By Gail MacMillan
Good as it is to inherit a library, it is better to collect one.
For many years I've kept my guilt regarding the cedar chest a secret. I felt deeply ashamed of the lack of self-control that led to my infamous behaviour. However, this Christmas I've decided enough time has elapsed (the statue of limitations on such crimes must have expired) that I can now confess.
To begin, I must admit to being an incurable bookaholic. I always have been. In fact, one of my earliest memories is of standing behind my mother as she washed the lunch dishes at the kitchen sink, a book in one hand, pulling on her apron strings with the other as I begged her to read, "just one chapter, please, just one chapter."
My mother contributed to my addiction. I cannot recall her ever refusing to leave the sudsy pan, dry her hands, and follow me to the living room. There, we'd curl up together and while away the afternoon, deep in our love for the printed word. A devoted amateur actress, she read with passionate expression. Carried away on the wings of her words, I would listen mesmerized.
The books I remember best from those days were the works of Thornton W. Burgess. My favourite among his bevy of loquacious animals was Reddy Fox. Reddy frequently outfoxed himself through some small flaw in one of his nefarious schemes.
When I finally learned to read on my own, I experienced one of the greatest epiphanies of my life. There was magic to be found on a printed page. It had the power to sweep me away into another time, another place, another spirit. Words flowed over, around and through me, enthralling me to the core. I read everything from the corn flakes box on our breakfast table to the set of University Encyclopaedias published in 1902 that I discovered in my grandmother's attic. (It wasn't until I looked for the word "airplane" and couldn't find it that I realized the venerable age of this fascinating reading matter.)
While other children hounded their parents for toys, I begged for books, books, and more books. The Christmas season presented the paramount opportunity for my supplications. Each autumn, I began to prepare a long list of titles I'd be delighted to find beneath the festive tree. Since we had no bookstore in our town, the Eaton's catalogue was the only place to purchase these desirable items. Consequently one special Sunday afternoon each November my mother and I would sit at the kitchen table with that lovely, plump book while I selected the books I most desired from the limited selection on the two pages that offered reading materials.
My mother, knowing how I devoured the contents of books the moment they arrived in our home, never let me know when she was picking up the parcel at the post office. And definitely, never where she hid the precious package.
Overwhelmed by my reading affliction, however, I'd become sly and unscrupulous. No book could remain unread anywhere within my ability to ferret it out. Thus, one day the year I was ten and desperate for a good read, I began my quest for her hiding place in earnest.
I dug through closets, into their darkest, most remote corners and topmost shelves. I burrowed under sheets and towels in the linen cupboard, and even checked beneath the mattress in the guest room. Nothing.
Stymied, I followed my mother into my parents' bedroom and sat down on the edge of the bed. I watched as she opened the cedar chest beneath the window. My father had handcrafted it for her on their engagement. She kept her most treasured possessions in it; things like her wedding gown, my christening dress, her collection of hand-embroidered linens and, anathemas to a Reddy Fox fan, a couple of fox fur capes. Their presence had always made me shy away from the cedar chest.
I watched as she folded a pillow slip she'd finished decorating with moss roses. When she bent over the cedar chest to store her handiwork, I started to turn away. I had no desire to see the pelts of those poor, unfortunate foxes.
Then something caught my eyes. Peeking out from beneath a lace tablecloth, the top corner of a shiny, new BOOK!
My mother hastily lowered the lid and glanced in my direction. Had I seen it? Struggling to appear nonchalant, I began to hum "We Wish You a Merry Christmas" as I swung my legs against the chenille bedspread, and gazed up at the ceiling. She hesitated, then drew a deep breath and headed out of the room.
"Come along, Gail," she called as she started down the stairs. "We have cookies to bake."
My heart dancing with joy, I skipped along after her. Visions of how I'd invade the cedar chest later when I was alone upstairs waltzed through my head.
That evening after I'd been tucked in bed and my parents were safely settled in the living room listening to Charlie McCarthy and Edgar Bergen on the radio, I slipped my bare feet onto the cold linoleum that covered my bedroom floor and tiptoed across the hall. I carried a small flashlight. My father had given it to me the previous Christmas, in case of power outages, he'd said. He'd never intended it to be used in a book burglary in his own home.
