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.

45 thoughts on “Marian the Librarian

  1. Wasn’t the space shuttle transferred from California to Florida on a modified 747?

  2. So glad you let your talents flourish even in difficult circumstances. Many people with gifts and talents let the burdens of life bury any potential they are blessed with to the point of mere existence in life. My daughter is immensely talented but lets the mundane cover her gifts. You are an example of the opposite the flower that emerges from under the rock. Thank you for blossoming!

  3. My sister lived her first 5 years of married life on the Navajo reservation. They then moved to better accomodations – in GILA BEND !

    • My husband & I lived on the San Carlos Apache Reservation and then moved to Gila Bend. Was your sister married to an AZ State Trooper?

  4. JA: what an awesome post. You are an amazing woman! (And my favorite author). Your life has been a challenging one. And you have made it a successful one by bringing much joy to all your readers. I have one more line to share with you.
    If April showers bring May flowers, what do Mayflowers bring …….Pilgrims!!!
    I couldn’t help sharing that. I used it last night at my BookClub in the opening of the invocation I’d been asked to give. I look forward to your email every Friday!

  5. Love your blogs. It brings me back to my own life when I was much younger. I did not have to deal with what you dealt with with your first husband, but life does bring all kinds of different situations to different people. Thank you so much for writing these blogs and sending them out, it just helps me to relive parts of my wife that I have forgotten about. Thanks so much, keep it going. Love it.

  6. We don’t really pick our lives, do we? Somehow we think we are making decisions but they seem to get away from us. The best thing is to find positivity in it all!

  7. So true… Your journey so very similar to mine provided gifts I would not not realize until decades passed. Each of us has a journey…looking back, kind encouraging people showed up, great opportunities popped into my life, and it worked out better than anything I could have imagined. Blessings to you for reminding me.

  8. What if? You are a born storyteller and were already exercising that skill as a school librarian. If you had continued to work as a librarian, the stories inside you would have found a way out, perhaps in a different form, but they would have come out sooner or later.

  9. Quite a journey you were on!

    And that song…I listen to “Showtime on Broadway” on Sirius XM and that song comes up now and again. Robert Preston – what a voice.

    Hope you and yours enjoy your Easter.

  10. I loved my years as a school librarian. Everywhere you go there are kids who need someone to offer them a path they had not idea existed. I can imagine that you were a wonderful guide.

  11. Reflections that are remarkable on so many levels – no bitterness and deep appreciation of the positivity that exist in nature and interaction with others

  12. My geography gaffe–Lewis River versus Chehalis will be corrected as soon as possible.

  13. You are my favorite storyteller. I have enjoy all of your books. I always look to reading any of your beautiful stories. Lived in Tucson for over 50 years. Have a nice Easter.

  14. Interesting. I started off my working life in a library also.??I moved through two careers afterwards. I still love books and my favorite ones of yours are the Beaumont ones.I also lived 20 years in Seattle and I enjoy knowing the locale

  15. You and your books have brought me many hours of enjoyment over the years.
    Thank you and may you and your family have a blessed Easter.

  16. Tres interisante – lived with a drinking man 26 years before laryngeal cancer made alcohol hurt his throat too much and he stopped drinking. No DTs just no drinking. We’re still married and are good companions. Won’t go into details of that 26 years – would take too long but to say they were tumultuous would be accurate.
    You have a couple of years on me (I’m 75) but I wish I had done what you did about writing. Think I may have been pretty good at it. Did prose and poetry and tried a mystery novel once but could never fill it out. Sigh. Time and life got in the way.
    You are an exceptional woman. Wish I’d taken the steps to get to know you when we were both in the book distribution center in Tukwila so many years ago.

  17. Thank you for sharing a piece of your life. I am sure glad you turned to writing because I love your books, read almost all of them. Have a good Easter.

  18. When you were studying cataloging in library school did you study a man named Seymour Lubetzky?

  19. Just so you know that some in AA do recover I will celebrate my 48th AA birthday on August the 8th of this year. Can’t say it was always easy but it gave me a life far better than I had before. I love your books and this blog very much. Thank you for doing what you do

      • I also just celebrated 40 years sober. Not a fun time from moment to moment, but it helped me deal with all kinds of things that I wouldn’t have been able to deal with drunk. Actually reading J A Jance’s poetry book helped me quite a bit in dealing with a husband who was perpetually drunk but is now sort of sober…and is one of my champions.

