The Library

“Books are a uniquely portable magic.”  Stephen King

If books are a uniquely portable magic, the same cannot be said for hundreds and hundreds if not thousands of books, but port them we did.  The first thing that my husband and I noticed about the house we ended up buying was the library—a room completely lined from top to bottom with built in bookcases.  I have lived in many places, and set up makeshift bookshelves from salvaged boards and cinder blocks, and later, the do it yourself–put them together to watch them fall apart IKEA models—but I have never had a library.  Say it with an affected British accent if you will—the “lye-brahr-ry”, or feign embarrassment and call it the “TV room”, this library has become the focal point of our home.

I consider myself fortunate—my family has always revered books.  I have two volumes from my mother’s childhood, Mary Poppins and Mary Poppins Comes Back, reprinted in August 1941.  You don’t remember Mary Poppins?  Let me jog your memory of a far more innocent time: “If you want to find Cherry-Tree Lane, all you have to do is ask the Policeman at the crossroads.”  At the end of the second chapter, the children Jane and Michael ask Mary where she’s been on her day off.  She replies, “In Fairyland.”  They are baffled when she tells them that she did not see Cinderella or Robinson Crusoe.  They proclaim that she could not have been in THEIR Fairyland.  Mary Poppins gives a superior sniff and replies, “Don’t you know, that everybody’s got a Fairyland of their own?”

My own Fairyland was created by Walter Farley, and Marguerite Henry and Albert Payson Terhune.  Farley wrote the famous Black Stallion and Island Stallion series of stories about Alec and The Black, an Arabian washed ashore with the young boy who tames him after a shipwreck, and Steve Duncan and Flame, the chestnut stallion he discovers on the mythical Caribbean island of Azul. Henry wrote Misty of Chincoteague, and Stormy, Misty’s Foal, inspiring little girls of my generation to long for their very own ponies.  Terhune wrote Lad, a Dog which I read when I was ten.  Twelve years later, while in medical school, the first puppy I ever bought on my own was a collie.  The dreams and myths inspired by a childhood of reading never really go away.

And so, when my children were young, I bought books upon books, and since I worked during the day, we read them together late into the night, before Harry Potter, which they were old enough to read on their own, and before video games, and computers and Facebook. The kids had their favorites—one was The Ox-Cart Man, describing the rhythmic seasons of life in colonial New England, by Donald Hall who later became poet laureate of the United States.  They also loved Wilfred Gordon McDonald Partridge, about a young boy who helps an elderly lady in a nursing home regain her memory by bringing her objects from the past, and of course The Giving Tree, by Shel Silverstein about selflessness and unconditional love.

When the kids grew up, and graduated to their own taste in reading material, I put away the children’s books—packed them lovingly into boxes and put them out in the shed by the barn.  And there they sat, quiet and safe, until the movers from Allied Van Lines retrieved them and brought them here, to the library.  As I unpacked all the boxes, the memories of childhood—my mother’s, my own, and my children’s came back full force as I indulged myself by opening and rereading nearly all of them, until I came to my own favorite, written and illustrated by Barbara Cooney in 1982, two years before my daughter was born.  It’s called Miss Rumphius, about a little girl named Alice who grows up and travels far and wide, but comes home to a city by the sea, where she plants lupines and becomes known as The Lupine Lady.  As a little old lady, she tells stories of her adventures to her great niece, also named Alice.  Little Alice says, “When I grow up, I too will go to faraway places and come home to live by the sea.”  The Lupine Lady says, “That is all very well little Alice, but there is a third thing you must do.”  “What is that?” asks little Alice.  Her great aunt replies, “You must do something to make the world more beautiful.”  “All right” says little Alice, who then reflects, “But I do not know yet what that can be.”

If books can inspire our children to make the world a more beautiful place, then they are indeed magic. I am so glad I kept all of ours.

A Boston Story

Despite the recent hurricane, Boston is a city with many charms. If I had forgotten, a walk through Beacon Hill on Halloween was a great reminder—little ghosts and goblins everywhere and old brownstones decorated to the hilt. As I looked up at something protruding from a large bay window on Mt. Vernon Street, I realized that what I was seeing was two legs with old fashioned striped stockings and buckled boots hanging out as if crushed by a falling house. Ding Dong, the wicked witch was dead. Taking a shuttle bus to the Convention Center daily triggered memories of my medical school “away” rotation at Boston University Medical Center, and years later, dinners with my husband at St.Botolph’s restaurant in South Boston and First Nights celebrated with the kids downtown. But there was one sight I was unprepared for. On my last day at the meeting, I happened to glance up at just the right time to look to my right and see the Cary Akins Pavilion at the Boston Health Care for the Homeless Program, at the corner of Massachusetts Avenue and Albany Street. Since my old Blackberry is nearly worthless for “surfing the net”, I quickly emailed my husband and said, “Google this!” because Cary Akins was the name of my heart surgeon neighbor in Dover MA twenty five years ago. I wanted to know if he had died and left a lot of money for a good cause.
Within minutes, he had emailed me back. Here is the story, from the Boston Globe, 2006.

