At Random column for Jan. 4, 2013

Aunt defied librarian stereotype

Watch enough movies and TV shows, and you get a common idea of librarians. Popular culture typically depicts them as pinched souls behind big wooden desks, alternately trying to escape the world or shush it into submission.

My Aunt Eunice, who died last month at 94, was an abiding reminder for me that librarians don’t always or even usually fit that grim stereotype. She saw life not as a sentence to be endured, but an adventure to be embraced. She counted her work in libraries as a large part of that great adventure.

Her mantel included a coal oil lantern that she and her siblings had studied by during their years on a Depression-era farm. The lantern — and the light of learning it represented — reminded her of the central creed of her life: You are what you know.

Although her childhood rarely took her more than a few miles from the farm, she learned about faraway places in books, including the travel stories of Robert Louis Stevenson, a favorite of her father. Her reading nurtured a love of travel she pursued the rest of her life.

Near the close of World War II, as her brothers were returning from military service, Aunt Eunice asked her mother’s permission to see some of the world, too. Could she take a job as a clerical worker for the U.S. Navy in Panama? Although my grandmother had recently suffered the absence of her sons, she gave Aunt Eunice her blessing.

Tall, dark and pretty, Aunt Eunice enjoyed her time in Central America, attracting a few sailor suitors during her stay. Years later, when a family conversation turned to the subject of ear piercing, Aunt Eunice mentioned that she’d gotten her lobes pierced for free. A sailor friend had done it — and,
apparently, there had been
a few cocktails to kill the pain.

Back in the States, with a library degree under her belt, my aunt was offered an easy job with great benefits as a periodicals librarian at a university — an especially appealing position for a child of the Depression. She turned it down, opting instead to take on the harder and riskier work of helping to grow library service in north Louisiana. “I wanted to build something,” she recalled of her fateful decision.

Retirement allowed her more time to travel, to read, to watch the birds she coaxed to her backyard feeders. She was curious about everything, once asking a newly married niece if she’d read “The Joy of Sex.” Long a widow by then and already a senior citizen, Aunt Eunice was interested in reading the book herself to see if she’d missed anything of importance on the subject.

Shortly before the decline that would dull her mind beyond repair, Aunt Eunice told me that she’d started re-reading Robert Frost, that great poet of autumn and winter. The choice seemed fitting for a woman who surely knew she wouldn’t enjoy another spring.

I imagine her with Frost’s “The Road Not Taken” on her lap. It’s about someone like my aunt who takes the road less traveled — a choice that makes all the difference in the world.