Growing up as me was fantastic, but more in the sense of word ‘fantasy.’ I read every book on fairy tales that the Young People’s section of the Freeport Public Library had to offer, always hungry for any new shiny books on fairies and goblins that they might acquire. I was the deserving star of every story, wearing pink gauzy gowns or outfitted for cross-country travel on foot, knowing my true path even if it was made obscure by witches or new and intricate characters bent on harm. I had my choice between highway adventure or receiving kisses on the hand from every stray knight in the neighborhood. I had unicorns and mermaids as counselors and I was always protected from the monster under my bed by wizards’ spells and the occasional deep and fervent prayer to my fairy godmother. I had to believe she existed.
After I had exhausted my favorite genre in the kids department I grew despondent, reaching for perhaps the first time in my young life, a dead end. Was this it? Was this all life had to offer? I thought about the ‘upstairs’ of the public library – the adult section. Bigtime scary. What was up there? I had only been there a few times and was brightly intimidated each time with its tall stacks and even taller windows, quick to return the refuge of the basement section of the library where the kids’ books were, with its low ceiling and colorful murals. I knew that my favorite books were subterfuge even tho I wouldn’t learn that word for maybe 20 years or so. I knew that what I liked to read were escapes and I loved them for it.
I knew that someday I would get a grown-up library card, but what would that mean? Would I have to wear a certain kind of pants to live up to this new and more permanent library card and all of its new responsibilities? Would my belt have to match my shoes? Would I suddenly need a stronger prescription for my glasses and squint my eyes and say ‘hmm…’ a lot?
I liked to think about the idea of being a grown-up, but not if it meant giving up my fairy tales and all of their splendor and possibility. I liked to pander to the vaguest, tangential notion of taking the first steps towards considering the idea of being a grown-up, but only if I could bring along my collection of ball gowns and stable my unicorn.
Upstairs, I imagined and yearned for heavy tomes with cracked leather covers, dense with hand-copied illustrations and really, really important stories that would teach me about life and how to wear heels and curtsy in a ball gown, cuz this seemed important and I had no idea. If the adult section even had fairy tales, and lord knows they are so stuck-up I can hardly imagine how they could, the stories would probably either be about where tax accountants came from or dry analyses of why kids wasted so much time reading fairy tales.
I re-examined the Young People’s section. My forays into mystery and Judy Blume only confirmed what I wanted which was choose your own adventures and dragons. The library was my toy, my monster. I demanded that the library disgorge what I wanted and I became restless.
As a last resort, I checked out and reread some of my favorites, fondled their crispy and tattered library covers, gazed at my favorite illustrations trying to imagine it was the first time I had ever read this particular book and relive that thrill of a different world and setting and LIFE! I made drawings of my own, but was distracted by my only available medium of crayon. I wrote some of my own fairy tales, but was never satisfied with the sheaf of notebook paper versus the glory and majesty of a bound and published item. I stopped reading entirely for a while out of desperation and anxiety, but quickly realized how much more time I had to spend with my little sister if I didn’t have my nose buried in a book. This so-called real world did not live up to my expectations.
Finally one day, after padding quietly around in the rounded corners of my own private literary dead end, I cinched up my panties and asked my favorite librarian if there were more books upstairs in the adult section on fairy tales. I was nine.
Bless her soul if she wasn’t a smart lady and knew me well enough from all of the summer reading programs I had entered. She began a quiet, yet serious dialogue with me on Greek and Roman mythology. I never heard of such a thing and was extreeemely skeptical. Grown-ups were generally not to be trusted, and I was pretty sure she was sending me on a wild goose chase to put me in my place – namely the one with brightly colored murals and board games and puzzles with one piece always missing.
I remember her accompanying me and two or three times into the Upstairs – capital U. The Upstairs was stark and uninviting. Teenagers bent on giving me nugeys flipped through LPs and spectacled men with bald spots frittered through card catalogs harumphing my proximity. The first time my Guardian Librarian showed me how the Dewey decimal worked the same upstairs – I was shocked and a little unraveled. She then guided me right to the section she had been telling me about, in the upstairs Upstairs, pulled out a few books as example and then left me to it. I was sure some other grown-up would come along and contest my place at the grown-up stacks of books, perhaps grabbing me by the shoulder and marching me back downstairs. Instead I acted like I knew every one of these books by heart and was only visiting to be nice.
I don’t remember which mythologies I started with, I’m sure it might add to the story if I did, but I do remember the outfits – dazzling! A smartly wound bed sheet was all one need to be transformed into a living breathing deity or tragedy-struck mortal whose agony was worth naming an entire city after! Grown-ups were reading this stuff? My entire existence was about to become validated. This stuff was blowing my mind as I began more and more to understand that these weren’t just awesome stories, entire civilizations had used them as story time fodder for thousands of years. Where had I been for the past nine years?! Certainly not fighting snake-headed serpents or stuck in a maze with a half cow-creature chasing me – AWESOME! I dove head first into everything I could find, short of anything that smacked too much like school work – I had heard of Homer and I steered clear.
My parents had to check my books out of the Upstairs for awhile for me. When they tired of that, they signed some special piece of paper that let me check out anything I wanted from the Upstairs and I was presented with an adult library card. I was a free agent.
I still spent a fair amount of time amidst the squadgy stacks of the young adult section and was introduced in a roundabout fashion to Tolkein and Ursula LeGuin, but things were never the same after I had that Upstairs library card. Quietly throbbing with power in my back pocket like a masked jewel I had cleverly stolen from a sleeping dragon, I felt inspired to great things just by knowing it was there. Having read all of those fairy tales for years, I was just getting my first glimpse of what a serious business they actually were and are, and all of the different things they meant for so many different kinds of people. My Upstairs library card had indeed given me powers and when I carried it up into the Upstairs with little wings on my ankles, I was sure that anything was possible.