One afternoon, right after school, I arrived home to find my mother dressed for shopping. Her hair in curls, lipstick, powder, her best purse sitting on the dining room table.
“Comb your hair, Patsy,” she said and reached for her jacket. “And use the bathroom. We’re going out.”
I did as she said and followed her out the door, down the street to the bus stop. Being a new student at Brockton Avenue Elementary—second half of kindergarten—I wanted to know where we were headed. Mother dressed as she was, I hoped it was not the doctor.
We were on the wrong side of the street for shopping. Mother liked Santa Monica’s Third Street stores for that. The direction we were heading meant the Bank of America or the Nuart movie theater. I knew we weren’t going to the movies. Daddy always drove us there.
I counted the blocks to the Bank of America. The bus whizzed on by. The Nuart loomed ahead. But Mother reached up and pulled the cord signaling the bus driver to stop. I looked out the window and saw a large brick building set back from the street, surrounded by green lawn and giant trees. I didn’t know the tree names. Just that they were big and shaded the benches and water fountain sitting near the entrance.
As soon as we reached the steps I knew where we were. The public library. A place I’d heard about from my teacher Mrs. Biddleston. She was a progressive teacher for the day, and though we wouldn’t be taught to read for another year, she encouraged her kindergarten students to study the words in books, and to visit the home of literature, a library.
My heart pounded as Mother took my hand and led me up the ramp to a room set apart from the main library. This room was lined with shelves filled with books and in the center of the room small desks with small chairs just like the ones in my kindergarten class. A dark-haired woman sat at a grownup’s desk pushed against a wall of windows.
When she looked up and smiled, I tried to hide behind my mother. She urged me toward the desk and the woman sitting behind it.
“My daughter, Patsy, needs a library card.” Mother pulled up one of the small chairs and indicated I should sit. “Mrs. Biddleston said to get a library card.” As though the name added weight to her request.
“Kindergarten?” The woman reached in a drawer and took out a piece of lined paper and a pencil. She handed me the pencil. “Write your name, Patsy.”
I’d been printing my name for months. Daddy sat with me while I practiced. The pencil point dug into the paper, but I put down my full name.
“No, dear. You must write your name. In cursive.”
I looked at my mother. Cursive?
“You see, Mrs. Hannah, the problem with exposing children to these sorts of experiences before the school curriculum allows?” She shook her head. “But Mrs. Biddleston has asked we help her students.” She looked at me. “Watch what I do, Patsy.” She took the pencil and paper and wrote my name.
Then she gave me the pencil and guided my hand as I traced the words. Once. Twice. Three times. She watched as I wrote my name, this time without help, on a small card.
My arms were heavy with books when we left that day, my mother and I. And I had something else in my pocket as we walked to the sidewalk. A library card! That little piece of paper changed my world. Allowed me access to all the dreams and fairy tales I could carry. Up to ten volumes. That was the beginning of a lifetime of exploration, adventure, romance, horror, and mystery. All in the comfort of my own room, or anywhere else I spent my time and could prop up a book.
Over the years, I’ve told this story giving praise to the librarian who helped me write my name and then issued me that precious card. But looking back, I realize I have not credited the person who helped me most. My mother. The woman who took my hand and led me through the library doors, who propped me on a chair, and who would not leave that place until I had the card in my hand.