The first day, her mother marched her from the school to the library. It was three blocks, and Tillie would have to cross a big street. But there was a light, and, Mama said, on school days there would be a crossing guard.
“Do you get it?” asked Mama. “Can you get yourself here?”
Tillie nodded, but her mother tested her anyway. She drove her back to the school and left.
“You walk there and I’ll wait for you,” she said.
Tillie walked back the exact way they had walked before. Crossing the street at the light was a little scary, but she waited until the light was red, she made sure there were no turner cars, and when she saw it was okay to go, she ran across, really fast.
She got there, no problem. Mama was waiting outside, smoking a cigarette in the car. When she saw Tillie coming, she ground it out, and she got out and slammed the door. She walked up to Tillie and grabbed her by the hand and tugged her up the steep gray steps of the library.
At the big glass doors, Mama showed her a button to push that would make the doors open. Tillie liked that. She itched to do that herself. Tomorrow, she thought.
Inside there were more steps, shiny marble steps that went up to a big room that had a big desk in its center. Radiating out behind the desks were shelves–big, tall wooden shelves, loaded with books. It was very quiet. A pretty lady with big glasses and her hair pulled back sat at the desk. She looked up as Tillie and Mama came in, and she smiled right at Tillie.
“THIS way!” Mama said gruffly, and she pulled Tillie off to the right, where there was a door and a stairway going down. The stairs opened into a big hallway.
“There’s your bathroom,” said Mama. “See that? Lady with a skirt?”
“You need to go?” asked Mama sharply, and Tillie quickly shook her head.
Mama tugged her into the big room then. There were books here, too, but the shelves were shorter. And there were little round tables, wooden tables, with chairs that were just children sized. Books lay open on the tables; next to one there was a fuzzy puppet, and Tillie could see the puppet was also in the book. She walked around, a little bit amazed.
There were some other kids in the room, and one or two other mothers, but they were very quiet. There was a big desk here, too, like upstairs, but the lady behind it was old. She had a crinkly face, and she smiled at Tillie. She nodded toward a table where there was a plate of cinnamon graham crackers and dixie cups of juice.
“Would you like a snack?” the crinkly lady asked Tillie.
She opened her mouth to say, “Yes, PLEASE!” but Mama answered for her.
“She don’t need none,” she said, and she pulled at Tillie’s hand. “This is where you come, you get it? After school, you come here, and one of us will fetch you.”
Tillie nodded, a growing excitement bubbling. Everyday after school, she would walk here and see the pretty lady, then the crinkly lady. She would have a graham cracker and she would sit at one of those tables and look at books until Mama or Daddy picked her up.
This wasn’t scary. This was wonderful.
Tillie was five years old.
The pretty lady upstairs was Miss Gail; the crinkly lady was Miss Dell. Every day, after she pushed the big flat button and the doors swung open wide, Tillie ran up the stairs and said hello to Miss Gail before she ran downstairs.
Some days were just ordinary days in the Children’s Room. Then Tillie would have a graham cracker and some juice and go sit at the table with the big stack of books Miss Dell had gathered for her. Miss Dell knew all about good books, and she picked ones that had few words and wonderful pictures–sometimes made-up stories and sometimes about real things, like a zoo or a farm.
When there weren’t a lot of people, Miss Dell would come and sit at Tillie’s table, and they would read a book together. Miss Dell read in a gentle, happy voice, and she would point to the word and then to the picture. After they were done, Tillie would turn the pages, slowly, and she would point to the word and the picture, too.
Other days were special. Sometimes there was a circle of kids and Miss Dell read to them. The stories might all be about the same things–dogs, maybe, or the way leaves change color in the Fall, Hallowe’en stories, going to school,–things like that. Often Tillie was the oldest child there–the other kids had to have parents with them, and they mostly sat on their laps; that’s how little they were. Miss Dell asked Tillie to show them how to act, and so Tillie always sat very still with her hands in her lap and looked right at Miss Dell when she was reading.
“Such a good listener,” one of the mothers said once, and Tillie’s cheeks burned with happiness.
Sometimes a visitor came and talked to them and read to them. Once it was a fireman in his slick yellow coat and big boots, and he talked to them about Stop! Drop! and Roll! and then read them a book about a fireman who rescued a silly cat from a tree for a little boy named Johnny. Another time a dental hygienist came and talked about tooth brushing. He gave them coloring books and a little bag with toothpaste, fluoride rinse, and a new toothbrush. Tillie decided to keep her bag with Miss Dell. Everyday after school, she took her bag into the girls’ room and brushed her teeth and then rinsed.
