Uncovering personal treasure By Terry Graybill '71

My Mother's list By Elizabeth Mosier '84

Throwing out books isn't easy By Elizabeth Kaplan Woy '57

Booklovers' natural habitat By Rachel Manuszak Stern '92

'To dance, to dream' By Alison Hicks '82


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Aladdin's lamp

Uncovering personal treasure

By Terry Steiner Sisk Graybill '71

When I first looked down the basement stairs into the dark, all I could see were the twinkling lights. But as I picked my way carefully down, hanging tightly onto the handrail, slowly the full splendor came into view — the whole miniature, magical village, covered with snow and so many new buildings. And there were the trains, sweeping in and out among them.

Every year, right after Christmas, my parents dressed the three of us up, packed us into the car, and made the trek through the cold and snow to the Schlussers. They had a big party in their sprawling old house, with plenty of food for the kids and delicacies for the adults. As soon as we had filled our plates with goodies, all of the kids were exiled to the basement to enjoy the wonders of the miniature village and the many trains weaving through it. Winnie Schlusser, the mother, was an electrical engineer, who not only took pleasure in wiring the trains and building the tunnels, but in creating recognizable replicas of many buildings in the town of Evanston, IL. The village, which covered more than three Ping-Pong tables in length and two in width, enthralled us and bridged the gap with other children we saw only at this annual event. The hours always flew by and suddenly it would be time to leave, oh so reluctantly.

One year I lagged behind, when the others were getting their food, and wandered curiously into the front parlor, a large empty room with overstuffed chairs and built-in bookcases. I remember looking at the books and there, among the adult books, was a book which called out to me. I pulled it out and sat on the floor reading, captured by the pictures and then by the words. As I read of children climbing through a wardrobe filled with coats to the magical land of Narnia, I forgot the trains, the food, the party. Until suddenly, an adult spotted me, and scolded me: “You're missing the trains. Get some food and join the others in the basement.”

The following year, I remembered my magical book. I didn't tell anyone about it, but rather, waited till everybody had their eyes on the food and quietly sidled off into the front parlor. This time I sat down, behind one of the overstuffed chairs, and looked for my book. There it was, waiting for me, and astonishingly, it was just as good as I remembered. Immediately I was swept up in the chase of the evil snow queen, the wonders of a castle filled with animals who had been turned to stone, the noble sacrifice of the glorious lion Aslan. Until once again, I was caught and exiled down to the basement and the joys of the trains.

Again the following year I resumed the adventures of the children who fought against trolls and ogres, escaped treachery and danced among the talking trees.

A few years after that, we stopped going to the annual party. We kids had other invitations, and it was such a pro-ect to get us all dressed up and bundled off to make that trek to the Schlussers. But I remembered my book, which I treasured so, and finally, reluctantly, I shared my secret with my father. Together we went to a bookstore in downtown Chicago and I spent my allowance to buy The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis. There were the beautiful illustrations I remembered, and the rest of the story I'd never gotten to finish. And, to my joy, there were six more books which I gradually bought as I saved up my allowance for each.

Why, I've wondered since, did I wait each year until the annual party to read my special book? My parents never forbade me to read — they encouraged it. We trooped off as a family to the library as a weekly event where we were allowed to pick out our own books. There were thousands of books in our house, reading was part of our lives.

But this was my book. I found it with nobody's help, nobody's supervision, nobody's agreement. I read it despite the attractions of the miniature village and the corralling of the adults. In the midst of permission, I carved out my own little defiant and personal space in which I found my own treasure. Years later, reading under the covers or in the closet by flashlight had some of the same sense of secret pleasures. And to this day I cannot pass a used bookstore, a bin of books at an auction, even a friend's bookcase, without wanting to rummage around in case there might just be one more piece of magic waiting for me.

