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Uncomfortable in Libraries?

November 14, 2009

I very much dislike going to libraries to read. I have always been very uncomfortable in them as they seem so oppressive to me. The library at Middlebury College, where I was a student, was even worse because all of the French books were in the second level of the basement with no windows and lights that ran on a timer. It was a place that gave me the odd sense of imprisonment rather than opening the doors to other worlds, as books tend to do. My visceral reaction to libraries is strange since I don’t know how I would survive without my library card, but I much prefer to go in, get the books that I want and leave. In fact, I like it even more today where I can order my library books on the computer at home and just stop by to pick them up at some later date. Mrs. Duran is, I believe, the root of my abject distaste of libraries.

Harridan is, of course, defined as a woman regarded as scolding and vicious; such a definition certainly fits the Eleanor Duran who was the ‘troll under the bridge’ which was our little library in Corinth, Maine, where I grew up. Eleanor was a woman of a certain girth, not too overweight really, just heavier than would necessarily want to be squeezed into the lime green polyester pants suit that she always wore. She had those half glasses that tilted on her nose, and she very rarely rose from behind the imposing oak desk and typewriter which sat near the exit. Her gray hair and crooked nose seemed none the less softened by her truck-farmer’s hands which were always calloused and scratchy, very much unlike the soft skin my mother had.

Atkins Memorial Library

Ground Zero for my love of libraries

I recall going to the little Atkins Memorial library with some regularity when I was small. My mother was always an avid reader, though her taste in literature is not one that I share. Mom likes a good salacious historical romance novel. You know the kind: the unknowing princess enters the stable to gather her things for a ride in the afternoon sun, only to be captivated by a young stable boy with sinewy biceps. A Harlequin romance. After little time, mom had read most of the library’s collection and used to have to ask Mrs. Duran if there weren’t anything new to read. With difficulty in her movements and distaste in her eyes, the green-suited figure would rise from her chair and take my mother aside toward the card catalogue. From hidden behind the card stacks would emerge a new hard-cover, recently arrived from a Bangor book shop. She would hold the book firmly and issue a stern warming to my mother that the book was just trash. “This one,” she would caution, “is just full of… you know. I don’t know why we even have it here.” My mother would assuage her fears and agree to read the book without telling ‘the others’. In recollecting the event on the phone this morning, Mom, “Oh, she’d let me read the book, but there were many which few people ever got the chance to read. Eleanor kept them under very close wraps. She certainly never let them leave the library in the hands of one of her Baptist friends who might think that the lust and other misguided deeds contained therein were something that she felt appropriate for an upstanding community.”

I can not say that Mrs. Duran, as she insisted I call her, was very friendly. On occasion, we would stop by her chicken barn and truck farm on the end of the White School House road. She did grow marvelous beets, and her white clap-board house, which sat very close to the main road had a lovely pond where we went ice skating only once at Halloween—before she chased us kids off. I would say hello to her, and she promptly spoke to my mother of my insolence; the large imposing gray chicken barn rising behind her added only to the coldness with which she rebuked me.

At the library, I had often observed her carefully take the library cards out of their pockets in the back of the book so that she could stamp them with a return date. One by one, she would take the cards out and place them in the spine of the book, piling the books one on top of each other, meticulously. One fateful afternoon when the library was ‘busy’, which likely means there were more than my mom, sister and me there, I decided that I would help Mrs. Duran out. I carefully opened each of my books, removed the little cards and tucked them into the spine, only to hand her later the pile of books, just as she would have done herself. As I removed my hand from my neatly assorted pile, she slapped it and scolded me for my misbehavior. “What if you had lost one of the cards, you unthinking child?” she shouted. My alarmed mother pulled me closer and saw the hurt on my face. In the car, she assured me that Mrs. Duran was only trying to teach me right from wrong, but that even she felt what I had done was very courteous. I didn’t go back to the library for some time after that. When I finally did, Mrs. Duran kept a very close watch on me, so that I didn’t “create any other mischief”. It was impossible to sit down and enjoy the worlds contained within the fantastical stories with the old troll glaring at me. I eventually gave up, and only went to the library long enough to pick up new books and leave. While my mother browsed, I would play in the front yard of the library, reading the names of the men inscribed on the veteran’s memorials placed there. My grandfather’s name was on the larger of the two; it was comforting to know that he was “there with me”. The moment my mother exited the old wooden door frame, I would rush to the car to get inside. Our visit to the library was mercifully ended.

I learned later too that Mrs. Duran also used to maintain records for the Baptist Church. Once, many years ago, I asked if I could see those records books, hoping to find some information about my great grandmother and her involvement in the community. The then Pastor DeGroft told me that some crabby old woman had them secured at her home and that it would be unlikely that I would get a chance to see them. I knew the crab about whom he spoke, and dared not even ask. (Luckily, upon her husband’s passing, the books have been returned to the church and are now under lock and key.) I have yet to recover fully from my encounters with Mrs. Duran, and still dislike being at the library, but can laugh about it now. One would think that thirty years would be sufficient to mend a wounded soul, but I guess it isn’t.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. Michelle Higgins Alley permalink
    November 14, 2009 3:58 am

    This note was fabulous! I giggled, reminisced, nodded in agreement, and just generally enjoyed it. I am highly amused by the thought of you being either “unthinking” or in any kind of “mischief”. Why is it that some people can’t recognize a good kid?
    Since graduating from college and discovering my local library, I have changed my tune a bit. Our local library is one branch of a much larger system, but it is lovely. It’s a nice older building, medium-sized, and with a wonderful staff. While I don’t spend lots of time reading there due to time/children constraints, it is certainly a place where I could be comfortable doing so.

  2. Raymona Marie permalink
    November 14, 2009 4:00 am

    I had to smile at remembering that ol’ library. It used to be a home away from home for me. I loved to read but that very same librarian used to watch me to just because she had no sense of trust. I am sure that deep down she was a good person but boy did all that watching made me really uncomfortable so I stopped going there. While living in Bangor though I developed a quiet passion for genealogy so I spent a lot of time at that library and had a great friendship with all that worked there. So all in all my childhood library experience didnt stop me enjoying other libraries. Thank God for that or else I wouldnt have been able to learn of all the great things in my family history.
    Oh and Ms. Fricke was the best. I saw her long after I graduated and the worst thing is that I didnt recognize her. I felt awful…she forgave me immediately though. She always made me feel real good about myself. I was glad to see her.

  3. Faith Pineo permalink
    November 14, 2009 4:00 am

    Loved this note. I remember Mrs. Stetson oh-so well at CMS. She was always very nice to me, but all the kids seemed to have a horror of her. But didn’t we all love Ms. Fricke?

  4. David Powell permalink
    November 14, 2009 4:01 am

    James– I forgot to mention at least Atkins always had Pat McCorrison when I went. She was always nice, But then again I wasn’t a “unthinking” or “mischievous” child like you. 🙂

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