When her rinse ran out, a new bottle appeared. Miss Dell said the dental hygienist had left a whole lot of extra ones.
Around 5:00 someone came to get her. Usually it was her mother. Sometimes she would come in and sit down and let Tillie show her a book. Sometimes she stood in the doorway and hissed, “Get your little ass OUTA here.” Those days her breath had that strong, funny smell, and Tillie knew better than to argue. Some days, her daddy would come, and he would say hello to Miss Dell and ask what everyone had done that day. Miss Dell always told him what a good child Tillie was, and what a good helper.
Daddy would put his big hand on her head and smile down at her, and Tillie didn’t care that there was black in the creases of his fingers from all the greasy cars he fixed. That hand felt good right where it was.
By December, she was reading, the words Miss Dell pointed out painting pictures in her mind even without the ones in the books. By then, too, Mrs. Grace, her teacher, was walking her to the traffic light and watching her across.
“It gives me a little chance for fresh air before I go back and grade papers,” Mrs. Grace told her. On rainy days, she loaned Tillie an umbrella. Tillie just left it at the library, and Miss Gail, who was a friend of Mrs. Grace, made sure it got back to her. When it snowed and the sidewalks were icy, Mrs. Grace kept a tight grip on her hand and watched her all the way up the street after she crossed by the light.
After the Christmas break, during which Tillie didn’t get to go to the library–that made her very sad–Miss Dell announced something new. Tuesdays were “Read to Me” days, and Tillie was going to be reading to Miss Dell, and sometimes, even, to Miss Gail, who liked to switch with Miss Dell every once in a while. Tillie held the books just like Miss Dell did, so her audience could see the pictures. She was getting, the library ladies told her, better and better and better. Sometimes, Tillie read to the little kids. Just like Miss Dell, she would point to the word and then point to the picture.
As the year wore on, her daddy came to pick her up more and more. One day he took her to a diner for dinner. They had fried chicken and mashed potatoes, and peas, and pie, and Tillie had a big glass of chocolate milk. And after dinner, before he handed Tillie her jacket, Daddy said, “Do you know your mama is a kind of sick, Tillie girl?”
Tillie looked at him. “On bad breath days?” she asked, and he smiled at her, but it was a sad kind of smile.
“Yes,” he said. “On bad breath days. She gets mad on those days, too, doesn’t she?”
Tillie hesitated, but then she nodded.
“Well, baby,” said her daddy, “Mama’s going away to try to get well. Tomorrow, Grandma Judy’s coming, and then Mama will go to a kind of hospital on Friday. She’ll be gone for a good while.”
He helped her get her arms in her jacket, and they went off to a home that was, suddenly, changing.
Grandma Judy stayed all summer. To Tillie’s delight, Grandma Judy took her to the library every week. While Tillie read her books, Grandma Judy would go upstairs and find books for herself. Sometimes she got a book or a magazine for Daddy, too. They got books to bring home, and Tillie had a special spot to keep them in, on a shelf in the living room.
Daddy said they were all turning into bookworms.
On Sundays they called mama. Sometimes she cried when she talked to Tillie. She said, every time, “Baby, I’m so sorry!”
Once, in the middle of the summer, they went to visit. Mama was thinner and pale, and her hair was neat and shiny and pulled back in a pony tail. She showed Tillie her room. They couldn’t stay long, but before they left, mama hugged Tillie so very tight. Her breath was sweet and minty.
In the Fall school started again. Tillie had a new teacher, but Mrs. Grace still met her each day and walked her to the light; she told Tillie she hoped she didn’t mind. It was just a nice kind of habit, and she’d miss it if they stopped. Tillie said, “Of course!” and she grabbed Mrs. Grace’s hand and she skipped when they walked together.
Grandma Judy stayed, and she picked Tillie up every day, and then Mama came home. She had to rest for a couple of weeks, but pretty soon she started picking Tillie up on Tuesdays and Thursdays.
When Mama came to the library now, she would say hi, shyly, to Miss Dell, and she would sit with Tillie and look at all the things she was reading.
“You’re my smart girl, aren’t you?” she said. Mama started going upstairs and asking Miss Gail about books. She would take only one home at a time, but she read them fast; sometimes she returned them next day and got another. “I like me a good romance,” she said to Tillie, and Tillie smiled brilliantly at her. Maybe when she grew up, she’d like her a good romance too.