I still reread those seven books. They've traveled well through time with me. The Narnia books are a special haven of magic, fellowship, nobility and vision. Did I know then that they were allegorical? No. Did I know then that they combined the fairy tales I learned to love first with the fantasy and science fiction I grew to love later? No. But the ideals and beauty which spoke to the child hiding behind the chair, still speak to the child inside me today. And my sense of wonder is undiminished.
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Aladdin's lamp

My mother's list

By Elizabeth Mosier '84

The summer before I left Phoenix and went to Bryn Mawr, my mother gave me two things: my first serious wool coat, mail-ordered from Talbots back East, and a list of books I should have read by that point in my life.

The coat was classic and elegant and perfectly ugly, I thought — my mother's idea of a Bryn Mawr woman striding purposefully to the library to translate something or other from ancient Greek. Of course I had to hate it; I was 17, and still had trouble untangling my mother's taste and ambition from my own. Even my decision about college was corrupted by her favor. Bryn Mawr was my first choice, but first, it was my mother's choice for me.

The list is three pages long, single-spaced, recorded in my mother's neat, slanted script. There's something old-fashioned about her handwriting; it seems to be guided by the same untroubled faith that allowed her to create a canon for me by consulting no higher authority than the floor-to-ceiling bookshelves in our own living room. She listed the authors alphabetically, leaving no room between their names for debate.

That afternoon just before I left home for college, I watched as my mother stood frowning at the bookshelves, pen and paper in hand. I knew that the list, like my fancy education, was intended to help me surpass her. I understood, too, that I would never catch up. I am an avid but turtle-slow reader, unable to comprehend the words without wondering about the person who wrote them, or revising the passage in my head. My mother, on the other hand, doesn't read books; she devours them. In my memory, she wears an apron over her clothing as she makes her list, as if to protect her business suit from her giant-sized appetite for facts, stories, words.

I find now that I've filed the list under “Resume,” that dropsafe of things I've done to enable a writing career or perhaps, at times, to avoid one. My mother, who can't help imploring me occasionally to take a job with tangible benefits, once gave me a new business suit every Christmas — maybe to console herself or to save me from downward mobility. And yet, this same woman also gave me what amounts to her resume in the form of a book list. As if the true measure of success is not what one has done, but what she has read.

This image of my mother at her bookshelves is almost like religious symbolism to me; I conjure it up when I need to ward off a bleaker vision of unread books piling up in warehouses, their jackets torn and bodies remaindered. Whatever greater fate my mother had in mind for me when she gave me her list, she conveyed to me the hope that the life of a writer is a worthwhile thing. In that way, she sent me off to school wrapped up in something dignified and durable, better able than that tasteful wool coat to keep out the cold.
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Aladdin's lamp

Throwing out books isn't easy!

By Elizabeth Kaplan Woy '57

We have too much stuff.

When clothes don't fit my body, I either get slimmer (sometimes) or get rid of them. That's easy.

But when my collection of books no longer fits my shelves, I must go to battle — with myself, my husband, and the reality that wall-to-wall, floor-to-ceiling bookcases simply don't stretch.

Ours is a second marriage: two people who read, write and edit for both fun and funds. Consequently, in our Philadelphia apartment books are piled on the floor, on every surface, under the couches, tucked in horizontal layers on the shelves, and squeezed behind other books. Many of the books seem to be from a previous age or stage — they represent what I've been or what I have become. As a person who feels subject to change, which aspects of myself do I consider dispensable? What's important? Which books are the “ME” of 1997 and beyond?

But now, finally, the time for my long-threatened project has come. I am determined to sort, discriminate, discard — to find, as Dewey did, an appropriate place for every book.

Adding to my angst is the need to negotiate with a spouse who is a former reference librarian. Could there possibly be a worse adversary for this dreaded task than someone who believes in the eternal availability of basement catacombs to which everything that “might be needed someday” can be sent?

I know I can get rid of a few books relating to my checkered career path. Descriptions of printing processes might be thrown away, because of all the changes in the past 20 years. I no longer need treatises about theories of national health policy, because of all the changes in the past 20 hours. Recipes for Feeding Fifty doesn't relate to my current life. Actually, I could throw out all the cookbooks; I'm committed to eating out, rather than cooking in.

