I’m sure it’s OK with you if my eyes are misty. Let me tell you why: For the first time in two years, I walked into a bookstore. Granted, it was a Big Box-type bookstore, still, there were row after row of hard bound and paperback worlds.
With my hoarding of Teacher Appreciation Barnes and Noble gift cards in hand, I strolled up and down the aisles like I was greeting a long-departed best friend. I opened the covers of books I’d only read online reviews about, read the inside cover flaps, the back flap, walked, actually walked, to look up alphabetized books by the same author. I had “Retirement Time” on my side as I wandered up and down the COVID-decluttered aisles, wondering, thinking, grabbing a cafe latte, shelving, unshelving, adding to my list of must-reads, and remembering what it was like to linger with paper.
It was like talking to my high school boyfriend, Tim Myers, and catching up:
How have you been?
What’s it like in heaven?
You know, I always loved you.
I wish I had had a chance to tell you. I was meaning to. You were on my To-Do List.
But Monday, you died.
Bookstores conjure up memories and possibilities. I have missed them. Greatly. I didn’t know the extent of my longing until I opened the door into the dream: everything was familiar. The children’s books are upstairs. The non-fiction is to the right. The bargain books to the left, next to escalator. Yet, things were different, like there weren’t knowledgable book clerk specialists to guide me to new and favorite authors. I unwittingly left my phone in the car and was lost: who could help me? My brain was overwhelmed.
A young couple, I’d say 19 or so, dyed black hair, stripped black socks, piercings in their eyebrows and nose, giggling, looking at Young Readers graphic novels, were chatting about some kind of audition, reading their phones for updates, and I boldly asserted “Could you please look up the author of a book I’m looking for? ‘My Side of the Mountain’ “
Sweetly, they got to it: “George”…they responded…and I remembered, Jean Craighead George. The author who changed my life.
Back in the day, when we went to libraries, not bookstores, at least not my working class family, I read the worn brown and yellow-cover borrowed book over and over again, imagining myself running away, living in Nature, and being with a community—wildlife—that understood me. In fourth grade, I was aware I was a little different, not peculiar, but I was drawn to the odd.
People like Priscilla, who was large and pimply and friendless. I was drawn to her because people didn’t understand her, they rejected her because of her shape, family dynamics, and the home she shared with disabled parents and siblings. She lived in a converted garage, which didn’t matter at all to me. I saw her inner greatness, and she saw mine.
At 10, I still played imagination. But you had to keep that bit of damning info on the downlow. Could ruin a person’s reputation. But I adored my trolls, my TG and Y acquisitions, particularly my pocket-sized dolls that I would sneak into school. Priscilla and I would play with our purple-haired PeeWees. We’d find colorful gum wrappers around the perimeter chain link fence and fold them, zig zag, zig zag, into charming necklaces. Always crafting something out of nothing. We added other odd girls into our tribe, Gaylen, Annie, the kids who weren’t athletic or popular or the smartest students in class. It mattered, I’m not saying it didn’t, that we didn’t fit in with the “beautiful people” like the Kenny Bapty’s/Jeff Vaughan’s/Michelle WhateverHerFrenchSurnameWas of Beryl Heights Elementary School’s social elite, but we were good: We had each other.
And I had my books, that I’d read and re-read, escaping to a place I seemed to fit into.
“I am on my mountain in a tree home that people have passed without ever knowing that I am here. The house is a hemlock tree six feet in diameter, and must be as old as the mountain itself. I came upon it last summer and dug and burned it out until I made a snug cave in the tree that I now call home.”
These are the first golden words from “My Side of the Mountain”, my first favorite book. I will gift George’s story to my remarkable, reluctant reader grandson, Jack, for his 10th birthday. It’s not a $100 Lego kit or a dedicated gaming laptop, but it might help him along his journey. From one generation, to another.
Once upon a time, there was a mountain of books …