Among the bookshelves with Mom

A librarian instills a love of stories in her child

Back in the days of black rotary phones and card catalogues, I accompanied my mom to work. As a librarian during the 1970s and ‘80s, she spent her time between three branches in Orange County: Mountainville, the Cornwall Town Hall, and Cornwall-on-Hudson. What began as my mom’s lack of childcare options helped to shape the direction of my life.


I loved the little one room library in Mountainville. Situated on a triangular patch of grass between two roads, the 20 by 30 foot space felt like a cozy den. Every few hours, mom would lock up and we’d walk across the road to the post office to use the restroom.


The oak beast


I was about 4 or 5 years old, and everything in the library loomed over me. Sometimes mom pulled me onto her lap, which confirmed my suspicion that higher was better. The focal point was the large card catalogue. My mother wore a groove in the floor walking to and from this intimidating oak beast. It held all the answers.


I peeked around the book stacks to watch her work. She’d smile and help strangers find good books. It always ended the same, with patrons checking out big stacks of shiny, plastic-covered books. Holding the due date stamper in one hand, mom would grab a book with the other, stamp the ink pad, stamp the book, close the book, grab another book, stamp the ink pad. Thwack-thump. Thwack-thump. Boy I wanted to get ahold of that black and silver ink stamper.


I didn’t rest on nepotism. I ran a post office for (imaginary) customers and their (invisible) pets. After I cleared a bookshelf for my purposes, I’d sort envelopes and brochures. My work could be frustrating at times, due to the small space and, of course, library patrons. Looking back, I’m not sure they appreciated my acting abilities. After all, I had to fulfill all starring roles: the postal clerk handing out mail and the customers picking up special packages. It was a small inconvenience to run around the book stacks, shoes squeaking, holding up two halves of a conversation.


An unofficial promotion


The other two libraries were just as interesting. The imposing Cornwall Town Hall had a mile-long sidewalk around it. I’d run to keep up with mom’s strides. She’d open the door to the building and a stale smell would swirl around me. We’d walk up the black stairwell two flights, past the adult section, to the children’s department on the top floor.


To the left was a small carpet and a little table and chairs. Unlike the second floor, there weren’t any town offices (water, police, or records) so I could relax and play. It was a cozy setup. I wandered from the picture books to the young adult section, where I giggled at the covers. I soon became an unofficial assistant to my mom and the other librarians. One summer, rather than lug a rug down the stairwell, my mom and I shoved it out a third floor window for an outdoor story time session. Between sunbeams and the shade of a maple tree, Mom read "Oh Were They Ever Happy", "Caps for Sale", "Where the Wild Things Are", "Ferdinand" and more. The warm breeze and the smell of cut grass always made me want to lie down. I didn’t because there were too many kids sitting Indian-style blocking my way, tying dandelions together as we listened.


You could count on at least one child shouting “BEE,” as if in objection to the fact that the insect dared to share her space. But I liked to watch the bumblebees float past as I listened to my mother’s voice bring the books to life. It nurtured my love for stories.


It wasn’t all great at the Town Hall. I recall a time we did an egg project and I was given a brown egg when everyone else had white. Kids called me a baby for crying, which only made me more upset. Now as a mother of two children, I have to laugh at my sensitivity. On the other hand, I’ve never bought a carton of brown eggs. Ever.


Santa sacks and a spring success


The Cornwall-on-Hudson library held its children’s programs in the basement. Mom and some other librarians created The Silly Summer Olympics.Every child received a medal, but that didn’t detract from the glory. There were sack races in pillowcases, a spoon and egg race, a watermelon spitting contest and a water balloon toss. Kids vied for the honor of carrying the Olympic torch while Chariots of Fire played on the boom box.


At Christmas, mom and the other librarians transformed the basement into a magical Santa’s Workshop. Crowds of kids clung to their empty brown paper bags, eager to fill them. By the end of the day, I had a pine cone Christmas tree encrusted with glue, glitter, beads, and spray snow; a reindeer clothespin ornament, greeting card collages, and felt snowmen. Bags were guarded with fierce protection should another child envy your artistic skill.


In the spring, mom hosted a gardening day. She had soaked off the bottoms of thirty plastic liter Coke bottles, then set up the dirt and string beans. That was the day that one hundred kids showed up.


Mom always says they were victims of their own success, and laughs as she recalls the kids piling out of buses and station wagons. She called her boss and all available librarians to help that day.


My mom, Vicki O’Neill (it was Mina back then), taught me to honor my creative side, to work hard and be proud of my ideas.  She is a retired social worker, still living in the Hudson Valley. Thank you, Mom, for creating these wonderful memories. I owe my love of writing, books, and libraries to you.


Michelle Bermas lives on the South Shore in MA with her husband and two kids. She’s been published in The Boston Globe and other places.