HANK PHILLIPPI RYAN: On this post-Veteran’s Day, a story. My Dad and I were once in a library of a home, and he saw a paperback anthology of poetry, the familiar one edited by Louis Untermeyer. And he said—“Oh, this is just like the one I carried during the war.” (He was a POW after being captured in the Battle of the Bulge.) I said—“You carried a book of poetry with you? Why?” And he said: To remind myself there is beauty in the world. A moment of grace. And here is an equally beautiful library story from author Susan Van Kirk.
A Moment of Grace
Anne Lamott, writer of Small Victories: Spotting Improbable Moments of Grace, has been in my thoughts lately. Strangely enough, one of those “ah ha” moments of grace happened to me recently. Growing up in Galesburg, Illinois, a town of 38,000 back in the early 1950s, I soon discovered reading.
Every week I headed to the Galesburg Public Library with my mother. It was built in 1901 and had a huge, double-wide marble staircase that you faced when you came in the front door. The second story was a marvel, and part of the floor was made of glass cubes. How intriguing for a little girl of six or seven.
But the very best part of this library was the children’s room, holding marvelous wonders, including a doll house that was filled with miniature furniture and people. This doll house drew me like a magnet. The front was glassed in so I couldn’t actually move things around. But just peering in at the various tiny miniatures each week was astonishing.
I always saw details that I hadn’t noticed before.
In the back were windows that looked into the rooms from a different angle. I was in heaven. My mother had to pry me away from this eighth wonder of the world every visit.
At that time, my father was managing the Drive-In Theatre several miles west of Galesburg. Our family often spent evenings out there in the summer, and as an adult I have such happy memories of those times.
One night in particular, though, was filled with terror and tears: May 9, 1958. We were near the end of the movie and people began getting out of their cars and looking back to the east. Eleven years old, I had no idea what was going on. But then, in the inky, close darkness, we saw fire lighting up the night sky.
My father drove us back to town where we were horrified to see my beautiful library, my cherished and second home, going up in flames. Hundreds of people were standing behind the barricades watching the firemen fighting valiantly to save the building. The crowd was hushed, staring in disbelief. Hardly anyone spoke. The roof collapsed onto the second floor, and eventually the astonishing second floor—filled with books, chairs and tables, and glass squares—fell into the ground floor.
Later we found out an exhaust fan in the attic had caught on fire, and the men had trouble fighting the fire because the water pressure was too low in the hydrants. While 40,000 books were salvaged—many water-damaged—the city lost 200,000 books worth half a million dollars.
But the most horrible losses of all were four letters signed by Abraham Lincoln and valuable items from the history of the city and the genealogy of families in the area. I will never forget that night and the terrible loss of so much history and beauty. Last week I stopped in the Galesburg Public Library, the small modern structure that sits on the same site as my old, well-loved Carnegie building.
I stopped in the children’s room to see what it looks like these days, and suddenly I saw a dollhouse. It seemed familiar. The librarian told me it was the original dollhouse, one of the few things they had saved from the fire that night fifty-eight years ago.
I checked it out, fascinated.
I saw the tiny rooms just as I remembered them, with the children’s bedroom upstairs and the rocking horse just waiting for them. I gazed in wonder, thinking about how my eyes had looked at these same tiny rooms so long ago, long before I grew up and had children and grandchildren of my own. I touched the glass, the same invisible wall that I had touched when I was five or six, and suddenly I was back there in that library with my mom, and we were looking at that perfect reproduction of a well-loved rural home of the 1950s, and pointing out the marvelous miniatures we liked. It brought back a tumbling jumble of happy memories of those Saturday mornings at my favorite library, when my parents were still alive and my world was smaller and quieter.
A very special moment of grace.
And what about you? Have you have a special moment of grace lately?
It is 2012 in the small town of Endurance, and wealthy banker, Conrad Folger, is murdered and his wife, Emily, arrested. Emily Folger was one of Grace Kimball’s students in the past, and Grace knows Emily could never murder anyone. So, Grace joins Detective TJ Sweeney to investigate the murder, and they uncover a dark secret.
In 1893, Olivia Havelock, age seventeen, moves to Endurance to seek a husband. She finds one in Charles Lockwood, powerful and wealthy judge, but her diary reveals a terrifying story.
Two wives—two murders a century apart—and a shocking secret connects them. Marry in Haste is a story of the resilience of women, both in the past and the present.
Susan Van Kirk grew up in Galesburg, Illinois, and received degrees from Knox College and
the University of Illinois. She taught high school English for thirty-four years, then spent an additional ten years teaching at Monmouth College.
Her first Endurance mystery novel, Three May Keep a Secret, was published in 2014 by Five Star Publishing/Cengage. In April, 2016, she published an Endurance e-book novella titled The Locket: From the Casebook of TJ Sweeney. Her third Endurance novel, Death Takes No Bribes, will follow Marry in Haste.
Website and blog: http://www.susanvankirk.com