I suspect that every child is composed of contradictory bits and impulses, filled with unexpressed longings from which she shrinks for fear of disappointment. Few times in one’s life are, I think, as hard a childhood. It is a time when the desire for refuge is particularly keen. We long for few things as much as we long for a place to escape to; a place to make sense of things, a place to feel as if we belong.
Refuge, of course, takes different forms for different people, but books have always been one of the most constant sources of refuge for me over the years, and that is only logical given the rate of bibliophilia in my household. Rarely did twenty-hours pass between the finishing of one book and the opening of another. We called bathroom “the Reading Room” because that was where we perpetually shut ourselves in, knowing that there one was guaranteed privacy. (Our mother eventually became quite specific about what business she was referring to when she asked if we were finished.) We all did it–my sisters and I–particularly after dinner when there were dishes to be done. It wasn’t that we didn’t want to help. It wasn’t that we were lazy. It was that we were desperate to get back to our books. Desperate.
Books were the rockets that propelled me into new worlds, and I wanted a new world rather desperately. The real one had illness (a fair bit of it in my family), death, and non-suicide pacts. Loss is the normal stuff of life, and I reacted like most normal kids. I wanted out. Books (and music, but that’s another story) opened a less drastic door. From imagining myself in far off markets of Morocco listening to storytellers that I read about in Hoffman’s Mischief in Fez to the seriously bad behavior of Kipling’s Stalky and Co. which made a blessed mockery of my school misery, books offered freedom, escape, and perspective. The Psalms provided that salutary reminder that I was not alone in my misery while Sayer’s Gaudy Night held up a tapestry of possible futures and helped me envision other possibilities (and made me take a serious look at who I was letting myself become).
It has actually never crossed my mind until this very moment, but storytelling was also something that we did in my family. For a few years there, my father made up stories with different characters for each of his three daughters. He was like Dickens (his favorite author) with nightly installments of new adventures. One of my sister’s stories were filled with talking animals, because she loved animals, but mine were always adventures of a father and a daughter. Together they navigated rattlesnakes, tricky mountain trails, and bears. They were comforting stories, stories that reality would belie, but still, I’m grateful for that familial touchstone.
My middle sister followed precociously in our father’s narrative footsteps. I remember our mother telling me how my sister’s teacher called home to report that my sister “told lies.” Apparently, my sister had been talking out the classroom window to the little black pony and yellow dog (or maybe yellow pony and black dog? )that went everywhere with her. They might have been invisible to the rest of the world, but they were real to her. When the teacher heard my sister talking out the window to her invisible duo, the woman would have none of it. I still remember my mother’s disgust when she told me that story years later.
“Stories are not lies. Anyone who doesn’t have the sense to recognize imagination for what it is has no business being a teacher.”
Rather than rebuking my sister for lying, our mother told her to be careful about making sure that her friends waited for her on the edge of school grounds.
This same storytelling sister and I shared a room and she would often greet me in the morning with the question,“Guess what I did last night!” She would then proceed to tell me of the adventures that Peter Pan had taken her on when he had picked her up at our unprepossessing suburban windowsill. They were marvelous stories of flying down waterfalls, riding leopards and other wild animals, and teaching the fairies a thing or two. After a while, however, I began to itch with a desire to go flying myself. I wanted to ride a leopard, and then, one morning I realized I could.
“Guess what I did last night?” I asked. And I was off.
 And yes, that is a preposition at the end of that there phrase. I reject the imposition of Latinate rules upon an originally Germanic language by the prescriptive grammarians of the eighteenth century. So there.