I quickly discover, though, that I haven't changed as much as I thought I had. Nothing is out-of-date. Old almanacs are essential for new crossword puzzles. Old books of lists are indispensable — I always forget at least one dwarf or one sin. Hours later and after great difficulty, I have culled a pile of four: the text from a course in statistics that I took many years ago, a book of poems by Pushkin (in Russian), a 1982 guide to Philadelphia restaurants (most of them long gone), and What to Name Your Baby. Well, it's a start.

Before I leave for a meeting at Bryn Mawr, I hand my husband a list of things to do: water the basil, pick up dry cleaning, buy stamps, collect books to give away. I am certain, of course, that he is the weak link in my project. I can only hope he will take seriously my firm directive, especially since I have scheduled the haul-away for the following weekend. I am already savoring the idea of arriving home to find our apartment looking as if orderly people live there.

Well, a funny thing happened on the way home from Bryn Mawr. At the train station, I am snared by a bibliophilic booby trap: a small sagging shelf on which commuters leave books for others to take. If I'd known, I would have avoided temptation by figuring out another way to get back to Philadelphia. But there they were. How could I not enrich myself with another copy of Roget's Thesaurus (considerably less tattered than the one on my desk) and, gem of gems: Read, Write & Spell it Right (irresistibly described on the cover as “Three volumes in one”). Acquiring these books is not an option. It is clear necessity. After all, I am only heeding (half of) my own directive: collect books.

“I looked over the books,” my husband tells me when I return home, “and they're 99 percent yours. Don't you remember that I threw away a lot of mine a few years ago?”

Now, with the two new books I've just brought home, I'm close to a perfect score of almost 100 percent. And what Bryn Mawrter would complain about that?
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Aladdin's lamp

Booklovers' natural habitat

By Rachel Manuszak Stern '92

A bookstore is the natural habitat of booklovers. Picture books everywhere — lining floor-to-ceiling shelves, neatly displayed on tables and piled high, slightly dusty, a bit musty. Add a comfy chair or a rocking chair or two, some big windows, and book people will flock to the door. Then you can observe them for hours completely at ease in their preferred space.

Book people are a diverse bunch. Some rush in with a sense of urgency, car double-parked outside, barking out “Author, title, publisher. Do you have it? Wish I wrote it. I must have it. Someday I'll come back to browse.” Others wander in, dropping their voices to a hush at the door. They disappear into the stacks for hours until you forget they're around and only find them when you turn off the light at closing. Some must touch to connect with the books, fingering the shelves down the length of the store. They straighten each title carefully or more often push in/pull out the spines until the shelves look like an accordion (they've left their mark). A few ignore the shelves and dive straight into the piles, preferring the thrill of a treasure hunt, wondering if they will be the first to find the gem at the very bottom of the stack. Some chatter endlessly as they browse, comparing notes, offering suggestions. Book people often need particular books, titles that they heard from a friend, or on the radio, or read about in The New York Times. They arrive at the store with wish lists, and titles scribbled on box tops, or they remember just the color of the book, or only that they last saw it “on that table, six months ago.” If a title they want is out of print they feel they've lost an old friend. If they find a book after months of searching, celebration is almost overwhelming. Young and old, they all have a mantra in common, “If only I had more time. If only I had more money. There are so many books!”

The preceding essay is based on Rachel's experiences at the three-story, Victorian, House of Our Own Bookstore, 3920 Spruce Street, in Philadelphia.
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Aladdin's lamp

'To dance, to dream'

By Alison Hicks '82

It is an unlikely book, to have remained with me so long, its origins and the conditions of its appearance in my life inauspicious. It did not sport the Newbery medal (akin to the Good Housekeeping seal of approval to my literary parents). I received it in some school gift exchange, and it came not from a close and treasured friend, but from a girl I'll call Martha. Martha and I were bound by the weakest of forces, only more than acquaintances because of two other girls around whose friendship we swirled in the gyrating circles which are childhood and early adolescent attractions. As I remember, we had little interest in each other outside this configuration. We were 11, I think, in sixth grade.

