I am not at all certain what it was that sparked the memory, but I had a very clear picture in my mind today of a magical place that has not existed for the past half a century. I could call it my childhood home, though we probably only lived there for about five years, until I was ten. I have a good visual memory and remember even my very first nursery, but this was the house where isolated vignettes of memory became a continuous story… and nowhere was more fascinating to a small child than the space under the stairs.
As you entered the house, the staircase rose to your left, the kitchen door was on the right, and the hallway led straight ahead to the living room. In the dark, triangular space beneath the stairs was a small table upon which sat my mother’s Imperial typewriter… a great black affair with a temperamental red and black ribbon and keys picked out in ivory. It was heavy, already ancient and each key made a satisfying ‘clunk’ when depressed. I spent hours typing on that thing, though I had to use the red inked part of the ribbon, as my mother needed the black for her writing. I must have typed ‘the quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog’ more times than I had hot dinners, disentangling the arms with their raised letters when my fingers worked quicker than they could.
On the back wall was a bookcase that held my mother’s manuscripts, a set of encyclopaedias and a carved wooden bear she had been given in Switzerland for her twenty-first birthday. The tallest wall held another bookcase, guarded by an alligator. Quite why she had this product of the taxidermist’s art in her possession, I never really knew. I did ask, but there appeared to be no reasonable answer. Although I was never entirely happy about stuffing animals and birds, having seen too many of them under their glass domes in my great grandmother’s red velvet sitting room, I did quite like this alligator. He smiled, and, when a guardian of knowledge smiles on you, all is right with the world.
Behind the alligator, there were books, of every description. From fact to fiction, on every conceivable subject… and, in spite of my tender years, I was free to read them all. Victorian moral tales rubbed shoulders with Madam Blavatsky and Spike Milligan. T. Lobsang Rampa shared a shelf with an autographed copy of Longfellow. I curled up with Bullfinch’s Mythology and Edward Lear and was as likely to read myself to sleep with Wilde, Bronte or Wheatley as I was to pick up Enid Blyton or C. S. Lewis. It was, had I but known it at the time, an amazing education. And not just for the books I was able to read.
My mother’s philosophy was simple… if I read something I was too young to understand, it would do me no harm and might encourage me to learn. For words I did not know, there was a dictionary. For things of which I knew nothing, there were the encyclopaedias. For concepts I did not understand, I could ask. And, as long as I could frame the question, there would always be an answer.
The answers might be phrased in a way a child could understand, they were often illustrated by analogies, but they were never ‘dumbed down’ or dismissive. Nor were the answers always cut and dried. While one plus one might equal two, discussions on more obscure subjects, like the nature of the soul, the thorny question of whether we only have ‘three score years and ten’ to learn all a human soul might need to learn and whether or not reincarnation was a reality, were always left open-ended. We explored the ideas, discussed the options and examined a variety of beliefs but the conversation would still end with the same thought… “Only you can find your answer.”
How could that be? If something is true or false, I thought, surely it is always true or false? It took a while to realise that simply being true is not Truth and that although there must be Truth somewhere in the vastness of Creation, we are probably not be big enough to see much of it. Our perspective is that of a grain of sand looking at the enormity of the Universe… and our vision is limited.
Slowly, I learned to ask the question… not just of others, though I learned much from listening to their opinions, thoughts and beliefs, but of something both within and without myself. There is always an answer… though sometimes I am still too ‘young’ to understand it and it only becomes clearer as time and growth open the gates of understanding. Over the years, I found many possible answers, but every so often one comes along that feels ‘right’ in an inexplicable way. It does not necessarily mean that it is true, but it has a rightness about it that answers the need of the moment. Some are discarded as new facets of life open, others become part of who you are and evolve as you grow.
The lessons we learn as children are not always good. We learn behaviours, prejudices, fears and opinions that will shape or scar us for life. What we take on board is not always what we are taught… it can, just as easily, be a reaction against what we are taught, by life, books or people. But sometimes, we are given gifts we do not appreciate until we have lived enough to understand them better.
The alligator is long gone, his stitched seams undone, his sawdust spilled. The carved bear went missing in transit, the typewriter fell silent and the Longfellow was lost in a move. Many of those same books sit on my bookshelves today but, fifty years after we packed the space under the stairs into boxes, I still carry its magic with me.