The Stories that Stayed with Me

Because of COVID concerns, the college where I teach English compressed our semester and eliminated breaks so that the students don’t have to return to campus after Thanksgiving. (We had face-to-face instruction, which was wonderful. I hate virtual classes, and my students do, too. We made it through this semester just fine; no need for a shutdown. No WANT for a shutdown.) Our spring semester got pushed back for the same reason, so we don’t start classes again until February.

February, y’all! What in the world shall I do with all that extra time?

Write, is the obvious answer, as I wait for a publishing date for my current book. I have two different ideas stewing in the hopper. One is to revise a memoir I wrote about growing up in boarding school in Kenya in the 1980s, which has been in a finished but rough state for years. The other, a novel, is outlined and just waiting for flesh on the bones. The protagonist has already become a close friend of mine, and she sometimes shows up in my dreams, beckoning me to bring her to life. So yeah, I have time and the will to write.

The other thing I plan on doing during my break is read. A lot. And since the world is a scary, ugly place these days, dark and full of shadows, I’ve been leaning towards doing some comfort rereading of the books that charmed and formed me in childhood.

I have always had a love affair with books. Before I started boarding school in 6th grade, my best friends growing up were Jo March and Laura Ingalls Wilder. (Every time I read Little Women, I convinced myself that this time, this time, Jo would not be so stupid and she would agree to marry Laurie. She still always makes the wrong choice.) Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House on the Prairie books were a fascination for me, rich with adventure, history, and my favorite: food descriptions. Reading how the starving settlers in The Long Winter were reduced to eating brown bread and butter sent me scurrying to the kitchen to make myself a pile of Blue Band and bread sandwiches, after which I plonked down on the red rug in my room, munching on the salty, coarse snack and tsking over the Wilders struggling to stay warm.

blue band

Wilder’s Farmer Boy was decadent; the Christmas meal had me wiping saliva from my chin as I read:

”He looked at the crisp, crackling little pig lying on the blue platter with an apple in its mouth. He looked at the fat roast goose, the drumsticks sticking up, and the edges of dressing curling out. The sound of Father’s knife sharpening on the whetstone made him even hungrier. He looked at the big bowl of cranberry jelly, and at the fluffy mountain of mashed potatoes with melting butter trickling down it. He looked at the heap of mashed turnips, and the golden baked squash, and the pale fried parsnips.

He swallowed hard and tried not to look anymore. He couldn’t help seeing the fried apples ’n’ onions, and the candied carrots. He couldn’t help gazing at the triangles of pie, waiting by his plate; the spicy pumpkin pie, the melting cream pie, the rich, dark mince oozing from between the mince pie’s flaky crusts. He squeezed his hands together between his knees. He had to sit silent and wait, but he felt aching and hollow inside.”

Same, Almanzo. Same.  

Many of my days were spent at the top of the loquat tree next to our house. Drowsily, I’d gorge on the honeyed fruit and The Chronicles of Narnia, ignoring the bossy sharp cries of the ibis in our yard. A lonely, imaginative child, I became firmly convinced that Aslan was real, and I diligently searched the hedges and holes of our two and a half acre yard for a door to that magic kingdom. I decided I was Christian after reading Little Pilgrim’s Progress, a kid-friendly version of John Bunyan’s great allegory, and I spent long hours destroying my mother’s purple African lilies with a stick I’d deemed a sword. The lilies, which had become in my child eyes the Giant of Pride, eventually succumbed to my triumphant sword, their sad purple-bunched heads lying in piles on the ground. I kicked off my wellington boots and paddled in the huge tea-colored puddles in our driveway, and called for help from the angels because I’d fallen into the Slough of Despair.african lilieslittle pilgrim

Have I mentioned that my childhood was magical?

I was a quick and voracious reader, gobbling up Black Beauty, Charlotte’s Web, Island of the Blue Dolphin, The Secret Garden, Lorna Doone, and A Little Princess, coming up for air just long enough to get my bearings before reading the same books all over again. While my sister, five years younger and the exact opposite of me, kept a busy social schedule with neighboring missionary kids, I shifted from the loquat tree to one of the enormous avocado trees in our yard, carrying a spoon and Hans Brinker under my arm, settling myself on a huge branch. In the warm African sun, I scooped buttery green avocado into my mouth and shivered at the idea of a Dutch winter. (I’d never seen snow, at least not that I could remember. Now that I have seen it and felt it, I can safely say I HATE IT AND WINTER.)

In the used bookstore we frequented on our monthly journeys to the capital city of Nairobi, I loaded up on my very favorite series of all: Enid Blyton’s Famous Five and The Naughtiest Girl in the School. (Because Kenya was a British colony until 1963, the books in English there were, by and large, British ones, and yes, often fifty years old or more.) In The Famous Five, I discovered adventure and mystery, a fondness that would eventually lead me to Nancy Drew, which became another obsession of mine. (Nancy’s independence, fancy car, and tidy wristwatch fascinated me more than her exciting scrapes.) As for The Naughtiest Girl series . . . well. A girl never wanted to go to boarding school more than me after reading those books—until I actually had to go to boarding school. But that’s a story for another day.

During our trips to Nairobi, we mainly stayed at the Mennonite Guest House, a quiet, comfortable, less-than-luxurious cottage-style B-n-B that had the very best tea time, climbing trees, and library for the guests. It was there that I discovered Bilbo Baggins, Frodo, and arguably my favorite character of all times, the loyal Samwise Gamgee. Samwise’s unwavering loyalty spoke to me deep in my young bones, perhaps because I too was (am) loyal to a fault, and like calls to like. I remember nestling deep into the top bed of the bunk in my family’s shared room, ignoring my mom and sister’s request to play “Sorry” with them, moving through a world of chaos and courage, emboldened by the good that emphatically conquered evil.

the hobbit

Last weekend, my Molly and I stopped at a flea market, and I found a book called The King’s Thane by Charles A. Brady. Thumbing through it, charmed by the illustrations, I felt that old familiar longing to lose myself in a good yarn of old, so I bought the book, claiming I’d save it for a future grandchild someday. I was lying; I totally bought it for me. Because in this horrific time, filled with almost unbearable anger and fear and what seems like very little hope, I’ve decided one necessary use of my long break will be to reopen some long-shut wardrobes, jump in a sporty little convertible in search of a secret in a clock, and squat next to a little sour-faced orphan as she pretends to plant hibiscus flowers in heaps of dirt. Perhaps I’ll prepare a “tuck box” and some bread-and-butter sandwiches before I set out, and when the angel shows up to rescue me from the sticky, awful slough I’ve been stuck in for far too long, I’ll offer to share. Above all, I’ll try to remind myself, over and over, what Samwise told Frodo in The Two Towers:

“It’s like in the great stories, Mr. Frodo. The ones that really mattered. Full of darkness and danger they were. And sometimes you didn’t want to know the end. Because how could the end be happy? How could the world go back to the way it was when so much bad had happened? But in the end, it’s only a passing thing, this shadow. Even darkness must pass. A new day will come. And when the sun shines it will shine out the clearer. Those were the stories that stayed with you. That meant something, even if you were too small to understand why. But I think, Mr. Frodo, I do understand. I know now. Folk in those stories had lots of chances of turning back, only they didn’t. They kept going, because they were holding on to something. That there is some good in this world, and it’s worth fighting for.”

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