly used it to work out the anguish we lived with. Books were one of the bright spots in a bleak childhood. Our mom didn't have what it took nurture us. She was a product of the societal expectations of the 1950s. After marrying our father, she quit the job she loved as a newspaper editor when she became pregnant. She had a child every year for the next four years. Frustrated and ill-equipped to run a household, she directed her rage at us. She was a dead ringer for the wicked queen in the copy of Snow White she had given me. It became a favorite story of mine and I absorbed its message. In its pages lived the hope that despite being under the thumb of an evil queen, there was still room for a happy ending.
"Whenever you read a good book, somewhere in the world a door opens to allow in more light." --Vera Nazarian
My mom passed away five years ago. Today I look at her with kinder eyes. I'm certain she did the best she could with what she had. Although there were many things she was not, she did share with us her passion for reading. She was generous with books and our house overflowed with them. And despite being trapped in a life of hurt and misunderstanding I think she now smiles knowing that inside the books she gave us were placed the keys to freedom.
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Text and images © Sue Shanahan. All rights reserved.