The Personal is Political. Post 5.
For years, Daddy had on alternating Saturdays taken his girls to the
segregated Carnegie Library in Clarksdale. One such day early in the summer after I had turned thirteen. I broke away from Daddy and my sister and skipped my way to the basement staircase. I knew which stairs creaked and where the railing was splintered on the way to the children’s section where the smell of books mingled with mildew. I knew not to clomp too hard lest the handsome librarian think poorly of me.
My eyes scanned the shelves that had grown so familiar to me. Over the
years, I moved from picture books to chapter books with pictures to books
with no pictures at all. As I began a calculated search for the stories that
would travel with me on our impending vacation, I spotted a well-worn paperback sitting askew on a high table. In those days, paperbacks weren’t common in the children’s area and neither were unshelved books, so I moved closer to take a look. Why would a diary be printed for other people to read? I wondered. I had my own diary, one locked with a key, but mine was safely hidden from view and would never end up in a library. Curiosity extended my reach, and I added the book to my stack.
I arrived at the circulation desk and greeted the swan-necked librarian. She rewarded me with the glorious half-moon smile that formed ridges of wrinkles in her cheeks like a tide of happy waves. She traded me hundreds of books over the years, and I never tired of the vista of her face.
“I’m taking all these books to California!” I bragged. She beamed. With a guarded grin, she stamped my latest choices, including the diary, and wished me an adventure. She called out to me when I was at the base of the stairs, “Sharon, you’re old enough to check out adult books when you return.” I gave her an awkward wave as those words landed hard in my belly. Go upstairs with the grown ups? Why would I want to do that?
The day of our family’s westward departure filled me with joy. I packed my red plaid satchel with pencils, paper, and my library finds. My sister carried a sackful of Archie comics, coloring books, and crayons. Daddy tossed in our bed pillows. Momma held her sunglasses and a sack of apples. We were ready to cross state lines all the way to the Pacific. Our station wagon pulled a used pop-up camping trailer.
As we crossed the Mississippi River into Arkansas a short half-hour from home, I reached for the paperback that caught my attention a few days before. I examined the cover and flipped through the pages. Would the small type be too hard to comprehend? I told myself to tackle it one sentence at a time. Soon I time-traveled to 1942 Amsterdam with a girl named Anne. I did the math. Daddy and Momma would have been ten years old when Anne was thirteen.
By the time Daddy steered us across the Texas state line, I moved into what Anne had named the Secret Annex and was entrenched in the private lives of two Jewish families who were hiding in fear for their lives. With no map to consult, I had no idea where Amsterdam was except in my vague definition of Europe. I knew nothing of the Holocaust, little of World War II. What I had been taught about the Jews was that they were God’s chosen people, another cause for confusion. Why, then, was the Frank family in hiding? I wasn’t getting the whole story, but I was bent on figuring out whatever I could. Though the diary denied me much of the context of historical detail that I would learn years later, what it did provide was a grand tour of an unfettered soul.
On January 6, 1944, after Peter, the boy whose family was also in the Annex, asked Anne to tell him about herself, she wrote a curious line: “I found that it was easier to think up questions than to ask them.” Her admission startled me. I wanted to write in the margins, “Me, too!” How could she so clearly express what I had been feeling?
The novelty of a two-thousand-mile drive to California couldn’t hold a candle to Anne’s diary. Despite truck stops, Dairy Queens, and historical markers, Anne’s life overtook mine, and I adopted her as kin. With my sister sleeping on the bench seat beside me, I dissolved into Anne’s world of social constrictions, family tensions, young love, and philosophical angst. Her entries would have me in the grit of messy family matters one minute then offer a way to cope the next. “As long as this exists, this sunshine and this cloudless sky, and as long as I can enjoy it, how can I be sad?” Anne wrote in the winter of 1944. I leaned my head against the seatback, and there it was outside the back window. Anne and I shared the sunshine and the very same cloudless sky!
Over a hundred pages later as our Chevrolet approached the Mojave
Desert, 1944 still had me in the Secret Annex with my enthralling confidant. I was within pages of finishing the diary when I reached the entry dated July 15, 1944, written twenty-seven summers before. Anne assured me that “parents can only give good advice or put [us] on the right paths, but the final forming of a person’s character lies in their own hands.” I slowed down and pondered that idea. I could form my own character?
In the same entry, she confided that “ideals, dreams, and cherished hopes rise within us, only to meet the horrible truth and be shattered,” I hear you, Anne! I thought about the confusion that bubbled in my belly since the assassination of Martin Luther King, the war in Vietnam, and the Kent State massacre. Moth holes kept appearing in my curtained reality, leaving spaces to peek through. If I was brave enough to look, what would I see?
Anne was perceptive and feisty — a bold new voice in my sheltered world,
a voice not afraid to ask questions aloud and to make original proclamations, whether other people liked them or not. I curled deeper and deeper into the corner between the back seat and back door, letting the well-worn diary shield my face from the scorching sun. My heart squeezed as I read her next declaration. “In spite of everything, I still believe that people are really good at heart….” Could that be true? I had been taught that humans were born sinful creatures and needed to be saved from eternal damnation. Was my heart good or evil?
“Don’t forget to look out the window, Sharon.” Daddy reminded me as he munched his afternoon apple. Shameless about the zealous crunching
involved, he bore down to the core every time.
“I will, Daddy,” I said in a polite reply, “but this book’s really good.” Already I was sneaking in oppositional “buts” when I could. Daddy interrupted my reading mid-sentence. I continued processing Anne’s words, “….I simply can’t build up my hopes on a foundation consisting of confusion, misery, and death.” Hmmmm. I thought. Me either!
Disneyland and the Pacific were still only fairy tales as the unending desert flattened in all directions. The sun speared into the station wagon, the trailer wobbling behind us. In that barren landscape, I read Anne’s final entry. The diary ended like a rip of lightning in a sky absent of clouds. What
followed was something called an epilogue. “Anne and her sister Margot died of typhus in 1945 at Bergen-Belsen just weeks before the end of the War.”
Wait. What?! I read and reread the impossible words then poured back through the entries, looking for clues, checking for missing pages. My face pressed against the window, eyes squinting back tears as my belly coiled, ready to strike, but at what? At whom? I fell into a sadness that sunk into my throat and ripped into my gut.
Beside me, my sister colored a pink puppy in a field of blue daisies, oblivious to the cruelty of the world. Momma’s teased hairdo smashed against the window. Was she napping? I wanted to tap her on the shoulder, to be reassured. “What happens to Jews when they die?” I wanted to have the courage to ask her. But I knew. I was old enough to follow the trajectory of Christian logic. Anne was Jewish. Jews did not believe that Jesus was the “only begotten son” who offered “eternal life.” In Baptist doctrine, two destinations awaited the dead. For the unsaved, like Anne, the final resting place was not heaven but the Lake of Fire.
How could I have anything to do with sending her there? I held the library book to my chest like a holy grail. Was I to believe the Word of God or the Word of Anne? I weighed John 3:16 against July 15, 1944, and felt how they landed in my tummy. I vowed to my dear comrade that I could not and would not believe in any God who created a hell, much less a God who sent people there. Resolved, I buried the paperback deep in my satchel and finally found the strength to speak. “I’m looking out the window, Daddy. See?”
Glaring past the parched sage to the vacant sky, now hazy with afternoon heat, I wondered when and how this new God of mine would appear.