A Saturday, a Sister and the Library

My older sister would take me to the library. She never came out and said we were going; it would just happen. We had a neighborhood branch, but we would go to the city's central one. It wasn't close to our house, and we would have to take two buses to get there. She would hold my hand for the block long walk to the bus stop, and then we would wait. It always seemed a much longer wait than it had to be.

We would see the No. 22 bus lumbering closer in the distance, and when it finally pulled in front to pick us up, she'd help me climb the stairwell and hand me my coins to drop into the token slot. We'd still be holding hands while we'd look for a seat near the driver. I'd sit and look out the window quietly, wondering what everyone else was going to do on this day. The ride was long, and if you included the idle minutes of waiting time, both ways, our entire Saturday afternoon would be spent getting there.

The first bus would take us most of the way there, and then we would transfer to any next one that would take us up the main downtown street. Though you wouldn't be able to tell by my face, I couldn't wait to get there. Our central library was a huge concrete structure with majestic columns in front that told you this was the library that counted. Our one level neighborhood branch held a corner of the building for children's books, but this library had an entire floor for children.

As we neared the library, my sister would help me pull the buzzer to signal our stop. She'd leave the bus first, then turn around and hold her hand out to help me jump from that last step that seemed so high and far away from the street. I was a child that feared disaster. Life had shown itself to be unpredictable, and I knew that things could happen in an instant. I worried, minute by minute, that I could disappear in the unexpected flip of fate, like rolling under the front door of a city bus. I'd grip her hand tight, feeling the rings on her fingers cut back into mine, but she never pulled back. She stood, and gave me the time I needed to decide to make the jump from bus to sidewalk.

Without talking, she'd walk me up the 20 cement steps to the heavy brass front doors. She would press the heavy door open, and I'd walk in first, so scared that the back of my shoe would catch on the door before I got my body all the way in. We'd cross the slippery marble floor, me on tiptoes to keep my heels from echoing against the tiles under us. The children's section was on the second floor, and though taking each step upstairs had my knees tapping my chest with their height, I managed with the railing and her hand.

On the second floor was every book I could have asked for and dreamed of. Shelves no higher than my shoulders, so I could see things for myself, filled with books on princesses, queens, servant girls and saints. Books on fairy tales, rescue dogs, stories of girls and boys. Tales of families, heroes, history, made up silly nonsense rhymes and achingly true biographies. I read them all, not for pleasure, but in hope that if I read every single word, I'd find ones that matched the silence caught inside me.

I would pull a book off a shelf band turn to the last page first. I couldn't bear to read to find an unhappy ending. If I saw that everything worked out well, I would walk the book over to the pile where I had set aside the other ones to take home.

An odd thing happens as you get older, things occur to you that never did before. I remember the ages I've been and what I did then. When I think back on being a child, I don't hear much laughter in those memories. I don't hear the sound of my voice, or the sound of anyone's voice. Our house was a stunned silence, not by nature, but by the drop of a bomb. Our father's suicide, when I was 6 and my sister was 18, had left us wide-eyed and without tongues.

I can't imagine my sister, being 18 years old and all that a monumental loss like that knocks out of a tender budding adult. But she found a way in that darkness to take a little sister to the library on a long awaited weekend day. She must have had so much she needed to do for herself in her new life as a grown-up, but she was with me.

I'm moved to tears while I remember, because she knew. I was a little girl who had lost the words of her own, and so my sister took me somewhere where I would find books that spoke for me, until I found a way back to my voice again.