Tuesday, March 9, 2004

The Waiting Scanner

The books are stacked together neatly. They are piling higher and higher. On top is the book Ocean of Grass, a documentary on the Florida Everglades. It is half open to the place where I put it aside coming back on the airplane from Florida. The enemy had taken over. The small battle was lost. But the war for reading becomes intensified.

Who can say when the love of books began, because it has always been there. Seeking refuge from annoyance of any kind, there was the kindly old tree limb, which spread out over the wall of Kabana. Having found it, I climbed up to the curve where the limb joined the trunk and, hidden from view, this was one of my favorite places of refuge. From here came alive the entire world: The crusaders on their way to Jerusalem, Pollyanna in efforts to bring love, beautiful rich stories from the Bible, even Aesop’s fables. My father, who knew of my books, approved of them. This surprised me when it came to fables. But in his wisdom, he knew that our history and culture has such fables and myths to be discerned as such. So, hidden up high in the tree in Africa, I spent many happy hours, never discovered.

It was Verena’s mother who taught me to read the original Heidi in German. This was slow going at the time, for an eight year old.

In 1935, we had been in Egypt and Palestine for six months. It was here in our rented home in Materia that my mother discovered another reading hideaway. This was tucked under the mosquito netting, with light from the dim street lamp outside the window. The book was removed, and such nonsense to be stopped. The book was T.H. Lawrence’s House of Seven Pillars. To this day I remember the determination I had to finish this. It was very difficult to understand, and I had to go over and over the pages. It was a large book, with many pages, and not that easy to hold, especially covered with the mosquito netting. Any books were welcome, and with new friends came new books. All of the families from the embassies and missions shared their books, which were read at night by the kerosene lamp, or in the daytime swinging in the net hammock, which Herbert and Della Hanson had hung on their porch in Addis Alem.

On the trip back to America in 1939, books proved to be a great anesthetic. The one and only boil of my life became painfully evident while we were in Rome. The hospital doctor lanced the boil, instructing me not to sit on it. My father found a book for me to read while the family took off for the catacombs. I knew all about the catacombs from reading, so felt no pain.

Back in America we were submerged with relatives on every side. They were determined to fatten their two scrawny refugee looking girls with homemade ice cream, bread fresh from Grandma’s oven, and best of all, cherries could be picked while sitting in the cherry tree. The fresh straw in the barns was made for tumbling and playing hide and seek with cousins. And then, of course, were the shelves of books, since the whole family loved education. Grandma and Grandpa were dedicated to education, even sharing their home with the local schoolteachers. They both came from Denmark, spoke Danish and English, but Grandma had not learned to write in English, while Grandpa had his own method with no capitalization or punctuation. Yet, he served for his whole life on all the local and state committees. Here it was in the little used parlor that I found my refuge for reading. There was Grandpa’s big black leather overstuffed chair where I could read in peace; nature stories, stories of the immigrants coming to America, and then on Sunday’s there was a good-humored dash for the comic section of the newspaper, especially by my uncles. They laughed uproariously, thus convincing me that comics were not on the forbidden list.

The years we lived in Jamaica there came the library in Mandeville, which had volumes of The Saint. Riding my blue bicycle with a girlfriend, we spent happy hours reading exploits of danger. What really proved dangerous was Gone With the Wind, which my friend loaned to me and which mother immediately confiscated. It was the size of a thick catalogue.

Once a year we rented a cottage near the ocean. We could swim in the ocean with Daddy or gather shells while Mother wrote letters under the protection of her umbrella. The cottage was actually a two-story house rented out while the owner was gone, so there we were, with books and all. The pungent mildew aroma of the tropics was thick on every page, and it took hours to look at them.

During an earthquake on the island, as they were frequent, one of the corners of this house had split open, and hidden in the crack was a snuff box with Napoleon’s initials on it. That story has to be left to imagination, as such evidences of French history had been found in many places of the world.

Then Mother brought Shirley and me to Nebraska and Dad left for three years to regain school and hospital properties, which had been confiscated by the Italians. The college had a lovely library. Mother had been librarian at the West Indies College, so we understood the mysteries of checking out books. Also, there was a public library not far away. The tiny librarian tiptoes when looking for my requested books. She constantly held her finger to her lips, but who would disgrace a library with loud noise?

The great excitement of books comes rushing back with the experience of seeing our children read, learning with them the mysteries of birds, and taking them to the library to check out their own books. Who can blame a child who is reading under the covers by the light from a flashlight, this being preferable to using an extension cord with light bulb and burning the covers. I understand books piled by every bed, or between box springs and mattress.

Why grieve over the enemy of darkness when all the books are still in evidence? They stand in neatly lined shelves, according to their categories. They are multiplying by the week, thanks to the additions from estate sales and thrift shops. The enemy has been conquered by the bright friendly voices, which emanate from the talking books. These voices are often professional persons, reading in the accents of the author. With volume increased, these voices can follow me while I do housework.

Never to be discounted are the voices of friends. One long book on Russia was read to me at six o’clock every morning over the phone. The essence of the book was there, even if the pronunciation was not. Later I introduced my friend to the author, and he seemed quite pleased.

Now again comes the vision of the scanner. What a lovely birthday gift this would make! The magic of reading whatever and whenever, or proofreading my own typing, seems like a great promise. The first book chosen is Out of My Life and Times, the autobiography of Albert Schweitzer.

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