The book was the height and width of a standard paperback, but with a heavy cardboard cover papered with pseudo Degas-style ballerinas drawn on a kitschy pink background, the whole thing glazed over with something like melted saran wrap or cellophane that marked it as the kind of book you might pick out of a discount store sale bin. It told the life stories of several famous dancers. Isadora Duncan, Maria Tallchief, Alicia Markova, Martha Graham, among others. The title, To Dance, To Dream, also suggested kitsch (most probably it was not the author's choice, but lobbed on by the publisher after the contract was fulfilled and the manuscript delivered, in the interests of marketing). Though I took note of these facts, they did not faze me.

Martha might have chosen this book for me blindly, or maybe not, but I owe her a debt in either case, for consciously or not, she chose cannily. At that time in my life, I knew two main things about myself: I wanted to be an artist, and I wanted to be wise.

I was already a voracious reader; I read in a kind of frenzy of curiosity, about what was in a particular book, yes, but also for something quite beyond the book itself, that nevertheless I somehow intimated I couldn't get to except through the book. (I still tend to read this way, hungry for more and more and more, looking for something that I both never quite and at the same time always do find.) Unlike some of the boys in our class, whom successive teachers had chosen to label “smart,” I did not care about wars or battles or technology and the march of progress; in my arrogance, that sort of knowledge didn't interest me at all. I was after something bigger, I thought, something much more grandiose, that an academic might call a unified theory or philosophy. I wanted to know the world, in a flash, in an instant, by intuition. And I dreamed that on the surge of this intimation I would ride the crest of a great wave of creativity — writing, dancing, sculpting, drawing, painting, playing music — until there was no more trace of me as I knew myself than foam on the beach, and yet my name would be immortal. I wanted to be God, or at the very least to let everyone in on what I figured was most probably on God's mind.

I do not remember the author's name, but I owe a debt to her or him for writing something better and more true than its trappings promised, and for advancing my primitive understanding of an artistic life.

I began to read expecting the Horatio Alger formula requisite for hagiography in America: little girl decides she wants to be a ballerina, practices hard, is noticed by her teacher, works harder, dedicating herself completely to dance, auditions, is accepted into Big Company, keeps on working, and rises through the ranks, right on up to the apotheosis (where the story must end or rewind to the opening): the Big Night when she is named Prima Ballerina and flawlessly dances the leading role.

But the stories in the book didn't conform to this script, “going down the long slide/To happiness, endlessly,” as Philip Larkin put it in the poem “High Windows.” Instead, I read about Ted Shawn.

In his youth, Shawn fights to become a dancer, against his father's wishes. When his father finally gives in, it is with the hardly encouraging admonishment, “Just don't become a popinjay in tights.” Some years later, Shawn is dancing with a ballet company, but he has not distinguished himself and cannot secure a leading part, and the realization hits him one night on stage: he has become exactly what he had promised his father he wouldn't, a popinjay in tights.

It's a terrible moment. I, like Shawn, reeled from it. I was ignorant at that time of the homophobic sting of the words, but I understood what they meant in the deeper sense. They pointed to the difference between being “artsy” and being an artist, between the safer surface and more dangerous and difficult engagement. The genius in Shawn was that he could see his failure, and the fear nestled inside it, and, seeing it, call it as he saw it. That vision and honesty are of course just the qualities that enabled him to go on to make an original contribution to modern dance. But to get there, he had to hit the wall of despair, to see everything he'd given his life for count for nothing, how he'd wasted himself on what was frivolous, extraneous, what didn't matter.

It hadn't occurred to me before that the important work might take place in the dark, away from the world's witness, or that wrong turns up blind alleys and groping one's way along a wall of blackness might be hallmarks of a creative life. Nor had I considered how eyes adjust to the darkness, how pinpoints of light coalesce in the pupil, or how a faint, dusky illumination from an unlikely source might suffice.
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MHK