A Wealth Of Goodness
By Brian McGrory, Globe Columnist | February 7, 2006

<<Rich people are getting a bad name, maybe deservedly so. If it’s not Jeffrey Skilling and Enron in the news, then it’s Bernie Ebbers or everyone’s favorite money pig, Dennis Kozlowski of Tyco.How bad is bad? Big oil executives are reaping huge bonuses simply because the cost of oil soared in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, according to a New York Times report. What a country!

Then along come a few guys in our own little hamlet who might make you feel a bit different about rich people, if only for a moment. One is Jack Welch, perhaps the most legendary chief executive officer of the last 50 years. Critics will point out that he’s been well compensated by General Electric, even in retirement. But there’s a world of difference between Welch and the slugs mentioned above. Welch built up a company, rather than tore it down; he helped enrich everyday investors, not fleece them; he put people to work, instead of sending them to the unemployment lines.About ten years ago, he showed up at Massachusetts General Hospital for major heart surgery, which is when he met his surgeon, Dr. Cary W. Akins. Akins, by his own account, doesn’t normally befriend his patients, ”because it could cloud my judgment.” But Welch, he added, ”wasn’t going to let it be any other way.”
The surgery was a success. Soon, Welch and Akins were talking regularly and socializing, along with their wives. One night last summer at the restaurant of The Wauwinet on Nantucket, Welch leaned in and made a proposal.As Welch tells it: ”I said, ‘What’s your favorite cause? I’d like to give them a million bucks, whatever they are.’ ”
As Akins recalls, ”He told me what he wanted to give, and I almost fell off my chair.”
Fortunately, Akins kept his composure long enough to call Dr. Jim O’Connell, probably the closest thing Boston has to a fully functioning saint. He runs an organization called Boston Health Care for the Homeless, and as part of that rides around the city in a van several nights a week, giving medicine, food, and a few moments of comfort to the men and women who live on the streets.
To most passersby, these street dwellers are nameless, faceless nuisances. To O’Connell, they are people in dire need. He’s learned not only their names, but their ailments and quirks. He persuades them to visit his two clinics. He opened a convalescence home for those recovering from illness or racked by disease.
”He is,” Akins said, ”Boston’s equivalent of Albert Schweitzer and Mother Teresa.”
Akins had met O’Connell a few years before at a medical presentation, and, as soon as Welch made his offer, Akins picked up the phone and called O’Connell about the million dollars. By coincidence, Boston Health Care for the Homeless was raising funds in hope of renovating the old city morgue on Massachusetts Avenue and turning it into a comprehensive, one-stop clinic and shelter for those without anywhere else to go. O’Connell needed about $13 million in contributions to do it. Some local foundations wanted to give money, but were waiting to gauge community support.
One thing turned to another. O’Connell and Akins visited Welch. Welch was floored. ”This guy is unreal,” he said of O’Connell. Welch made one demand: The entry pavilion would be named for Akins. Akins, in turn, was overwhelmed and embarrassed, two qualities not typically associated with cardiac surgeons. ”I had some pointed words with Jack,” he said. ”I don’t deserve to have my name on the building. Words really fail me.”
Last week, Welch handed over the $1 million. ”We’re just trying to kick things off,” he said.
Yesterday, John Harrington, the head of the Yawkey Foundation, raved about O’Connell and strongly hinted of a multimillion dollar grant to come. ”We’re going to be one of their major givers,” he said.This is how it’s supposed to work, but in the era of greed and ego, it rarely does.>>

Miranda, again.  I didn’t know Cary and Barbara Akins well, despite the fact that they lived next door to me for six years.  He was a very busy surgeon, and I was an overwhelmed young mother with three kids and a career just getting started.  We worked at different hospitals, and I am sure that he spent many long nights and weekends dealing with acute coronary events.  But I am so happy that I happened to glance up from my emails and my Blackberry at just the right time on Wednesday to see what Jack Welch and Cary Akins have done.

When my kids were little, one of their favorite books was a beautifully illustrated childrens book by Barbara Cooney called Miss Rumphius, published in 1982.  In it, Miss Alice Rumphius travels the world as a young girl, but comes home to coastal New England as an old woman to plant lupine seeds which bloom on the road sides every spring.  She tells the small children of the town, “You must do something to make the world a more beautiful place.”   I still do not know yet what that will be.