Some of the most delicious morsels we consume are not the meals we partake of but rather the nourishment of words which speak to our souls. When you are the oldest of five children with alcoholic parents, life is tenuous and uncertain, to say the least. Rocky around the edges and loosely glued together by the basic threads of food, shelter and clothing. Although my stepfather was often either unemployed when I was growing up (“I’m just in between jobs”) or underemployed, we did not go hungry. God, via neighbors and friends throughout my young life, saw to it that we had enough to eat.
But the meals that really saved me soul-deep were the feasts I found in glorious stories, words that took me away from a chaotic and crowded household to a world of people and places that shone with beauty, peace and plenty.
Nobody worried about ‘personal space’ when I was growing up—it would be decades before people considered that a thing. Whenever we traveled somewhere in Southern California circa 1960, we’d pile into the family station wagon, drawing invisible lines down the middle of the bench seat. Thus we claimed our personal space. There weren’t even seatbelts then to contain us.
Around the age of twelve or thirteen I was often left to babysit my brothers and sisters while my parents stepped out for the evening. (Times were different then, yes they were). When I was in charge, I simply left my siblings to play on their own while I escaped into the pages of a good book. (No one died. We are all still friends.)
During the long, slow summer days when everyone was at home, if I wanted any peace and quiet at all, I retreated to my bedroom with a book. There, away from the clamor and chaos, I could dive into the pages of a story to take me far away. Books became my solace, shutting out the noise and distraction, leading me to a pleasant world full of kind and caring people. I found beauty and gentleness, people who were just like me, getting by on little, yet living with happy hearts. I know this is the time that God planted the seeds of my love affair with words and writing.
One of those lovely books into which I escaped was Louisa May Alcott’s Rose in Bloom(c. 1876), a sequel to Alcott’s Eight Cousins. Rose in Bloom was a very old-fashioned coming of age story “with absolutely no moral” as the author stated in the preface. The lines I read sounded like a fairy tale; splendor and parties, fancy dresses, adoring young men—all a young pre-teen girl could want. I got lost for hours.
I also fell in love with Alcott’s classic Little Women and gravitated to the lead character of Jo (my mother’s nickname for me). The heroine and I had much in common: both of us the oldest, bossy to a fault, and enamored of our absent fathers—Jo’s was off fighting the war, mine-a stepfather-was often away somewhere drinking or gambling.
Jo often dreamed at her mother’s feet of her father’s homecoming; perhaps the story resonated so with my young girls’ heart because I longed for that to be true as well—that my father would be present in my life.
I discovered Gene Stratton Porter’s classic Freckles which became like a sacred text to me; I have the volume I read as a 12 year old on my bookshelf today. Dreaming as I read, I envisioned Freckles’ cathedral in the swamp forest as a place of quiet wonder. Freckles crafted a place of beauty from the forest at his feet, designed by God, where he was heard and understood. Between those pages I found an escape like I’d never known, a place where silence spoke volumes.
I also found a kindred spirit with Freckles— a father who’d abandoned him (as my birth father had when I was five). Freckles had no one but he and God and the stunning beauty of the Limberlost Forest. Although Porter’s story never directly mentioned the Divine, God’s existence palpated between the lines. I could sense a Presence in her words, the light glimpsing its way into the Cathedral in the woods, the chapters like a song calling me to a Somewhere Else far away. This longing planted the seeds of my search for a father who would never leave me; it would be years before my discovery came true.
There are many other volumes that struck a chord as well—stories like The Five Little Peppers and How They Grew, Margaret Sidney, 1881.
“Ben, Polly, Joel, Davie, and Phronsie, and their widowed mother are a loving family, full of spirit and adventure. Ben and Polly do what they can to support the family, but a bout with measles threatens the well being of the entire Pepper clan, especially Joel and Polly.”
(from the book jacket)
Five children, an absent father and the measles, a threat to our family I remember very well. The book had been written for me, I was sure. Another classic was The Boxcar Children, Gertrude Chandler Warner, 1942, first book. A tale of four orphaned children living in—imagine!—an abandoned boxcar, making do with little or nothing. The common thread of happy children scraping by with little, making the best of what they had; the parallels rang true as a bell.
Through all these ‘bells’, the resonating tune I heard was God’s song calling me through tales of beauty, peace and provision, feeding my soul and tuning my heart to hear His voice. My friend Laura says that “every good story leads to God” and I am inclined to agree. I didn’t have ears to hear until many years later, heeding God’s call to come, a lost and lonely little big girl with an empty heart.
I am still drawn to the classics, the song and rhythm, the beauty of the language illuminating that other world where I will live some day, with my God who will never leave, the Source of all I need.
Books brought me a sort of salvation, carrying me to my Savior; they carry me still to this day.
What books have carried you? I’d love to hear in the Comments
This is an edited version of post which appeared in August 2015 for the blog link-up “Literacy Musing Mondays.”