Learning by losing: Library memory


I’ve never forgiven Hilda Ecklund who competed against me in 1955 in the Woodbridge, Connecticut Library bookworm contest. All summer we read books, reported them to the head librarian Miss Walterhoffer who quizzed us on each one. We had to write up a short paragraph too, listing title, author, publisher and why we liked the book. Miss Walterhoffer had red hands. She also taught piano, which I took from her, and which made me even more conscious of her large hands. In all fairness, she could use those hands to play beautiful piano.

As it turns out Hilda Ecklund also had red hands, plump and slightly damp, so that whenever she touched a piece of paper at school, she left a temporary fingerprint on it. She was the first person I knew whose family had their own swimming pool. Later Joanie Montgomery, Lynne Berneiki and the Susie Wanners families would get one too, making their children hands down winners of the summer popularity contest. But Hilda had the first, a small one that seemed to have leaves in it much of the time. I figured that maybe her red hands came from having a swimming pool and left it at that.

However, when it came time to judge the bookworm contest, I became uncomfortable, worrying that Miss Walterhoffer would lean toward Hilda because of the similarity in their hand color. So I buckled down and I read more books than I figured anyone could read in those two months: orange biographies: from Abigail Adams all the way to Woodrow Wilson. I read Nancy Drew Mysteries and a series about a nurse, whose name I can’t remember. I read sitting under my covers at night, flashlight ready. I read lounging around our yard while my sister and brother climbed trees and walked split rail fences. I read in the car on the way to day camp and in camp when I could sneak away from the arts and crafts table. I read at dinner when I hid a book under my napkin and when luckily my four siblings distracted my mother and father with their arguments over who got the largest cookie, the smallest meatball. My grandmother knew what I was doing but winked at me in complicity. I was never discovered. I read up in our barn and out in the fields and at the Adams horse farm. I read on horseback and while floating on a raft in the Atlantic on our summer holiday.

By August I had read forty books. No one could have done this. I was sure Hilda, my rival, had stopped at 30, thinking she was invincible. I had seen her with a book in her hand, one of those biographies of Andrew Jackson, and assumed she had only gotten to the J’s while I had finished all twenty in the series.

By the time the winners were to be announced and we lined up in the library to receive our prizes I was psyched.  Miss Walterhoffer stood in front of us with her tongue tied black leather shoes, similar to those worn by my Aunt Minnie, and her rough gray sweater over her navy silk dress with the white unicorns all over it. I was sure I would get the first place silver cup, engraved with the contest’s date and the name of the winner. The largest silver bowl had to be mine. They announced the certificate winners first. My sister Lesley received one of these. She had spent most of her summer outside, even going often to swim in the Ecklund’s pool. They announced the medal ribbon winners next. Finally only two awards were left, the winner and runner up bowls.

My name was called for the runner up bowl, the humiliatingly smaller of the two. Miss Walterhoffer smiled and told the assembled parents that I had read forty books. There were great exclamations and clapping.  I slouched up accept my paltry award. I was sure then, that the red hands admiration society had pulled off a coup. Hilda beamed, her blond braids pulled tight to her head, her skin flushed. Miss W announced her name and then the fact that she had read forty-one books.

I was stunned. I must have been defeated by one more orange biography, one more mystery, one more book about Lassie or the nurse. Later I understood the brilliance of Hilda’s strategy. You don’t stop at a tidy, albeit remarkable, number like 40. You don’t let yourself breathe in satisfaction at achieving such a fine number, wrapped up in its neat package of digits. You add a scraggy one to it. You never pause to ride the neighbor’s pony or eat an extra cupcake at the family reunion. You don’t lose a second, even if you have made the magic forty. You add one more just to be sure.

I still have the cup. It is somewhere in a cabinet, taken from my mother’s home after she died. My mother and father were proud of me. We even got to stop for Carvel ice cream cones on the way home that night. I sat in the back, the bowl on my lap, my sister fingering her certificate, and I vowed I would go beyond the obvious ending. I would add an extra edge to anything I tried to do. I am not sure how well I have succeeded at that.

Hilda taught me the uncertainty of even numbers. She taught me about the necessity to disregard my suspicions around issues like red hands or swimming pools. Maybe she simply taught me to go on my own, silver bowl or not.