Grandma Judy stayed on; she helped Tillie’s mama. The house was always clean, and they had home-cooking for dinner. Some Saturdays, Tillie’s mama and daddy went out to a movie or for dinner at the diner. Tillie and Grandma Judy would rent a movie and make popcorn in the whirligig, and Tillie would read to Grandma Judy for a long time. She was reading chapter books now.
It was the best time of Tillie’s life so far, and she still got to go to the library every day.
When Tillie was nine, her daddy took her out for another dinner, and he wasn’t smiling. This time, he told her, Mama was a different kind of sick–sick on her insides, with cancer. She was going to have to have some treatments, and the treatments would make her even sicker, but they might make her get better for good.
“But, Tillie,” said her daddy, “I have to tell you something. There’s a chance the treatments might not work. There’s a chance we might lose your Mama forever.”
“Don’t cry, daddy,” whispered Tillie. Her stomach hurt, and they went home.
At home, Mama was resting and Grandma Judy was crying. “It’s not FAIR,” she said to Tillie’s daddy. “She’s been trying so damn hard.” Daddy hugged her for a long time.
Mama died when Tillie was eleven. Mrs. Grace, Miss Gail, and Miss Dell were all at the funeral, and they hugged Daddy and Grandma Judy, too. When she went back to the library the following week, Miss Gail gave her a book called, Losing a Parent: a book for young people. Tillie and Grandma read it together.
Tillie also started looking in the non-fiction section. She would take home craft books. She took home books of recipes, and Grandma Judy taught her to cook.
When she was in sixth grade, Miss Gail and Miss Dell invited her out to eat. Tillie was, they informed her, too old and too good a reader to read in the children’s room any longer. Miss Gail solemnly handed her an adult’s library card.
And then they offered her a part-time job, two hours a day, four days a week, helping out in the children’s room.
In eighth grade, she started working five days a week and shelving in the upstairs room.
When she turned 16, she added six hours on Saturday to her library working schedule. Miss Gail said Tillie had a knack for helping older children and junior high kids find just the perfect book.
“You don’t think about what YOU like,” Miss Gail told her. “You think about what they like.”
She went to the state college in town, and she majored in English. “Getting A’s for reading books,” she grinned. “That’s pretty good.”
They were all there when she graduated with honors: Daddy and Grandma Judy, Miss Gail, Miss Dell, and Mrs. Grace. Grandma Judy and Miss Dell were getting a little frail; Miss Dell said she was trying to hold on for two more years; then she’d retire at the library. Daddy’s girlfriend, Abby, came too. She was pretty, plump, and kind, and Tillie hoped that the two of them would decide to get married; they were good together.
Tillie didn’t have a boyfriend now. For a long time, she’d thought Bobby was the one, but Bobby grew to have a drinking problem. Bobby’s bad breath days, thought Tillie. It made him lie and cheat and cuss at her. You need help, she told him. I don’t need YOU, he’d said.
It was a good time for no entanglements, Tillie knew, but the thought of Bobby would always make her sad.
That afternoon, Tillie took her library book and she drove to the cemetery in her noisy old car. She had the place to herself, so she knelt on her mother’s grave and talked to her. “I graduated today, Mama,” she said, “and I’m working at the library again this summer. And then,” Tillie pulled an envelope out of her purse, “I think you’d be proud. I’m going to Kent State to be a librarian. I got this letter this week; I have a scholarship from the university women.”
A car pulled up, and two chubby old women climbed out with potted plants and trowels and a watering can. Tillie stopped talking to Mama; she wasn’t embarrassed exactly, but she felt like their talks were too private to share with strangers. She sat on a stone bench next to Mama’s grave, and she read in the sun. The breeze riffled her hair.
The ladies huffed and talked and grunted and planted, lunging up off their knees and groaning dramatically. They took a long time watering the flowers they’d placed on the grave of their someone special, but finally they finished. They slammed back into their car and drove off.
Tillie closed her book and slid off the bench to hunker by her mother’s grave.
“Mama,” she said. “I just have to say thank you. I don’t know how you knew to do it, but thank you for sending me to the library when I was five. Mama, it’s my place, and I found it because of you.”
She put one palm flat on the cool marble of her mother’s grave stone, and then she sighed and stood up. Her people were waiting; there was a special graduation dinner in the works.
Tillie dusted off her jeans and walked to her car, and she drove off into her future.