Wednesday, September 2, 2009

The book which haunts me

Back in the early seventies, I read a book that would change my life. It wasn't a self-help book, or a deep theological thesis. This book was meant to be distributed to schools and libraries, to be read to and by children. I don't think it was for sale in book stores. At that time there were actual book stores, owned by people with first and last names, neither of them being Amazon or Waldenbook. The shops were dedicated to selling one thing...books. Not having money to buy books because I was ten years old and I was buying bags of toy soldiers and balsa wood airplanes from the Ben Franklin at the time, I found myself at the town's old library in search of a different way to occupy myself.

The library was brick with a terra cotta roof. Two lions stood in a petrified watch on either side of the concrete steps. If they weren't really there due to a faulty memory caused by the passage of time, then they should have been. Inside was full of wood and dust and the smell of old paper with a hint of mildew. The sun would shine an amber glow through the high windows. The floors creaked, the chairs squeaked, but soon the almost reverent silence took over. I walked towards the children's section with its tiny chairs and small, round tables. I almost tip-toed across the aged floor as if there was a spell hovering over the space, and I did not want it to break.

As I ran my finger along the spines of the books stacked on the shelves, the varying thicknesses and heights of the books reminding me of a city skyline, I came across one that was a little thicker, a little more squat than the rest of the thinner books. It looked like the size of one of the books that lined the shelves of the adult section of the library. I never did like the fact that I was only allowed in the children's section. I so wanted to be able to check out a book from the other side of the library, with the long oak tables and high backed wooden chairs. I knew there had to be many secrets hiding in the shelves I could never reach. Excited, thinking that a book had been mis-cataloged, I pulled the it from between two slim, colorful books that held more pictures than words. Being young and still under the belief that books were to be judged by their covers, I turned the book over in my small hands. The book's plain grey cover showed a line drawing of a cat, curled up in a tight ball, napping.

"It's about a cat", I surmised, so it must be a good book, since I liked cats. There was no title printed on the cover, so this made the book that much more intriguing. Curiously, I turned over the book again to look at the spine where I knew the title would be.

If indeed the book was about a cat, that cat was dead because I noticed the word "ghost" in the title. Not being sure if I wanted to read a story about a cute little napping cat that was deceased, I started to place the book back on the shelf, taking one last glance at the title embossed on the spine.

"The Ghost of Opalina...well, 'Opalina' is a pretty name for a cat, alive or dead", I thought, and once more I pulled the book from the shelf. There wasn't a dust cover for the book. Knowing that the books my parents had at home had dust covers, and the dust covers had a paragraph or two outlining the story, I had to go on faith that a story about a cat named Opalina would be something I just may find interesting, even though she was a dead cat.

Then I saw the second half of the title. The full title of the book was The Ghost of Opalina or "Nine Lives". Always wishing that cats really did have nine lives, I decided that I truly did want to read this book written by someone named Peggy Bacon.

Carrying the book to the librarian's desk...not only was there book shops back then, there was also The Librarian, the one I thought actually lived in the library, just like I thought teachers lived at the school and nuns lived in the church basement...I approached the large desk with my book, wearing a somewhat smug look on my face because the book I was checking out didn't have a colorful cartoon cover like the other childrens books. On tip-toe, I reached up and gently sat the book down on her desk. She would certainly be impressed by my choice of reading material, how wonderful that a ten year old child would pick such a work of fiction. I wondered if she imagined me curled up on my bed, or some corner of my house, sun streaming picturesquely through the window, dust motes floating though the air like stars, the light illuminating my angelic face as the sun bounced off the page.

The echoing sound of the date stamp hitting the inside cover snapped me out of my quiescent scene. Looking up at the stern, crinkled face of the library-dwelling woman, she peered down upon me, nonplussed. She slammed the cover closed and handed me the book. I will never forget what she said to me.

"Back in two weeks."

I shuffled home, disappointed that the librarian was not as impressed with me as I was with myself. My book was held tightly to my chest, for one must never drop a book, my teacher had told me one day. She explained it would hurt the book, and at my young age, I tended to humanize inanimate objects frequently. It wasn't a long walk to my house, but it seemed so that day. I couldn't wait to find just the right place in the house where the sun would stream through the window, illuminating the pages and my face.

I finally reached my bedroom, closed the door behind me, curled up on my bed and opened the book to the first page to my first "novel". Being that the day turned cloudy, instead of warm sunlight shining on the pages, I settled for grey somber light, diffusing everywhere but the pages. Despite life not following my script, I read the book in less than a week, I was so transfixed and bewitched by the story. Maybe the librarian would at least be impressed by prompt return of the book, if not by my choice of reading material.

Almost forty years later I find myself scanning rummage sales and flea markets for this book, the book that forever marked me as one who becomes lost reading. I have read many books since then most regularly, except for a short stint in high school where "required reading" was foisted upon me. To me, nothing ruined the idea of reading more than having a teacher instructing the class that no college would accept a child who didn't read Moby Dick.

This book I read so many years ago is special. It is a touchstone...a very expensive touchstone, I have discovered after much searching. Alas, my beloved Opalina is the subject of a rare book. Perhaps someday I will be in an antique store, glancing at a bookshelf, and there the book will be, nestled between a copy of Valley of the Dolls and a service manual for a '72 Chevy Impala. Above the bookshelf will be a sign reading, "All books, five dollars". If so, maybe someday I will find myself sitting in a sunbeam, like Opalina sat in a moonbeam. Opalina recalled her nine lives in the light of the full moon, shining through the bedroom window. In the sunlight through my bedroom window, I will be recalling my childhood.

I could check the book out at the library where the librarians are young, and they no longer stamp books, they electronically scan them. I could very easily do just that, but memories shouldn't have to be borrowed and returned two weeks later.

1 comment:

  1. memories shouldn't have to be borrowed and returned two weeks later.


    Opalina on Amazon: Given the reviews, and the price of used copies, you should write to Little, Brown and ask them to consider putting it back in print.