Discovered in a Library
by Charles C. Cole
When my mother retired from nursing at a busy local hospital, she insisted on staying active, in part by volunteering for our small-town library, mostly doing the unrewarding work (my words) of reshelving books.
While our kids were small, we would sometimes visit “the office,” the children’s section, which also had an experiential hand-puppet theatre space. Mom beamed when introducing our curly-haired girls as “the twins” to whoever was about. Then, after Mom died, sadly, the library became a place I only visited once a year to get free copies of tax forms.
Mom had been gone almost twelve years when I returned one late February. Out of sentimentality, and because the downstairs exit took visitors by the entrance to the children’s area, I stepped inside. Murial, Mom’s boss, was still there, frail and older, with a slight hunch to her back that I didn’t recall. She was on her knees, reshelving books just above floor level, something Mom had done for many hours.
Murial was now, in fact, retired, a volunteer like Mom had been. She lit up when she saw me. We had never been close, so I thought maybe I’d prompted memories of the golden past. She squeezed my hand and asked me to stay for a cup of tea in the small staff kitchen. I couldn’t say no.
I learned that Murial had not trained as a librarian and wasn’t a fan of young people, the latter wasn’t news. She had found the position through her parents’ connection to the town manager. She liked the order, worked quietly and wasn’t a complainer. Her husband had died of cancer, and she dedicated herself to keeping her part of the library running like a Swiss watch.
“You mother saved my life,” she said. I pictured Mom performing the Heimlich maneuver. “When Chet died, I obsessed about work. I came in early and left late. When there was time, I even reshelved books. One day your mother, Lena, arrived a little late, and we were completely caught up.
“You mother was visibly upset. I think your father was fighting prostate cancer at the time, and she was hoping for a distraction. I suggested she use the free time to look at periodicals in the adult section or peruse the newly arrived books. She did, briefly. When she returned, there was still nothing for her to do, so I told her she might as well head home.
“It was quiet, just the two of us downstairs. I never heard your mother swear. She leaned over the counter and wrote ‘Damn’ on a yellow Post-it, then she crumpled it up and threw it away. ‘I’m sorry to make you share your space, your kingdom,’ she said. ‘I don’t wish to be where I’m not wanted.’
“Your mother was a hard-working angel. ‘But I love having your help,’ I said. She said: ‘Unlike you, I don’t live here. This isn’t home. I just stop by because I want to help. But you probably have a cot in the trunk of your car and a toothbrush in your desk drawer. It’s not healthy, and someone needs to tell you!’
“She caught me off-guard. We never talked on a personal level. I wasn’t ready to start. ‘You’re obviously anxious,’ I said. ‘You must have a lot on your mind. Why don’t you take a couple of days to smell the roses? Come back refreshed. Take your time.’
“She put her free hand over her heart and said, ‘You need to date again, Murial. You need a hobby and you need a man. I don’t care if you make room for me or not, but you’re not happy and everyone can see it. When it comes to work-life balance, as my son is always talking about, you don’t have it. Don’t do it for me. Do it for you.’ She took a quick breath and a stepped back. ‘It’s your life, dear. I’m sorry for speaking out.’ And she left.
“She didn’t come back for the rest of the week. I felt awful and a little relieved. She later insisted it was due to her sciatica acting up after doing some aggressive weeding around the house.”
“I remember those days,” I acknowledged. “They could be hard.”
“I was closing one night. The last person to leave was a nice young woman who only dashed in to drop off a flyer about contra-dancing at the Poland Hill Unitarian Church. My late husband had been a wonderful dancer. I, unfortunately, wasn’t as gifted. I decided to check it out, for him.
“To shorten the story, I met someone. We eventually married and had ten long years together, until a heart attack took him from me.”
“I’m sorry for your loss,” I said. I did feel saddened, but what more could I say?
“He was a charming gentleman, and he loved his sweets, and he had a mischievous twinkle in his eye. He gave me a reason to look forward to each day. We were a perfect fit. But it wouldn’t have happened, I feel, if your mother hadn’t pushed me out the door.
“She eventually came back, and there were always piles of books to be reshelved. She set herself up for some real grunt work. I should have told her, ‘Be careful what you ask for, Lena.’ We never talked about that day. I wanted to thank her, but even when I was deliriously happy, my pride got in my way.”
I nodded. “Mom was an inspiration, but I know she would agree: you did what you had to do. I’m glad Mom was able to point you in the right direction; many a time, she did the same for me.”
We are finally expecting our first grandchild, a girl. I hope to show my granddaughter the town library where her great-grandmother volunteered. There’s a modest plaque on a wall with a list of names of those who made donations for the expansion in 2000. Mom’s name is there. I hope to tell the young one about her someday.
Copyright © 2019 by Charles C. Cole