My thoughts on everything from albacore tuna to zebras
|Dear Miss Muldoon,
I’m sure you probably don’t remember me. You probably remember my Mom, Helen Umholtz. The two of you were friends when I was growing up. I have thought of you often over the years. I’m 49 now and I haven’t seen you since I was in eighth grade. That was the last year I went to school in Carbondale, and though I spent the next eight summers there, I did not come to see you. For that, I am sorry.
You see, it took me a long time to realize how important you were in my life; too long. It’s not that you did anything extraordinary, or even went out of your way. You were just being you. Some of the little things you did stayed with me and I think about them often.
First, and foremost, you gave me my first library card. I still remember the day, being there with my Mom, and meeting you. You smiled at me. Imagine that, a pretty woman smiling at a pudgy little first grader. I remember the library. When you walked in the front door, I immediately smelled the books. It wasn’t a dusty, musty smell. It was a pleasant smell. If the truth were known, even to this day, from time to time, I bury my nose in the pages of whatever book I might be reading and inhale. I like that smell.
You sat at a big desk, not too far inside the door. My mother told me I was to be quiet, just like in church. On the first floor, behind you, were the rows and rows of bookshelves. I’ve been in many libraries down through the years and the Carbondale Public Library would not rank up there in size with many of them. But to a six or seven-year-old child, it seemed enormous. Imagine my surprise when I learned that the library occupied two floors and that the first floor was the adult section, a connotation completely different then from what it might mean today. These were the grown up books, you told me. The children’s section was on the second floor.
Together we walked up the stairs and you said I could pick out two books and take them home to read. I had to bring them back in two weeks or there would be a fine. In my mind I pictured being hunted down by a policeman and forced to pay the ten-cent a day fine or be tossed in jail. But more importantly, I had the whole upstairs of a library to choose my two books from. I was in awe.
For a while my mom or older sister, Twila, would accompany me to the library after school. But it wasn’t too long before I was allowed to go on my own. By fourth grade or so, I was checking out two books on Monday and bringing them back on Wednesday to exchange for two more. You took me aside and said if I wanted to check out more than two that would be okay. I remember carrying eight books at a time to my home.
By sixth grade I had exhausted the children’s section and was reading some of the books for the second and third time. Once again, you took me aside, and told me I could start to check books out of the adult section as long as they met with your approval. You even recommended a few for me to start with. Never was there a prouder moment in my childhood, than to know that I had graduated to the adult section. I was certain I was the only one you ever did that for and to this day I like to think I was. But I know, that probably wasn’t the case. I know your kindness extended beyond one pudgy little boy and that no matter who walked through those library doors, they got the same attention that I did. I am sure I am not alone in this world with my memories of you and the library.
I read every one of those books, Miss Muldoon.
Sometimes, I would read two or three at a time, leaving them in various rooms throughout the house, a habit I have to this day. At night, I would lean out the window of my bedroom and read by the streetlight. I carried a book with me, just about everywhere I went, and still do.
When I went away to school, high school and college, my reading skillsand vocabulary were things I never had to worry about. I sit here typing this and am surrounded by shelves filled with books, both my wife’s and mine. I married a wonderful woman who loves reading as much as I do.
I have a great career that requires me to compose documents from time to time and to even help write research papers. One of my favorite hobbies is to write short stories that I share with my family and my Internet friends. I am not a famous author and you will not find my stories on the shelf of any library, but that really doesn’t matter. I write for my own enjoyment and I share my stories with anyone that cares to read them.
The book attached to this letter is one I wrote for my family last Christmas. There are only three printed copies. The rest are on CD’s that I’ve shared with my family and friends. My parents have one of the printed copies. My wife has another. I would like for you to have the third. Consider it a repayment, long overdue for the kindness and encouragement you offered a pudgy little kid long ago.
You helped me discover new lands, new worlds. You showed me, through your love of books, your kindness and patience to see the world we live in, many different ways, and in the end you taught me to love reading and to love books; all that with a smile and a few kind words of encouragement.
Thank you Miss Muldoon, from the bottom of my heart. You have been one of my greatest teachers on this journey we call life.
Joseph R. Umholtz