On My 53rd Birthday: Books and Birthday Blues

I remember the steel bookcase in our living room. Precariously perched on the top was my brother’s aquarium with the infamous black molly who was always getting white spots and had to be quarantined. Below that were the books. The first shelf held our set of encyclopedias, our family’s go-to books for information, ranging from human anatomy with the glossy diagram of the man stripped of his skin, revealing all the layers of muscle, bones and nerves, to topics like who invented buttons?, or who was Betsy Ross? These were pre-computer, pre-google days. The encyclopedias were as invaluable in our daily lives as running water or chairs to sit on. Directly after the Z in the encyclopedia set was a set of fifteen beige-with-brown-binding Childcraft children’s encyclopedias. Of these, my favorites were the “poems and rythmes” and “make and do” volumes. On rainy or cold days, I would sit on the floor on the old worn orange and brown rug and pull “poems and rythmes” from the shelf. It would often fall open in my lap to those favorite pages, “Halfway down” by A.A. Milne:
Halfway down the stair
Is a stair
Where I like to sit…”
The poem would go down the page at a diagonal, with a photo of a little boy sitting on a staircase along the side of the poem. I also liked the Drinking Fountain poem: an interesting poem about the puzzling problem of getting just the right water flow at a drinking fountain, something I did not quite understand in a country with no drinking fountains, but it drew me in nonetheless, or familiar nursery rhymes like “Jack be nimble, Jack be quick.” The colored and black and white illustrations and photos added to its appeal and enhanced the poems. I would leaf through, stopping here and there, or on a day with nothing to do, page by page till I reached the end. The world inside those pages would envelope me like a warm blanket. The words and illustrations soothed me, cheering me like a cup of hot cocoa.

When I think of our house in Villeneuve-Le-Roi, I am drawn to that shelf.

I have many such book memories from my childhood. I remember clearly when I was in the middle of reading Pollyanna, feeling like her when I was told I needed to clean out my guinea pig Winnie’s cage, set the table and do my homework after dinner. After her aunt Polly described to Pollyanna her detailed schedule for the day, including chores, sewing, and school work, she exclaimed: “Oh, but Aunt Polly, Aunt Polly, you haven’t left me any time at all just to- to live.” I felt like Pollyanna understood what it’s like when life or adults fill up our days without space for unstructured time, space simply for play, reading or creativity.

I also have fond memories of my mom reading aloud to us. She was amazing at reading aloud. She, too, loved books, and she read with such warmth and intensity that we were often on the edge of our seats, taking in her every word. We would all crowd together on the couch—my brother, my sister and I—or all pile on the bed in my brother’s room with the cats finding warm spots on our laps. We would listen as mom read to us, stories such as Paddington Bear, The Bedknob and the Broomstick, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, or when we were older, the Hobbit. My mom, being British and a hobbit-lover herself, was a master at impersonating Bilbo Baggins and all the eccentric dwarves.

One of my strongest and most powerful book memories was of a birthday. I’m not sure my exact age then, possibly 8 or 9. I had decided that what I wanted most in the world was a watch, but not just any watch. It was a watch that was advertised in the Sears catalog. It had multiple wrist bands of different colors that you could change to match your outfit, fire engine red, bright sunshine yellow, snowy white. I couldn’t wait! Unfortunately, the post office in France is not very reliable. Strikes were the norm. For whatever reason, the watch failed to arrive by my birthday. For a child, a birthday without a present is a very disappointing birthday indeed. My father was home, up in his bedroom, which doubled as his office, the work area separating the sleeping area by a row of tall black metal bookcases crammed with my dad’s collection of theological and religious books. The side with the bed was softened by a few personal knick-knacks scattered about the shelves. He was on the office side, seated at his desk, which was a piece of ply-wood positioned between two metal file cabinets, with his Bible opened in front of him, and various large, bulky commentaries covering the remaining surface, a pen dangling from his mouth, at the ready.

I approach him, cautiously. “Dad”, I said, holding back tears, “today is my birthday.” I paused, then went on: “I didn’t get my present yet…” I paused again, then added: ” It doesn’t feel like a real birthday.” He extricated himself from his sermon preparation to look over at me and consider the situation. “I’m sorry,” he said, “the gift will arrive in a few days.” I could tell he was trying to make me feel better. He gave me a smile and a quick squeeze, before turning back to his text. I wandered off, still feeling forlorn. I went downstairs to the living room to look through our Childcraft encyclopedias. I pulled a volume from the shelf, sat down and let it fall open. “Jack be nimble, Jack be quick, Jack jumped over the candle stick.” I looked at the familiar illustrations and felt comforted. But before I could read further, I heard my father’s heavy steps on the wooden stairs. He came over to me, and handed me a book. I looked at it. It was a living New Testament with a tan cover. “Open it,” he said. Inside the front cover, he had written me a note. “To Gail-Anne, for her 8th birthday, love, Dad”. I remember wanting to hold the Bible to my chest and hug it tightly. My very own Living New Testament. A birthday present! “Thanks, Dad!” I exclaimed, too shy to show him how excited I was, how loved I felt that he had taken the time to find a book, write in it and give it to me, in the midst of his sermon preparation.

The watch came a few days later. It was just as I had pictured it. I loved the bright colored bands: yellow, red, white! However, within a year, the bands had worn through and it was just a watch, forgotten in the bottom of the dresser drawer. But the Living New Testament my father gave me on my actual birthday stayed with me, finding its place on my bedroom shelf throughout my childhood homes, at camp, in college and into my adult years. I remember, on occasion, taking it off the shelf and opening it up to read the inscription, written for me from my Dad. And I would hug it and remember this gift of love and the birthday I will never forget!

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