Marian the Librarian

April fourth of this week was National School Librarian Day. Naturally when I went outside to walk, the lyrics to that song from Music Man were running through my head. That’s how my mind works. The slightest little thing can send me into an impromptu storm of related lyrics. But in this case, a lot more than lyrics showed up inside my Waring Blender of a brain.

I loved the five years I worked as a librarian on the reservation. After graduating with a degree in secondary education from the University of Arizona, I spent two years teaching English at Tucson’s Pueblo High School. My first year there, they threw me straight into the shark tank where I ended up with classrooms of seniors who were only a few years younger than I. They pretty much ate me alive. The next year, I opted for the afternoon session where I worked with sophomores. That was a better fit, but by then I could see that teaching wasn’t for me. When that year ended, I went to summer school and began working on a masters degree in Library Science.

My first two Library Science classes were Selection of Materials and Cataloging. Taking them together was a nightmare. Eleanor Saltus was a demanding teacher, and she put us through our paces. That spring my husband had completed the coursework for his teaching certificate, and that fall he was offered a contract to teach at Sells, sixty miles west of Tucson. We were trying to figure out living and commuting arrangements when the school librarian on the reservation suddenly pulled up stakes and left town. Even though I had only six library science credits at the time, I ended being offered the position with a provisional certificate while continuing to work on my library degree.

Teaching jobs on the reservation came with housing in what was officially known as “the Teachers’ Compound.” It reality it was referred to as “the Fish Bowl.” I took one look at it and said, “I’m not living there!” Not long after that my husband located a vacant house on King’s Anvil ranch near Three Points, halfway between Tucson and Sells. The place had formerly housed ranch hands. It was situated on a small volcanic knoll two miles south of Highway 86 and seven miles west of Three Points. When we learned John King was willing to rent it to us for forty dollars a month, we moved in. We lived there, calling the place “the Hill” for the next five years.

The house itself was a humble one bedroom. It came with bare cement floors, single pane window, minimal insulation, and a swamp cooler that barely made a dent in the summer heat. Water came from a well with a rope-pull pump that was difficult to operate at best. And the place featured plenty of wildlife—rattlesnakes, coyotes, and javelinas. One morning, I looked out the bathroom window and found a coatimundi hanging on an ocotillo branch staring back at me. Believe me, living there was an adventure, and my husband and I were both up for it. We were also up for our thirty-minute one-way commute from the Hill to school where we complained about being caught in traffic if we got stuck behind the school bus or if there were open-range cattle wandering on the highway.

My next library science class, an evening course, was Mrs. Renthal’s storytelling class. That’s where I learned that, as a librarian, storytelling was part of my brief, and I took to that like a duck to water. I ended up telling twenty-six stories a week in K-6 classrooms. Although I sometimes had a book with me, I generally told the stories from memory rather than reading them aloud. On the drive from the Hill to school on Thursday mornings, I would memorize whatever story I’d be telling that week. The way my limited wardrobe functioned at the time, I often wore a bright green sheath on storytelling days. I was very tall, and whenever I came to classrooms I always brought fun along with me. Years later I learned that the kids on the reservation used to call me the Jolly Green Giant.

One particular book called Satchkin Patchkin I did read aloud, word for word. It’s the story of an impoverished old woman who lives in a cottage owned by an evil landlord, the farmer who lived over the hill—”a lean man a mean man, a man without a smile.” Satchkin Patchkin was “a little green magic man who lived like a leaf in an apple tree.” When the woman treats him kindly during a terrible storm, Satchkin Patchkin ends up befriending her and helping her by providing an endless supply of milk and eggs and flour so she can bake her way out of poverty. In order to summon him, she’s supposed to throw a thimble into her milk jug and call out, “Satchkin Patchkin, will you lift the latchkin? Statchkin Patchkin, will you lift the latch?” The book contained eight chapters in all, and I read two chapters each week. By the end of that inspiring story of kindness and hard work, smiling kids in classrooms repeated those memorable lines right along with me—”Satchkin Patchkin, will you lift the latch?” Did I have to track down the book this morning to remind myself of all those lines before I wrote this? No, I did not. That whole story is engraved on my heart.

By 1970, I had earned my masters degree and my full Library Science credential. I loved bringing books and new experiences to readers. When The Taking of Pelham 123 was published, I bought a copy for the library and was surprised by how much high school boys on the reservation we interested in that adventure story set in a world far different from theirs. One kid especially, Michael Ramon, read every book he could lay his hands on. He ended up working for NASA where one of his jobs was driving the trucks that transported space shuttles from their landing zones in the California desert back to Florida.

I loved being on the reservation, and in my mind’s eye, those years on the Hill were incredibly happy. Yes, my husband drank too much, but he always told me that once we had kids, he would quit, and I believed him one hundred percent. By the way, I need to set the record straight on one thing Yes, Jerry Janc was a drunk, but he wasn’t a mean drunk. In the eighteen years we were together, he never once laid a hand on me in anger. Most people caught in addictive relationships end up dealing with the horrors of domestic violence. I did not.

Our daughter was born in 1972. While I was in the hospital, my husband went on a three-day bender and was drunk when he came to the hospital to bring us home. On the drive there, with me at the wheel of the car and him holding the baby, I reminded him of his promise to stop drinking once we had kids. When we got to the house, he went to the kitchen and emptied all his booze bottles into the sink. What followed was five days of being on the Hill with a newborn baby and a husband going through DTs. Once those ended, his first period of sobriety lasted for all of three weeks.

Later that year he told me that if he had twenty acres on a river far away from his pals, he’d stop drinking. I fell for that one, too. In the world of AA that’s known as a “geographical cure.” We ended up in Pe Ell, Washington, with a house and acreage on the banks of the Chehalis River. He immediately went to the local tavern where he met up with a whole new batch of drinking buddies. As for me? Turns out there were no jobs for school librarians anywhere nearby. That’s how I ended up in the insurance business.

For the next seven years we lived on an emotional roller-coaster through nine stints in rehab followed almost immediately thereafter by relapses. In 1980 I finally filed for a divorce. Shortly after the divorce was finalized and before the kids and I moved to Seattle, I made a solo pilgrimage to the Hill and stood at the end of the road looking up at the place where I had once been blissfully happy. This is what I wrote after that visit:

A windswept house on barren lava flow
Surveys the desert floor for miles around.
To this unlikely spot whose beauty none but we
Could well discern, we brought our new-made vows
And love.

We were each other’s all in all.
It was enough, at least at first.
Then small erosions came
To sweep us from our perch.
The house still stands. Only we
Are gone.

I started writing poetry in the late sixties on those long, lonely evenings on the Hill when my husband was passed out cold in his recliner. He never saw the poems because I stashed them away as soon as I wrote them. When I rediscovered them in 1983, months after my former husband’s death, I was astonished to see that even as a newlywed, the creative part of me already saw the cracks dooming our relationship even though it would take years for the conscious part of me to come to grips with that reality.

And so, on this rainy April morning I’m sitting here wondering what if there had been an opening for a school librarian in Pe Ell when we first moved there? What if I had never gone into the insurance business to begin with—the path that finally, years later, led me into the world of writing. What if?

But what I do know is this. April showers will eventually bring May flowers, and for this former Marian, the Librarian, I wouldn’t change a thing.