A Gift from Aunt Betsy
April 10, 2011
“Why do you have so many books?” my inquisitive seven year old mind wanted to know.
Aunty Betsy laughed. “Why do you think, Elaine?”
“I dunno. Because you like them?” I said.
She laughed some more. “Well, yes. I just love to read!” she said, smiling and wiping her hands on her apron. “Would you like to borrow one?” she asked me with her eyes opened wide.
I was a bit surprised. “You’d let me borrow one?” I asked her.
“Su-u-ure!” she said as she walked to one of her many shelves. “Now, let me see. . .”
I stared all round the room in awe. I had never seen so many books in one place before! (Well, just our school library). But this was a house. There had to be hundreds of books here! Shelves upon shelves of them. . .
“Ah! How about this one? Black Beauty by Anna Sewell.”
Aunt Betsy handed me the most beautiful book I’d ever seen. It had a colourful picture on the front of a woman and a lovely black horse in a countryside. The spine of the book was all in gold with patterns of squiggly black lines and flowers.
“Wow! For me?” I asked.
Aunt Betsy put one hand on my shoulder. “Yes, my dear, for you. This was one of my favourite books when I was around your age. This book, you can keep!”
“Wow!” was all I could say. That day, I carried that book home, holding it in my hands like it was gold.
Aunt Betsy was one of my favourite people growing up. She wasn’t even really my aunt. She was more like the neighbourhood kids’ “honorary aunt”. All the kids on my block absolutely loved her. You were always welcome at Aunt Betsy’s home. Her door was always open; kids would come and go. Sometimes we’d just drop in to say hello to her and play in her yard. Many times we went after school for milk and freshly baked cookies. “Shh!” she’d say to us. “Don’t tell your moms, ok?” She’d spoil us rotten with her baking. Some of my favourite memories were walking through her front door to the scent of her latest creation wafting through the air.
But the biggest impact Aunt Betsy made on me was giving me a love for reading. Oh, how she loved her books. Many days, she’d come out to her front yard and call out to us kids playing in the neighbourhood:
“Ya-a-ay!” we all screamed excitedly.
“I wonder what she’s going to read to us this time?” my best friend, Nancy, asked me as we abruptly ended our hopscotch game and went running.
“I don’t know,” I said, all giggly. “But I hope it’s Cinderella again.”
“Naw, I hope it’s The Voyages of Sinbad again!” yelled Tommy, slashing through the air with an imaginary sword.
Sometimes there were six to eight of us all huddled up together in her small living room and Aunt Betsy would be nestled in her favourite arm chair. Then the magic started. She began to read.
“Once upon a time,” she half-whispered, “in an encha-an-ted castle . . .” and soon we were transported to another place and time. She thrilled us with her different character voices. One time, she was the young girl, Dorothy, “G-guess we’re not in
, anymore, Toto” and the next moment, she was that scary, old witch, cackling,“Ah-ha-ha-ha, my pret-tyy!” Sometimes she would use our own names in the story, “Elaine was a beau-ti-ful princess!” or “that fearsome pirate, John!” much to our delight and laughter. Kansas
We would sit so still, entranced, just listening, being swept off to faraway places like Peter Pan’s Never Never Land or floating down the
on Huckleberry Finn’s raft. I laugh now remembering her re-enacting the sword fight scene between Peter Pan and Captain Hook. She even bent up a wire hanger and hid it up the sleeve of her sweater, pretending she had a “hook” for a hand! Mississippi
At that time, it amazed me how she read from so many different books, never seeming to run out of stories. Then one day, I asked her about that and she took me to another room in her house. I remember the first time I saw those walls lined with shelves and shelves of books. I was fascinated. My mouth dropped open as I looked all around me. I felt so privileged and special, because she was showing this to me and only me.
I guess she knew back then I had an affinity for reading just like her. I think she somehow knew it even before I did. Then she gave me one of her books and I knew I was hooked the moment I started to read,“The first place that I can well remember was a large pleasant meadow with a pond of clear water in it”. Before I took it home that day, she wrote on the inside cover, “For my darling, Elaine. May you grow to love reading as much as me! Lots of love, Aunt Betsy.”
Now I have my own room full of shelves filled with books. And though Aunt Betsy is long gone, and I’m all grown up, I still keep her book, Black Beauty, proudly on display. It’s a constant reminder to me of life’s inspirations and the amazing places they can come from, even when you’re just seven years old. Aunt Betsy not only inspired my love for reading but, later, to become a writer. In fact, in the first book I ever published, I dedicated it to her –
“For my darling Aunt Betsy, and the gift she gave me.”