The Stranger Who Changed Me

At ten years old, I borrowed a book from the library that had mistress in the title. Granted, the cover art featured a gilded carriage reminiscent of Cinderella, with sparkles that flashed in the spokes of the wheels. My mother did not notice this book amid my stack of twenty. That is, until I was at home reading it.

The book was confiscated, and we went back to the library. I remember how embarrassed I was as my mother explained that I needed different reading material than the book, ahem – she cleared her throat and looked down – that we had just returned.

The librarian on duty was the antithesis of every prototype. She was tall and thin with short auburn hair swept back from pale, high cheekbones. Her eyes were large and green. Instead of glasses perched on the end of her aristocratic nose (she could just tell that she had an aristocrat in there somewhere), she wore a quarter-sized, filigreed magnifying glass suspended from a braided gold chain.

Holding up one elegant finger, she looked down and smiled, moved from behind the counter, and beckoned for me to follow. We skirted the clunky computers with their green screensavers and crossed the tile to the carpeted adult fiction section. She was dressed simply in sage-colored slacks and a flowing floral blouse. But the grace, as she walked, made her belong in a musical with Fred Astaire.

She went down through the S’s, tapping a fingernail against her even white teeth. “Here you are,” she said. Looking at her, you would have thought she had a proper British accent. Instead, her words were honey-dipped and distinctly Southern. Deeply Southern. “It’s called I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith. The same author who wrote 101 Dalmatians.”

I felt far too old for dog stories and villains as hyperbolized as Cruella de Vil.

“It’s very different from 101 Dalmatians, though,” she said, reading my disappointment.

I tried to give her the benefit of the doubt. But I was skeptical. I mean, the title alone was weird. I Capture the Castle? It sounded like a bunch of dumb kids playing King of the Hill.

I took the book home, curled up on the window seat, and turned the first page:

I write this sitting in the kitchen sink. That is, my feet are in it; the rest of me is on the draining-board, which I have padded with our dog’s blanket and the tea-cosy. I can’t say that I am really comfortable, and there is a depressing smell of carbolic soap, but this is the only part of the kitchen where there is any daylight left. And I have found that sitting in a place where you have never sat before can be inspiring – I wrote my very best poem while sitting on the hen-house. Though even that isn’t a very good poem. I have decided my poetry is so bad I mustn’t write any more of it.

I was hooked. Absolutely hooked. I had a hen-house. I wanted to be a writer. I loved to scribble in strange places and felt insecure about my poetry.

I never told the librarian how much that book meant to me. How it spurred my writing dreams to the point I took journals on hikes through the woods and paused to jot down notes in the crook of an old tree near the clear, cold stream for which the property, the community, was named.

Two weeks ago, I drove two and a half hours to meet my mother for a Christmas luncheon in a quaint tea shop on my old hometown square. I don’t often take my daughter on road trips by myself, as she needs someone to entertain her if she is not asleep. This combined with the two-hour traffic jam that awoke my daughter, because the engine had stopped, set my nerves on edge.

I had just finished thawing my nerves and my hands on a cup of coffee in the tea shop when I looked up and saw her. I saw the auburn-haired librarian who had changed my life. Sixteen years had passed, but – for a moment – time held still. There were a few more crinkles around her eyes, and as she crossed the polished hardwood floor toward a table draped with imported English lace, she might’ve moved just a bit more slowly.

And yet, she still possessed that transcendent beauty, that refined grace, not quantified by age, symmetry, or fad. A lump blocked my throat as, from her neck, I saw a filigreed magnifying glass suspended from a braided gold chain.

My tea cup clattered to my saucer as I rose to my feet. I moved toward her – all knees and elbows and energy – and blurted, “You work at the library! You once showed me I Capture the Castle! I’m a writer now! That’s still my favorite book!”

The woman paused and smiled kindly. But then she tipped her auburn head. I realized she hadn’t understood a word out of my mouth. My face flamed. I stepped back. An older woman, who resembled the librarian’s sister, took her by the elbow and led her gently away.

As I watched her go, her stride just as light as I remembered it, I wondered how many lives we change without thinking what we do is significant; how many lives we touch without knowing we have touched them at all. For, really, all that woman had done was lend me a book. But it had captured my world. . . .

Who were the people who helped propel your dreams? Have you told them have much their opinion mattered?

Link for the magnifying glass necklace:



  1. Such a beautiful story, Jolina… Those impressions we make is one of the themes in my WIP… I’m sorry she didn’t understand your jubilation. I think she’d have been quite moved if she had.

  2. I don’t think she could hear too well, Melissa, and she and her sister seemed in a hurry to get to wherever they were going. It was nice just to see her, though, and kind of magical to think she’ll never really know how she touched my life.

  3. That’s a lovely story, thank you for sharing it. I also had several books (and a librarian or two) that changed my perspective on life when I was young. I understand. I think these things shape more profoundly when you’re a child. Which is why it’s so important to make readers of our children.

    • I agree! Miss A still asks me to read your book all the time. I almost have it memorized, and it’s one of my favorites, too–especially when he goes into the cave. :)

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