Last Christmas as a gift to me, my husband built a magic portal for our front yard garden. He wouldn’t have called it that when he staked it into the ground this spring. Then, we called it a Little Free Library. The Little Free Library book exchange program started in 2009 by Todd Bol of Hudson, Wisconsin but book exchanges have been around forever. They are a box of books from which anyone can freely take a book and/or leave a book. I became a “steward” of a Little Free Library because I like the brand, the signs, and I wanted to be on the map. In Buffalo, there are 12 citywide, 2 (including mine) in South Buffalo. Worldwide, Little Free Libraries have grown in 2016 to over 40,000. My portal has reach.
Setting Up Shop
With a Little Free Library, I got into the portal business which is different from say the Wishes’ Department or the Charm’s Store. Like all magic, portals come with conditions: whatever is on the other side of the portal (i.e. Platform 9 ¾ in Harry Potter, or the Looking Glass in Alice Through the Looking Glass, or the Wardrobe from The Chronicles of Narnia) must be mysterious and beyond a guess.
When you register with Little Free Library for $42.45, you receive a sign that is engraved with your Library's unique charter number, the name Little Free Library, and the slogan “take a book | return a book”. They also offer a deluxe version for $89.00 which includes an engraved quote of your choosing. I chose: “‘Books are uniquely portable magic’ - Stephen King”. See what I did there with the play on portable and portal: I wanted the portal (the Little Free Library) and its portable contents (the books) to infuse the endeavor with possibility.
I do realize, Dear Reader, this may sound to you like wishful thinking. I know that most train platforms don’t land you at Hogwarts School of Magic. As Freud might say, “Sometimes a rabbit hole is just a rabbit hole” and sometimes a book exchange is only that. And if our library does no more than be a means to transfer books, what a grand thing it is. My home office is in the sun porch and the library is on the edge of our front yard garden next to the sidewalk. Through the open window, I can hear walkers, neighbors, and children discover the library with expressions of delight.
My First Time Through the Portal
The interior of our library is not tall enough for larger children’s books or tall hardbacks. Often these type of books are set atop the row. As the steward, I sort and tidy the library. One evening, I struggled to pull out a voluminous book. I finally wrenched the book free and in my hand was a brand new, bright blue hardback edition of “Pioneer Girl: The Annotated Autobiography” by Laura Ingalls Wilder. The newness of this book was so unlike the worn copies of the Little House on the Prairie books by Laura Ingalls Wilder that have been for generations in the stacks of every public and school library in the country. Pioneer Girl, the never before published memoir of Laura Ingalls Wilder, reveals the true stories of her and her family as they trekked westward and pioneered. This memoir is the actual experiences the children’s books were based on. The heft of it surprised me as all her other stories are slim volumes. I felt a shudder. Just like that I was whisked through the portal grasping a shirtail.
A “shirtail relation” is a family member who is connected to you by marriage. This expression supposes a certain distant. This should have been my relationship to Julie. For many years during my childhood, she was married to my uncle but once I became an adult, they divorced. There were great swaths of time, I didn’t see her. But then, she would appear again and be a central figure in my life, like the time she rented the “in law apartment” at my mother’s house. Even when our visits were infrequent, often for Christmas she would bring me a holiday centerpiece or a book. Last winter, she died quite suddenly from cancer.
In the last couple years of her life, I saw her more often. One day while we were at a family gathering, she showed me a newspaper clipping that she had saved for me. The clipping announced the publication of Pioneer Girl. We shared a knowing smile, but soon family members intervened. She handed me the clipping, gently patted my hand, and left.
As I clutched Pioneer Girl and was whisked through the portal, I went back in time to my childhood. My love and affection for Julie began in California at the end of a logging road where she, my uncle, my father and his partner built cabins. The four of them had moved west from Buffalo to have a different kind of life. During our school breaks with our father (during the school year we lived with our mother in Oregon), my brother and I skipped on a well worn path between cabins to help split wood for fires or shovel out a fruit cellar or annoy my uncle with constant interruptions. Most days before Julie cooked dinner, we would sit on the porch and play cards. Their dog Poncho would rest his snout on her thigh and she would roll her own cigarettes with tobacco from a yellow tin. I’d shuffle the cards and deal a hand of 500 Rummy.
We lived the pioneer life together: small cabins with no electricity or running water; we used outhouses - our own Little House in the Woods. My father and uncle seemed consumed by their schemes and dreams for what they hoped to accomplish with hardly a moment that wasn’t occupied in realizing it. For Julie every moment was the adventure whether she baked bread or built a fire or carried water in buckets from the creek or played cards with her niece. The adventure wasn’t in what was built but what was lived.
She didn’t teach me about life. She modeled how to live, how to nourish and sustain, and how to tend to those I love. Simple labor can settle a piece of land or a territory. She had a pioneer's spirit.
As I came back to the present in front of the Little Free Library, I knew I would get to be with Julie again.
Please note that when I say that my Little Free Library is a magic portal, I do not mean a portal to the dead. I mean that in the claptrap of the universe whether you call it randomness, time, destiny, synchronicity, coincidence, and/or fate, sometimes you can hear a whisper of orchestration. Even if it is merely coincidence that “Pioneer Girl” arrived in my little free library, when I read it, wherever it takes me, Julie will be there too. Therein lays the magic.
I loved Julie so much.
She is gone.
But, our story continues.