Being a small town, on a small island in Casco Bay, having only one small library, is a given. Our library is affectionately called The Little Library That Could.” If a building could be a hero, the LLTC would be mine. I love to curl up on a chair and disappear into a favorite book, on a blustery day. It’s solid brick construction always feels safe and secure. We have one librarian who divides his time between some of the other small islands, coming to shore on the 6:15 ferry from Portland every Tuesday. The other days of the week are covered by an amazing group of people who volunteer their time as best they can. We know when the library is open when the bright yellow burgee displaying an open book, is flown below the requisite American flag. The volunteers often wear many hats, serving on the police and fire departments, retired teachers, bankers and barge operators. More often than not, a sign, hastily scribbled and taped to the door read, “Be back soon” and depending who was volunteering for the day, “soon” might not be the case. Mrs. Morse who runs the taxi, might be called to pick up a fare, or Ms. Ellie’s pigs got loose again. Living on a small island has its own unique challenges and nothing is predictable, except the tides.
For many years, the library was shuttered for lack of staff. Before the advent of the internet and wi-fi, only a few homes had dial-up service, which was spotty, at best. If students were asked to write a research paper, they’d most likely have to have a parent or guardian take them across the bay to the Portland Library. Although the elementary school was one of the first to have wi-fi available, they lacked enough computers to accommodate more than two students at a time, and no one to teach the students how to safely navigate the web. Eventually, after many fundraisers, appeals to the governmental powers that be, ten purple iMacs were delivered to the school, along with instruction manuals and a temporary technology guru.
As more people discovered our island, we grew. The ferry ran more regularly, the grocery store began to carry gourmet coffee, the library began to open a few days a week, staffed by a dedicated group of people who were willing to help, and we acquired our first, official librarian, Tom.
One dreary, drismal day when the island was socked in with a thick pea soup fog, a new volunteer arrived on the 2:15, just in time for the onslaught of all 17 children from the K-5 elementary school to come clattering through the door. My granddaughters among them, happy to have something to do, other than bicker with each other at home. “Perfect,” I thought. I could settle into one of the comfy chairs upstairs, dive into a new novel, while they did their homework. What do they say about the best laid plans…?
Was that laughter and singing I heard coming from the children’s room? It surely wasn’t the murmuring of homework being done. Then suddenly, there was quiet clapping. Being a curious (nosy) person, I tip-toed down the back stairs to investigate. Imagine my surprise when there, seated in a rocking chair was Mother Goose, in full regalia: bonnet, ruffled collar, wire-framed glasses (tinted a dark purple), snowy white apron. Kudos to her. She looked like the real deal, and judging from the enraptured faces of the wee ones, she nailed it! There was something different about her though. She was staring right at me, while reading “ The Tale of Peter Rabbit” to the littlest of the littles. But she was not looking at the book. She never looked down. As I turned to climb back up the stairs to retrieve my belongings, I noticed her hands moving quickly under the apron that covered her lap. She must have had an amazing memory to read without looking at a book. Then I heard her cheerily say to her young audience, “Until next time, children. Now it’s homework time while I read to the older children.”
“Hmm,” I thought, “this might not go so well. The older kids are way beyond Mother Goose.” I prepared to gather my two granddaughters and head for home. Hat and slicker on, I rounded the corner into the youth room, to see an older woman, dressed in a flannel shirt, what appeared to be Mother Goose’s long, billowy skirt, and dark sunglasses. Sprawled on every comfortable chair or sofa, we’re the 4th and 5th graders, clearly skeptical. Tom,our traveling librarian stood behind the woman, watching and waiting, at the ready to answer questions. And questions there were. What followed will be a forever-best-feel-good memory; one I will cherish forever.
This stranger, soon to become one of our dearest volunteers, reached beside her, lifted a large thick book to her lap, and opened it as murmuring and whispering enveloped the room. Raising her hand to quiet the gathering. Her fingers flying across the page, she began. “ WhereThe Red Fern Grows, by Wilson Rawls: Chapter one…”
And so began a most wonderful year, with an amazing, caring, passionate and insightful woman. Claire Philbrick, who lost her sight at age 30, learned to read Braille, long before the internet and Podcasts. She was a former librarian who never lost her love of books, and her passion to share with and educate children and adults alike, the wonderful world of books. Her son, Tom, inherited that passion, and became a librarian himself, although they now call him a Media Specialist. Every Tuesday, Tom took the 6:15 from Portland to take care of the business side of our Little Library That Could, and every Tuesday he met the 2:15, to deliver the heart and soul to the appreciative patrons who learned so much more than they could have ever imagined. Claire taught us all to see beyond her disability, to see that when life hits you with seemingly impossible challenges, there is always a light to pull you through. Never give up and never shrivel. Stand tall, do your best, and always believe. I will take to my grave the lessons she bestowed upon me; always see the person right in front of you, always see their uniqueness, always see their abilities, and their greatness; always see.
Thus, with gratitude… Claire Philbrick…I see you.
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This is so beautiful, Julie! Thank you for sharing this story!
Bravo, Julie. So inspiring