Trembling with the thrill of the forbidden, I eased open the cedar chest, slipped my hand beneath the folded linens, (being careful to avoid those fox furs) and felt them... not the usual two but four, count them four, slick new books, their dust jackets as smooth as silk.
I slid out the topmost volume. My breath caught in my throat as I read its title. The Secret of Shadow Ranch! The Nancy Drew mystery for which I'd longed for the past two years and for which Eaton's had always sent a substitution!
Resting my back against the cedar chest, I squatted on the floor, opened the Carolyn Keene classic to page one, adjusted my torch and began to read. Although I wasn't then familiar with the term multitasking, I quickly became adept at it. While I read I had to stay alert for the slightest indication that either of my parents was about to come upstairs.
Oh, the bliss of those stolen moments. My heart hammering, I read Nancy's adventures for over an hour. My bare feet felt like blocks of ice on the cold floor. I shivered in my pyjamas but I continued.
Then I heard my father suggesting a cup of tea before bed. Trembling from the enormity of my crime, I eased open the cedar chest, slid the book gently beneath the table cloths and pillow slips and scuttled back into my own room.
Snuggled beneath the covers, the flashlight still warm in my hand, my overwhelming need for a book satisfied, I drifted off to sleep. Visions of Nancy Drew, Bess, and George riding the range at Shadow Ranch replaced the sugarplums that were supposed to dance through children's heads just before Christmas.
In the hard light of the next morning, I admit I had a few qualms. As I sat at the breakfast table and glanced over at my mother, I knew I was destroying her joy in the big surprise she must be hoping to produce on Christmas morning with that long-sought-after Nancy Drew title. But I was incorrigible. That night, as my parents listened to a Christmas concert broadcast from Halifax on the living room radio, I cautiously opened The Secret of Shadow Ranch to Chapter Five and read on.
By the time Christmas Eve arrived, I'd devoured all four books and was contemplating re-reading Shadow Ranch. No, I told myself sternly. You'll bend a page, you'll crack the spine. Quit while you're ahead.
My extreme enthusiasm as I unwrapped each book on Christmas morning might have been a tip-off to less trusting parents. Their faces flushed with my reflected delight. Cradling my treasures in my arms, I curled myself up in a corner of the couch and in the flickering tree lights settled down to indulge myself in a full Christmas morning of re-reading.
My criminal activity continued during the next three Christmas seasons. It might have gone on much longer had I not made a major faux pas in my eagerness to defend the work of my then-favourite author, L. M. Montgomery. I'd read all of the Anne books and had been longing for one of the author's more mature stories entitled The Blue Castle. Not an easy book to find, it was proving as elusive as The Secret of Shadow Ranch.
But joy of joys! A week before Christmas it appeared in the cedar chest. Reading it by the light of my torch, I thrilled to the courage of heroine Valancy Stirling and identified with her need for freedom and self-expression. It was so romantic, the ending absolutely wonderful. When I finished reading two days before Christmas, I hugged it in the darkness beside the cedar chest.
On Christmas morning a bevy of relatives descended on our home. It was my parents' turn to host the Yuletide dinner. One of my maternal aunts wandered into the living room as she waited for the meal to be served and found me in my usual reading corner of the couch, absorbed in The Blue Castle.
"Well, Gail, I see you got another book," she sighed in mild exasperation. Not book-addicted, she couldn't understand my fascination.
"Yes, a perfectly lovely book." I put my finger between the pages of the first chapter to mark my place and beamed up at her.
"Another novel, no doubt," she scoffed sitting down opposite me. "I never read anything but the newspaper myself. Those things are nothing but nonsense."
"Oh no they aren't!" I couldn't bear to hear my beloved books defamed. "This one is about a girl who leaves home to nurse a sick friend and falls in love with the town outcast. Later she discovers he's really a millionaire, they get married and live happily ever after."
"Do they now?" I turned to see my mother standing in the living room doorway. My finger slipped from its place at page six.
Her lips curled up into a smile, she winked and turned back into the kitchen.
My mother died three Christmases later, a victim of cancer. Her legacy to my love of literature, however, lives on in my heart and home. Thornton Burgess's The Adventures of Reddy Fox and The Secret of Shadow Ranch remain beloved parts of my library. The Blue Castle occupies a place of honour beside the family Bible.
As for the cedar chest, filled with family photos, it sits in my living room, symbolic of those happy Christmases when a book could make my dreams come true and a mother who understood.