Passing along the good things

(I am recycling a story. This was written in August, 1991.)

On a Saturday just before noon closing, I sat in the Sleepy Eye library, either wasting time looking at magazines or expanding my knowledge base, depending. Only librarian Gail Christensen and I were left.

A woman pushed in the weighty doors and went to the counter. She was excited and hopeful about something she thought was a long shot. The woman, who appeared to be in her 60s, asked Gail if the library kept old books. Specifically she was looking for the book “Dandelion Cottage” which had been dear to her when she was 10 years old.

Being easy prey to distraction I joined in the hunt through “Books in Print” and the regional library system. No, the Dyckman Library copy had long since disappeared. But, yes, it was still in print, and the New Ulm Library had a copy.

The woman was Annice Frovick who had grown up Annice Patterson in Sleepy Eye. Like a century of children that venerable library had been a sometime-home. The giant doors, the substantial tables, and the dark woodwork are those of a castle. It’s a castle with a strange hushed interior. There the child’s physical self must “sit and be quiet.” Meanwhile shelves of books invite the imagination to be entirely raucous. It is the gift of books.

Annice left Sleepy Eye after school and now lives in Pocatello, Idaho. Summer days in that library are long past. But talking to Annice, they are still present the way our childhoods are always with us.

“Dandelion Cottage” was a special book to the child Annice, one she read and reread. She was leaving that day for Pocatello so could not order the copy. But she was pleased the “Dandelion Cottage” still was and that some little girl might be reading it. It occurred to me that a 10 year old girl resides in our home. So I ordered the book.

The last few weeks I’ve been reading a chapter a night to Anna. It was written in 1904. It’s always difficult to read aloud for a page or two until I find the voice of the author from that different time. Not much happens, or at least not very quickly. It’s a far cry from a half hour of television where life is packaged and dispatched between commercials. In “Dandelion Cottage” the writer, Carroll Rankin, lingers on a moment like a bee on a flower.

We’re enjoying this old book, my daughter and I. I’m glad 10-year-old Annice could share it with 10-year-old Anna across the years.

I’ve thought about that woman coming back to find a book she hadn’t held in 50 years. The strength and lasting power of that memory, of a little book in a small town library, is surprising.

We all have them, those “insignificant” things that make a large impression on one child. For me the memory of Saturday nights when the smells of bath soap and baking caramel rolls blend together is as much the stuff of my childhood as Christmases and birthdays.

Once left, our childhood becomes a bag we carry with us the rest of our lives. Psychologists tell us that the way we view the world, the way we react to it, and the patterns of behavior we choose are mostly in and from that bag.

We have some ability to arrange the stuff in the bag. “Dandelion Cottage” can lie in there for decades until Annice reaches in and pulls it out. Just like a random August day when I recall the mushy, odorous Duchess apples my brother and I ate while swinging under the tree.

We can push some memories down toward the bottom of the bag that we don’t want to come into our heads: taunts from some kid in school, the harsh reprimand from a woman when I dropped a bowl at a picnic. We can shove those underneath, but we can’t remove them. Moments we hurt and early encounters with meanness stay in the bag.

That’s what is sad when we hear the stories of some children in the news. The teasing and failures of my relatively safe and harbored childhood pale in comparison to truly awful things that happen to kids. Molesting, sexual abuse, incest, all sorts of unspeakable acts we speak of too often. Then there are children not in the news who are tossed around, inconveniences and liabilities in broken homes and busted families. Neglect might not raise welts, but it can surely bruise.

I heard a detective talk about a crime that was in the news recently. He said of the murderer, “I assure you that there is abuse in his background, that he was abused in some way as a child.” He said it was the one constant in the molesters, rapists, and killers he pursued. Behaviors like that don’t just fall to the Earth. They are planted, sown in unhappy childhoods, seeds that grow and bear ill fruit.

A wildly optimistic thought, then. If we could raise just one generation of children well, could we end evil? If every hungry baby could be fed, if every crying and lonely child could be lifted and held, could that generation bring the Kingdom to Earth?

But, pessimistically, I see in my own parenting that eventually every weakness I bear and every flaw I have manifests itself. Multiplied over the planet and over generations, this seems to say that meanness and malice will grow exponentially till good is crowded out.

Of course neither of those extremes is the case. Rather, we are all a collection of inconsistencies, capable of Christ-like behavior one moment and less the next.

The children around me deserve the best that I have, not just the time that is left over after work and after some meeting when I’m tired and cranky. I am playing a role for that child in creating the childhood that will go with them. I am helping to fill the bag they will carry into adulthood.

We can pray that for each child that bag will have many “Dandelion Cottages” and Duchess apple trees and not so much pain.