A bookshelf was one of the most important items of furniture in our house for two reasons. First, my daddy had made it himself. He was a minister and a jack-of-all trades, and carpentry was one of the many things he did to earn a living. That bookshelf took on sacred standing after my father’s untimely death in a car wreck at age 44. He left my mother with seven children and one more on the way. Which brings me to the second reason the bookshelf was so important: It was always filled with books that we were encouraged to read. The bookshelf occupied a central wall in the living room of our small house, catty-cornered from the piano. Reading dominated our lives, and the year my father died, reading became a means for me of coping with his loss.
My mother, only 36 at the time, was afraid she did not know how to raise eight children alone. Especially fearful for her was the thought of shepherding four boys to adulthood in a South that was still lynching young black men for such things as reckless eyeballing of white women. East Tennessee might have been up South, but it was still South. To keep us safe, my mother thought it best to keep us home.
Of course, we had to go to school. Mama would come out and stand on the front porch watching us older children walking until we were out of sight, down the street and around the corner. We were expected to be home within 30 minutes of the time that school let out. We had to walk home purposefullyno loitering along the way, no stopping at the convenience store or a friend’s house. On Sundays, she took us all to church. We had a station wagon that would accommodate all of us, and we usually picked up another family on the way to service. Seat belts were not a part of the law yet, so we’d sit on each others’ laps. To church and to the grocery store were the only places we went where we consistently rode in the car. But everywhere else we walked.
There being safety in numbers, my brothers and sisters and I always walked together. (The boys never went by themselves; otherwise, they might risk being misconstrued as a gang.) We walked to the bread store to buy the day-old bread; to the 5-&-10-cent store to buy some necessities and do our Christmas shopping; to the health department at the start of summer vacation to get our tetanus shots so we could go to girl or boy scout camp; and to the library.
We didn’t go to the library much during the school months. Our schools had libraries, plus it got dark early during those months, and Mother wouldn’t have us out walking after dark. But going to the library in the summer was a treat. The only library that served black patrons was not open every day, and it was not close to our house. It was at least a 30- to 45-minute walk, past the only black high school, where my elder brother went, and past my school, Vine Jr. High, which was one of two black junior high schools in Knoxville. Then we walked through the Austin housing projects to the black business district, which had dentists’ offices, the undertakers, several churches, the only black movie theater in town, the barber and beauty shops, and the library. Urban renewal and the interstate system had already started changing the geography of our neighborhoods. Many businesses were now closed, and the grocery stores closest to our neighborhood were not black-owned or -operated. We could go there to spend our money, but couldn’t work in those stores.
We made our trip to the library once a week. It was a planned event. It was an old building even then, and had no air conditioning, but it was always cooler inside than out. Once we were inside, we could take as much time as we liked to browse or ask our librarian, Ms. Goldie Carter, about books with information on our own particular interests. Though it was the only library that served black patrons, there were no books by black authors for children. I read a lot of books by authors like Phyllis Whitney, Victoria Holt, and Mary Stewart. Their genre was English or Gothic romance for juveniles. All the heroines were blond, and all the heroes swarthy and forbidding.
Each of us would check out our limit, usually five to seven books, or fewer if we didn’t want to carry that many on the hot walk back home. But I wanted to have a book to read every day. With so many siblings in a small two-bedroom house, often the only quiet space I found was in a book.
In all honesty, I have to say that Mother wanted balance in our lives. There were times when she would make us all put our books down and go outside to play. Summertime games we usually played at dusk were red light/green light; Mother, may I; and hula hoops. If it was a year when Mother wasn’t pregnant, she would jump rope with us. Sometimes, when the rainsqualls came up quickly, the sun would still be shining while the rain poured down. Then we would hammer a big nail into the ground and take turns with our ears pressed to the nail, convinced that we could hear the devil beating his wife. That was what it meant to us when the rain came while the sun was shining. One of us had read it in a book.
But the escape into books was especially important for me in the summer of 1963. I had been badly injured in the car wreck that killed my fatherincapacitated, in fact. Six of the seven children were in the car on that Sunday morning in April, headed to Dad’s church in Chattanooga. Mother was working as a nurse, and it wasn’t her Sunday off. My elder brother played the piano for a church in Knoxville, so he wasn’t in the car either. The twin girls and baby boy had cuts and bruises. One of the twin boys had a severely broken arm, and the other one had internal injuries. With a lacerated scalp, a crushed right ankle, and immeasurable damage to my heart from losing my father, I left the hospital in a cast, which I would wear until September. That meant I would not be walking anywhere for a while.
That summer, Mother hated for us to be out of the house even more than usual, so my siblings didn’t make quite as many trips to the library. I started making serious inroads on the bookshelf. Mother liked books by authors Taylor Caldwell and Frank Slaughter; she also had books by Frank Yerby, who was the only black author I recall reading during those years. There was James Michener’s Hawaii, and The Good Earth, by Pearl S. Buck, was one of my favorite books on that shelf. There were books on prayer and other religious topics from Dad’s ministerial studies, admittedly not very interesting for a girl of 14. And when I ran out of things to read, there was always the encyclopedia.
I actually read the encyclopedia. Shortly before my father died, my parents decided to invest in a set of World Book Encyclopedias for us. The set included the encyclopedias from A-Z, a collection of story books, and the cyclorama, which was a pre-computer mechanized game and learning tool. A funny thing happened with those books. The arrangement under which my parents purchased them had a clause stating that World Book would waive the remaining payments if the wage-earner in the household died. The saleswoman was so apologetically excited after she read the article about my father in the paper. The books were ours to keep, she told Mother. The company even sent us the annual yearbook, volumes that updated the set with current events, for years afterward.
I wonder now about the effects of past events on present life. For instance, all nine of us (we later adopted another child) now have computers; perhaps that love for technology came from those many hours spent playing with the World Book cyclorama during that summer. Five of the nine are ordained ministers, and four are nurses or work in hospitals. I have some of Dad’s religious books on my own shelf now. One, Change your Life Through Prayer by Stella Terrill Mann, came from the Unity School of Christianity, even though Dad was an African Methodist Episcopal minister. I found that book on the bookshelf Dad built after I had been attending a Unity church for several years. Was that somehow Dad, guiding and directing my life? It certainly made me feel more connected to my father.
Indeed, those hours spent with the cyclorama, and poring over the pages of those green and white encyclopedias, gave us respite from the terror of losing our father in the summer of 1963. And though we all have bookshelves in our homes, the first thing we do upon moving to a new city is to get a library card.
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