The Smallest One Was Madeline

In the vault of The Old Citadel, my mother sits on a saggy sofa in the huge bedroom she shares with my father. She’s reading to us before bedtime. It’s maybe the only time of the day when she sits down. But snuggling against her isn’t the only reason my sister and I relish these moments. It’s her voice and the story she reads: Madeline by Ludwig Bemelmens.

We all have our expressive side, and hers was surely the reading-aloud voice, with decorating second. My father is said to have complained soon after they married that he slept on flowers, sat on flowers, ate on flowers. My mother never changed the decor.

She was the runt of her family, second born to her twin brother, and plagued with childhood ricketts, a queasy stomach, and terror of storms. She also professed to being shy as a girl though we never saw evidence of this. She plunged forward into new landscapes, leaving North Dakota for Pittsburgh after graduating from the University of Minnesota in 1929, leaving Pittsburgh for Charleston after the war years–my father got a job teaching veterans at The Citadel, but she was the one who packed us up and got us there. Pioneer-grit and determination to break free (I see it now) from my father’s Pittsburgh Italian tribe where she, who had no knack for languages other than English, often sat silent in the corner.

Early in their marriage, B.B. “before babies,” he took her to Europe. It was 1939, and the guns of the Spanish Civil War popped red against the sky as the ship passed through the Straits of Gibraltar. She was seasick much of the time, except when “doing her nails” before sitting down at the captain’s table. It was an Italian ship, and my father, speaking beautiful Italian, had endeared himself to the captain.

She insisted she was the “mousy” one of her two older sisters and vigorous brother, and perhaps that was the case. But by the time my sister and I came along, she commanded workmen, train porters, shop-keepers with determined efficiency. Sometimes I cringed at the harsh edge to her voice–especially in contrast to the gentle drawl of Southerners. But maybe she didn’t hear how she sounded, or more likely didn’t care. Getting things done was her top priority. That and making sure that we “girls,” were “exposed” to the best things in life.

These included taking us to concerts of the Charleston Symphony when we were around six and eight stopping at art museums and historical sites on our summer trips north, and always and forever, visiting the Charleston Library. It was housed in a remarkable three-story town house, like many Charleston houses, with its narrow end to the street. Wide porches looked into a murky garden dominated by huge magnolia trees.

We had to take the bus: a lesson in race relations. Possibly we had to take two buses to arrive at Rutledge Avenue from The Old Citadel, but I am certain that we walked up huge grey steps to an imposing front door. Even now my eyes adjust to the cool shadowy interior of the library. Miss Janie Smith was in charge of the children’s room–a small birdlike woman with wispy grey hair flying out of a knot, and a soft round body feathered in black. It seems to be, on the beak of her nose, perched round spectacles. Other than that, she is lost to me, for after pleasantly greeting Miss Janie, my mother took charge.

We brought home armloads of books, for it wasn’t common to own lots of children’s books, plus we were rather poor. Other than The Book House in twelve volumes which was ensconced in the upper shelf of a bookcase in the living room (the Encyclopedia Britannica on the lower shelf), our books came from the library. But since we went to the library at least once a week, it was never a hardship to borrow rather than own.

My mother herself was a librarian, but she worked at home, washing our clothes by hand, ironing my father’s heavy uniforms, cleaning and cooking. Then in early afternoons, she “went down for her nap,” a sacred period we dared not interrupt unless there was a real emergency. She also helped my father correct papers, but that was late into the night when we were fast asleep.

Dreaming, no doubt, of “twelve little girls in two straight lines…the smallest one was Madeline.”

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