“A self-leader cries for no followers by himself. He does his thing and people get to know him, chase him and learn from him.” — Israelmore Ayivor
I’ve been in search of and chasing great authors my entire life. I owe that curiosity to two people – a woman whose name I never knew and James Hilton. They introduced me to literature for, in our house, there were no books.
Barely age 10, I woke up one morning and heard my mother crying. My older sister simply said “Daddy died.” No other words about it were spoken to me. I adored my father and was confident that he would never leave me without saying goodbye. So I waited … and waited for him to return.
Each night I had the same repetitive dream. There was a large ballroom with a black and white tile floor, several large pillars and an upper balcony that encircled it on all four sides. The balcony was packed with people but they all had their backs to me. I was by myself downstairs across the room from its only object, a casket containing my father’s body. As I slowly approached it, feeling frightened and alone, I would glance upward hoping that someone would help me. Just before I reached the casket, suddenly everyone on the balcony turned towards me. They had no faces. At that moment, I looked into the casket and saw that it was not my father – it was me. Every night I experienced this identical nightmare. It was just as fresh and frightening each time. When I awoke from it, I’d force myself to stay awake. My broken heart was racing.
In the late 1950s children were to be seen and not heard. I had no one I could turn to in my grief and fear. My mother was trying to cope. My older siblings were not around. My younger sister was only 5 years old. I felt invisible. After school, I did not want to go home. I wanted to run away … far, far away.
While wandering the neighborhood, I passed a storefront and saw books in the window. There were shelves of books and several people were reading. A door opened and I peered in. A woman asked me if she could help me. Afraid to speak, I shook my head and turned to leave. She asked me if I would like to spend time in the library. I summoned my courage and asked her, “What is a library?”
This librarian showed me around and the next day I went in search of my first book to read. I chose Lost Horizon by James Hilton. Each day after school, I went to the public library to read more chapters. I now had hope, something to look forward to, and a grand sense of adventure. The librarian and James Hilton became my mentors.
We did not have a car so I was limited to wherever my legs could take me. The farthest thing I could see was a water tower and I promised myself that someday my friends and I would see what was on the other side of that tower. I was pretty sure it was Shangri-La until I read the Wizard of Oz and then I was positive we would see the yellow brick road.
As time went on I discovered a world of interesting people: Alexandra David-Neel who inspired my dreams of adventure and travel; Charles Dickens who understood my heart; Thomas Merton who understood my soul; David Grayson who explained contentment; H. V. Morton and Lowell Thomas who introduced me to other cultures; P. W. Joyce and T. P. O’Connor, two historians on Ireland, who are still teaching me about my roots; Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky who made you want to drink vodka; Margaret Mead and Isak Dinesen who made me appreciate cultural anthropology and animal behavior; Angela Fisher and Carol Beckwith who enabled me to visualize African art and culture; Lassie who inspired me to become a dog rescuer; and Lewis Carroll who taught me how to throw a mean tea party!
I am forever indebted to that librarian who by one gentle gesture changed my outlook on life. To all of the authors who have become friends of the mind, soul and spirit, I say to you: Had you not taken the risk of writing your story, I would not be who I am … you have enriched the lives of so many people. Thank you.
I mentioned earlier that in our home there were no books. It was not until I was older that I understood why. It was then that I discovered that my mother had been the oldest of 12 children, eight of whom survived. In the early 1900’s in rural Ireland, only the boys in her family were allowed to go to school. The only book my mother had access to was the school book of her younger brothers. Looking over their shoulders as she waited upon them, my mother taught herself how to read and write. My mother read the daily newspaper cover to cover and on Sunday, she read three. She often said to me, “Always protect your eyes, Julia. They allow you to read.” I regret that I never brought my mother to the public library. She would have enjoyed it.
“The library card is a passport to wonders and miracles, glimpses into other lives, religions, experiences, the hopes and dreams and strivings of ALL human beings, and it is this passport that opens our eyes and hearts to the world beyond our front doors, that is one of our best hopes against tyranny, xenophobia, hopelessness, despair, anarchy, and ignorance.” Libba Bray
To that I must add: It opens our eyes and hearts to wisdom, gratitude and love. Libraries provide the privilege of understanding.
Julia Connolly is a resident of Lake Montezuma. Retired from Marketing Management and New Product Development, she has become a contemporary art docent, an aspiring author, a photographer and a fiber and mixed media artist. With faith and humor, she has been a child advocate, a disability advocate and a dog rescuer for 50 years. Julia loves to travel.