Twenty years after we moved from Ohio to California, my parents received a letter from the children’s librarian in our old town. She had addressed it to “Resident,” not knowing if she had the right address for our family. “The other day while uncluttering a box in my basement,” she wrote, “I discovered a letter written by a girl named Cindy Lee. It was dated 12/30/00.” She asked for news of us, wished us well, and closed by noting, “The fear of the virus has kept us all close to home.”
During this pandemic, I’ve been staying at home, too. I feel fortunate to be able to work from home—to have work and to have a home. Mrs. B’s letter reminded me how many other ways I’m lucky. The library has always been a home for me, the librarians a kind of extended family for a kid whose relatives were all thousands of miles away. When Mrs. B reached out across time and geography, she showed me once again how many homes I have, homes that exist in stories and in people.
My mom’s been taking me to the library since before I was born. She and my dad met in college in Taiwan, when the country was still under martial law. After graduation, she got a job in the city while my dad had his two years of military service. His grandmother insisted that they get married before my dad could move to the US, so all of a sudden, my mother found herself in Cleveland, Ohio. New to the country and to the language, she whiled away the hours reading while my dad worked on his master’s. When she was pregnant, she’d sit in the Cleveland State University library while my dad was in class, reading with the book on her belly while I moved around inside, and then taking breaks by walking up and down the stairs.
Cindy with her mother, Lijen, and father, Yentai, at Cleveland State University (1988)
Living downtown, we could walk to the main public library, the neoclassical behemoth on Superior Avenue. My mother led me up the grand marble staircases, which were almost as impressive as all the knowledge sitting on the shelves, but my most poignant memory is still a gigantic globe on one of the floors. After my brother was born, we moved to the suburbs and started going to story time at the Solon Public Library. I remember Dr. Seuss and the Berenstain Bears—but not that spelling of Berenstain!
When my parents were largely ignored at my elementary school’s PTA meetings, they decided to contribute in a different way, so my mom started volunteering at the school library. She carefully enclosed new books in clear contact paper, supported my Boxcar Children habit, and brought Taiwanese tea to the librarians as gifts. They encouraged her to apply when a page position opened up at the public library.
Although my mom was fast and accurate at shelving books, she is characteristically self-deprecating even now. “My English wasn’t great,” she told me recently, “but the librarians hired me because they all knew you were my daughter.” I was certainly at the library all the time. I went to children’s programs at the library, worked my way through the summer reading program each year, borrowed Little Women for a family road trip to New Jersey, and looked up Magellan and Ponce de Leon for a school project. I remember checking out Sense and Sensibility, though I’m not sure why that stands out in the list of Jane Austen novels.
Sharing a class writing project at Parkside Elementary School in Solon, Ohio (1994)
More notable is the opening of the shiny new library building and going to a murder mystery party there. The details may be lost to time, but I recall gorging myself on pizza with my friends. The library provided more than activities and books; the librarians would tip off my mom when interesting new books arrived, so she often brought home wondrous new worlds for me to explore. I excitedly told my friends about one such book, but it wasn’t until months later, when the Scholastic Book Fair came to school, that my friends decided to read Harry Potter.
A particularly tangible symbol of the warmth we encountered at the library is a blanket the librarians gave my family when we moved away from Solon in 1999. Woven into the blanket are different landmarks from around town, and my mother carefully packed it away for the journey to California. Years later, she sent it with me when I moved to Taiwan, and it came in handy when I then moved back to California. As a farewell gift, a friend gave me a bottle of Kavalan, so I wrapped it in my Solon blanket to ensure that my Taiwanese whisky would make it across the Pacific.
Thanks to Mrs. B’s letter, I’ve been revisiting memories of all these places that have felt like home. The comfort of the library imprinted early on, a gift in utero from my mother. My mom didn’t feel like she knew all the answers in this strange new place where she was living, but she was confident that we’d be able to find them in the library.
Cindy Lee, Ph.D. is a Communications Specialist at the Advanced Light Source, Lawrence Berkeley National Lab