Photo courtesy of the author
By Alison Meyers
For our Winter Issue on home and town, we are thrilled to welcome Alison Meyers, writer, and Executive Director of Writers and Books, Rochester, NY
What is love? Is it unconditional for animals, conditional for humans? Does growing up necessitate loss? Is it possible to forgive? Existential questions my unformed mind began to grapple with, all thanks to the magic of Rawlings’ pen. But what I remember most vividly is my mother’s response to my tears.
One winter afternoon when I was nine or ten, my mother found me weeping. I was reading the concluding chapters of The Yearling, by Marjorie Rawlings. Shielded from the Maine snow and wind outside, snug in a room warmed by a hissing radiator, I had been transported to the hardscrabble Florida backwoods of the 1870s, to the struggle and sadness of sacrificing a beloved pet—a wild deer not designed to live in captivity—to the practical matter of preserving a corn crop that would sustain a family through their winter months.
What is love? Is it unconditional for animals, conditional for humans? Does growing up necessitate loss? Is it possible to forgive? Existential questions my unformed mind began to grapple with, all thanks to the magic of Rawlings’ pen. But what I remember most vividly is my mother’s response to my tears. I thought she might scold me for alarming her—but, no, she enfolded me in great tenderness. Tenderness from a harried mother of four who rarely displayed—I suppose had little time for—such vulnerability. She, too, was a reader. As a motherless child during the 1920s, often left on her own while older siblings toiled in the Fairbanks Scale factory, she found in pulp westerns adventure, romance, the possibility of good triumphing over evil, and an escape from overwhelming loneliness. It was our common passion for books, for being immersed in, enraptured by, new worlds of experience that allowed me to know that my mother understood and loved me. (Decades later, we shared a devotion to the fiction of Barbara Pym, the mid-20th-century English author we considered a modern-day Jane Austen. The Connecticut library system satisfied our appetite for the disarmingly gentle novels and stories that describe “a churn of parish politics and petty romances — beneath [which] is a slow-building comedy, salt wit in a saline drip.”1)
I grew up in the rural hamlet of Readfield, Maine, population 900. Our two-room public library was housed in a ramshackle community building where my Brownie troop met. Though I coveted the badge-filled sash my oldest sister proudly wore over her crisp, white Girl Scout blouse, I didn’t enjoy being a Brownie. What did quicken my heartbeat was visiting the story-filled rooms next door after enduring yet another crafts project. I was entranced by the ritual of returning books I’d borrowed the previous week, finding my next reads—often at the volunteer librarian’s suggestion—having my name added to the file box, and hearing the satisfying thump of the inked stamp as it met the circulation card. Many of the books I checked out remain fond memories: Heidi, the Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew mysteries (the original non-PC versions!), To Kill a Mockingbird, Old Yeller, Anne of Green Gables, Little Women, Jo’s Boys, Gulliver’s Travels, Jane Eyre, Wuthering Heights, and Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl, to name a few.
The day eventually came when the Readfield Library shelves held no young adult books I hadn’t already read and no adult titles the vigilant librarians would allow a girl of eleven to borrow. Apart from a miscellaneous assemblage on the window ledge of every classroom, from which I selected such reading adventures as Lost on a Mountain in Maine, Readfield Elementary School provided no alternative. Fortunately for me, tucked into a recessed wall in our family’s apartment was a modest library from my father’s college days, each volume’s frontispiece bearing a bookplate with his printed name. “What should I read next?” I’d ask him on a near-weekly basis. This is how I made my way joyfully through Willa Cather’s Death Comes for the Archbishop, Thornton Wilder’s The Bridge of San Luis Rey, John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men, Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle, and the poetry of Charles Sandburg.
At twelve, I also picked up a copy of J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye from my big sister’s bedroom bookshelf. A visiting uncle, our clan’s unofficial paterfamilias, disapproved: “Isn’t she a little young for that?” I will be forever grateful for, and amused by, my dad’s response: a nonchalant shrug of his shoulders.∎
Alison Meyers is a poet and fiction writer, twice nominated for a Pushcart Prize. Her creative work may be found in literary journals, the anthology Gathered Light: The Poetry of Joni Mitchell’s Songs, and at www.alisonmeyers.com. She is the Executive Director of Writers & Books, a literary arts center in Rochester, NY. Previously, she served as Executive Director of Cave Canem Foundation (Brooklyn, NY) and Poetry Director and Director of Marketing & Communications at Hill-Stead Museum (CT). For many years, she owned and managed a Connecticut-based indie bookstore. She consults as a mentor for LitNYS, is treasurer of the board of Kweli Journal, and serves on the Arts and Humanities Board of Monroe Community College. http://www.alisonmeyers.com
- Matthew Schneier, “In Praise of Barbara Pym,” The New York Times, August 24, 2017