Her name was Bethany.
I think we were destined to meet. After my mother died — I had been Connie’s caregiver for 13 years – we were living hand-to-mouth. I was debilitated by daily migraines, and largely unable to work, so we could not afford a city rent. We packed our bags for a small town, and found a spartan apartment in Lunenburg, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, at $400 a month. It had no amenities, but a worthy view.
We made a home.
On our first few days in town, two notable things happened. Exhausted by the move, I left my wallet in the car, with my keys in the ignition, and the windows wide open. Yet all was as it should be in the morning.
And we had our first visitor.
Bethany was the little girl who lived upstairs. She was the very definition of a tomboy — all skinned knees and dirty hands, with salamanders always at the ready. But she was also a singularly beautiful child, with blond curls to her shoulders, and a bright, curious face.
I don’t know why, but she immediately took a liking to me, so I took her on a tour of our humble four rooms. When we reached our living room, her face went from sunshiny to sour in a heartbeat.
“Yuck!” she said. “You have so many books! Yuck. I hate them!”
I’m not a parent, but I felt like I was on one of those sitcoms that usually end with a teachable moment.
“Oh, I love books!” I exclaimed. “They are my best friends! They keep me company when I’m feeling lonely, they take me on adventures when I’m bored, they make me happy when life is making me sad.
“Books are the best things in the whole wide world.”
I could tell she wasn’t convinced as she mustered as much cynicism as any five-year-old could.
Nevertheless, during our first week in Lunenburg, we became Book Faeries.
Over the next few months leading to years, we scraped together as much change as we could to buy books for Bethany, which we left inside her door with a note from the Book Faerie. We were aided ably in our task by my sister Linda, a Halifax primary school teacher, who gave us her free credits at Scholastic.
It wasn’t always easy. We were on the fast track to bankruptcy, but we did as well by Bethany as we could. First with some lovely picture books. And then with more challenging fare, like Coraline.
We came to understand she needed these imaginary worlds.
The household was erratic. The father had trouble finding steady work, but his friends were steady, and always ready to party. The stoic mother worked herself to the bone, and would fly into periodic rages against the unfairness of this world. The high school daughter was bright, but rebellious.
After three years, we needed to return to the city, as job prospects in Lunenburg are slim to none. On one of our last days in town, Bethany came downstairs to read with me on our deck. It was a difficult chapter book for a kid yet to graduate from grade two.
I admit it. I had no faith in the Book Faerie. But she showed me, reading an entire chapter with nary a stumble. My heart swelled.
I think of Bethany often. I always wonder if we had given her a small chance to escape her grinding, difficult life.
I don’t remember if I cried when I heard her read that sunny May morning. But I know that I’m crying now.