Do you know how certain smells or sounds can send us hurtling back to another place and time? The experience can be a crapshoot, pleasant, or nostalgic, sometimes painful. For me, the strongest memory trigger is a squeak—the protest of wooden steps many decades old. They originate in two places. One is the old house where I grew up with a narrow, steep stairway to the upstairs. The steps are grooved in the center from so many years of feet stomping up to bed and down to breakfast for a new day. You might think that my home would be the most poignant memory for me, but it isn’t. It’s where I spent my summers when I wasn’t swimming.
The avenues and venues for entertainment nowadays are legion. Cell phones alone, the constant texting, searching, and calls, can suck up huge chunks of our time. Not so in the early sixties. TV was in its infancy. Books were the most reliable and inexpensive source of entertainment, the means to sail away into intrigue, history, romance, or adventure. It was all there at the library. My hometown of Galena, Illinois is mostly hills, steep inclines and terraced streets, endless steps, and all of it a pistol to traverse, especially when it was a fourteen block walk, then a trudge up another hill with arms full of books. I kept thinking about the reason for the trek. Back and arm aches were worth it, so I could spend lazy summer days by an open window, a book propped in my face.
Galena Library was completed in 1894 and reportedly the first library in Illinois mandated to have four women on its board. Sturdy and august, the library has weathered over a century with grace. One of my clearest memories of the library is Mrs. Dodds, petite, thin, with round spectacles. She always answered the phone with three of her names, never one. “This is Mary Eustace Dodds.” She gave me the gimlet eye one summer when I chose to check out Tropic of Cancer, but she stamped the book and handed it over the counter. Before she did, she repressively said it wasn’t appropriate reading material for my age. (I judged it boring and liked War and Peace better.)
Then was the age of card cataloging, and if asked a question, Mrs. Dodds immediately stopped the search she was in the middle of, wedged a pencil stub between the cards, and answered my question. She may not have been happy about the interruption, but she was the librarian and took her position seriously.
I never had a bike, and thought one with a basket would be luxury, whether or not there were hills damn-near perpendicular to push the thing up. No matter. I trudged the blocks to the library, opened the door, and there they were—squeaky steps rising up to the library. Squeaky steps going down to the basement. So many books and stories. The smell of old bindings and paper. My favorite (and still is) the sculpture that rested on a pedestal by the door, an alabaster chariot drawn by two rearing horses. I surreptitiously touched them every time I entered, but it was the crunchy creak of the wood with every footstep upward, the expectation and possibilities of more exciting stories waiting to be discovered.
The library has changed a lot over the decades. The counter, where Mrs. Dodds stamped out my books, swiftly inspected them upon return, and wordlessly accepted my late fines, is gone. Now there are computers, an elevator, a different arrangement of the book shelves. My chariot and horses have been moved but are still there, and best of all, the stairs still squeak.