Back in the old days, if you checked a book out from your school library you had to return it in two weeks. There was the date stamped on a card glued to the inside front cover. Two weeks. Or else.
I don't know when that changed. I came out of training to be a physician and went to elementary school when my oldest son started kindergarten. It wasn't until he was in second grade, however, that I discovered a child could bring home a library book, keep it for half a year and no one minded.
Holding high literary hopes for my sons, I had acquired a small library of beautifully illustrated volumes, The Wind in the Willows, several of Marguerite Henry's books including Brighty of the Grand Canyon, and the ever popular Green Eggs and Ham by Dr. Suess. "I do not eat them, Sam I am. I do not eat green eggs and ham."
Retrospectively, I'm not sure about Green Eggs and Ham being of extraordinary literary value. Sam I am was a world class wheedler, comparable to the light bulb salesman who called once a month asking if I wanted to purchase his five year, guaranteed bulbs. I finally had to tell him "...not in a box, not with a fox,...not with a mouse, not in a house..."
"I do not want your light bulbs here or there, I do not want them anywhere.... I tried them already and they only lasted six weeks."
These were the books I had adored as a child, The Little Engine that Could, Dicken's A Christmas Carol. With many others, they were enticingly arranged on a child-high shelf, waiting for a grubby little hand and eager mind.
When they were ignored I took up wheedling. "Don't you want to read Brighty? We live in the Grand Canyon State. Of course you want to read about cute little Brighty."
They didn't. Instead, they brought home picture books of tanks and navy aircraft . World War II Battles stayed on the living room couch so long I was certain there was a school librarian growing fangs and fur. "Son," I said, "you have to take it back. There'll be a fine. You'll never get to check out another book as long as you live. The librarian will eat you alive. Besides, it's being responsible."
The day I insisted he return it was the day it disappeared. A week later we found it underneath a blanket at the bottom of my husband's closet.
I rounded them all up, including the baby who had just learned to walk. "Now how do you explain this," I asked?
There is a look males get, blank-eyed and bewildered. It starts when they are very young and learning how to walk and mother has them in a line-up looking for the culprit who hid the book.
"Gee, I don't know, mom. Maybe the baby-sitter put it there when she straightened the front room."
There have been many books through the years, some overdue, others that actually made it back on time. I recall a few of them, you-write-the-ending detective stories, the Goosebump mysteries, the unforgettable Star-Spangled Banana.
Picture the day my darling little second grader pulled his new library book from his backpack. We were in the kitchen. He opened it and began to read to me. I was choked with weepy maternal pride.
"What do you get when you cross a match with a duck?" he asked and raised his cherubic face to mine.
I was surprised. There was no Once upon a time in this book? "Let me see that," I demanded. It was a collection of patriotic riddles and cartoons.
Okay, so I played along. I gave him back his book. After all, he was reading something. The television set was off. We were having quality time. "Uh, let me guess. A match and a duck. Boy, that's a tough one. I don't know. What do you get?"
He laughed because I was at his mercy"Guess again," he said.
"You'll have to tell me. I don't know."
"A fire-quacker!" He turned the page.
This book had thirty-two pages, and each page had a riddle, and it was three months before the last one went back...
When I was nine, I spent my summer vacation with my grandparents in Farmington, New Mexico. Grandpa was a sugar center coated in gruffness. He served in France during W.W.I and talked in his sleep. Grandma told us he could swear in German but I never stayed awake long enough to hear him. It was the year I memorized "Swanee River" on the piano and played it on their old upright about thirty-two times a day.
Finally, up to his ears in Stephen Foster, Grandpa hollered from the front yard where he was pulling dandelions, "For Christmas sake! Don't you know something else?"
After I left, Grandma sent me a letter. "Don't worry," she wrote. "I don't think he meant it. He's been singing "Swanee River" in his sleep every night since you left. I can hear him, 'There's where my heart is turnin' over, far, far away....' "
"Hey, mom. What to you get when you put two ducks in a box?"
It was past bedtime. I was sitting on my son’s bed hoping he would nod off before I did. He pulled Star-Spangled Banana from underneath his mattress where I didn't look two days ago when I told him he had to take it back to school and he said it was lost.
"For Christmas sake," I started, then paused. Weary, but game, I ventured an answer. "I know. A cardboard quack?"
"Nope. Guess again."
"I don't know."
"A box of quackers!"
"Oh," I mumbled. "You'd think I'd remember by now. " I nodded off.
The following morning I had a 7:30 surgical case. There was the usual lighthearted OR teasing. "I guess since you're here today, you didn't win the lottery?"
"Right. Knife." The scrub nurse slapped it into my hand. For the next thirty minutes, our attention was as sharply focused on the case as the overhead surgical light. As we were closing, I relaxed. The nurses did a sponge and instrument count. My assistant stretched and the anesthesiologist came around the table to do a pressure point massage on her neck. He peered into the operating field. "Hey, have you heard about the guy who..." he said and launched into a wickedly ribald story.
It was funny and generated some laughs. My guard was down. "What do you get," I asked without thinking, " when you put two ducks in a box?"
"A box of quackers."
There are two kinds of silence in the OR. The first is that intense, sweat-stained silence when the case is tough and everyone is concentrating on the patient. The other is the type that follows an outrageous social blunder. I tossed the suture scissors onto the Mayo stand with the other instruments and thought about moving to Chicago.
One of the nurses harumphed softly. "Instrument count is correct, " she said.
"Then, let's get out of here. I wonder if I should pick up a lottery ticket."
"Sounds like a good idea to me," said the anesthesiologist. "In fact, here," he reached into his pocket. "If you promise never to tell that one again I'll give you mine."
Move ahead two years. Our second son brought home a new library book. We were sitting on the couch. He pulled it proudly from his backpack and read to me. "Hey, mom. Guess what you get when you put two ducks in a box?"
I looked up, startled. "What did you say?"
"What do you get when you ..."
"That's what I thought. What's the name of that book?"
Somehow, The Star-Spangled Banana had survived two years of grubby hands and eager minds.
"Mom, what do you get?"
"Two weeks." I said absently.
He looked blank-eyed and bewildered. "Two weeks? That's not the answer. You get a box of quackers."
"I know." I put my arm around him and turned the page.