  20. This made me cry. I can relate to being happy “on the hill” in UPPER Huachuca city with new love though not an alcoholic. What a gift to live in the desert after being born and raised in Brooklyn. Unfortunately, after 21 years, that marriage also ended, very very painfully.
    I am now married to a GEM of a man for 27 years and it and he has been a treasure. As are you, Judy. xox Diane in Tucson

    • Bill, my second husband, says that the first one was so bad that it has made his life perfect!

  21. What a wonderful and fascinating story!
    I asked my husband to look up coatimundi, thinking it might be a dangerous
    creature- However, it looks very cute- When I was in Tucson I loved seeing the javelina families, the bobcats, and, when riding horseback in the desert, the coyotes-
    I once nearly stepped on a rattlesnake in a wash, but fortunately saw it, and made an instant detour-
    In fact, the only time I was actually in danger from any animals was when I unknowingly trespassed on land with no fence, and was suddenly facing six snarling German Shepherds- I knew that running from them would be the worst thing I could do, so I calmly faced them and told them that I was leaving, that there was nothing to worry about from me- They stopped snarling and backed off, and I left-
    I did resent the lack of any kind of fence or markers to warn the innocents out for a stroll that we were in enemy territory!
    Amazing that “The Taking of Pelham 123” so captured the interest and imagination of boys on the Reservation-
    Librarians are in some ways the most important members of a school staff, as well as in the general community- It is truly alarming that they are now threatened
    with criminal liability for having books on the shelves that a few people find objectionable- “The Diary of Anne Frank,” “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn?”
    How are children supposed to love to read when the only books allowed are watered-down representations of a world free of any problems? At best, such books would be extremely dull! The notion that kids can’t handle anything the least bit negative or controversial does not give them much credit- Most kids love excitement

  22. I enjoy these personal views into your past life. As I am a contemporary of yours, albeit s few years older, I can identify with so many of your experiences and the feelings you reveal through your reflections.
    I, too, have held a variety of jobs throughout my journey from being a young bride and mother, to being a retired teacher, and a transplant to Western Washington. While you are a successful fiction writer, I am an avid reader (now, with aging eyes, more of a recorded books listener) and a writer wannabe of nonfiction, with a penchant for essays, letters, and other short works. As I progress through all of your series and follow your blog, I appreciate how you draw on your life experiences and relationships with people to craft your stories.
    I hope to meet you one day at a book signing, although I purchase few books of fiction these days. My collection of books from throughout my long life take up too much space in my house as it is!
    Thank you for feeding my love of mysteries and for introducing so many well-developed characters into my sedate retirement.

  23. You are by far one of my most wonderful writer. Part of it is your books, but more important is your voice. Learning more about you through these shares has made me feel as if I were in a library listening to you read your books aloud. Every time I sit down to read your latest..or even your oldest I am wrapped in joy. Your latest Collateral Damage is probably going to be my favorite. I will probably reread it often so I am glad that you were able to go back and resurrect it with the aid of your husband. Right now, librarians are getting a really bad wrap, and being told not to read certain books out loud. Thank you so much for your books and for you!

  24. Thank you for telling us more of your story. You’ve been so lucky to have such success. I know it’s taken a lot of work, but you must be so happy.

    Hope you have a Happy Easter.

  25. I love your honesty and openness. I, too have one of those Waring Blender minds. Sometimes it works for good but mostly not. Please keep writing. I preorder anything you write. I can depend on an immersive experience each and every time!

  26. Friday’s BLOG inspired me to re-watch THE MUSIC MAN…found it on AMAZON PRIME. Released in 1962, took me back…my son was one, my two daughters were six and four. That film is a gem on so many levels…the music, the “con artist”, the gullibility of naive people, illustrations that we can change long-held beliefs, and most of all, that love conquers all. At 86, I still believe this film’s messages, now, more than ever.
    I strongly advise re-watching it.

  27. Another lovely Friday post. Your honesty and courage in sharing your life are truly inspiring. While I find great pleasure in all your books. Your book of poetry touched me in so many ways. You are a treasure.

  28. Oh, Judy, even though I know part of the story this breaks my heart. Time for breakfast!

  29. So sorry you had such troubles in your first marriage. Similar things (drink, depression, & debt — the 3 D’s, I call them) brought my husband to end his life after 30-some years of marriage. I don’t know how, but I’m still here, and wish he was here to see what our kids are doing.
    Best to you! I am looking forward to more great reads from you, as I have probably read most of them so far!
    Thank you!

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