Thirst for reading permeated whole Cruikshank clan

Published 12:00 am Thursday, June 21, 2001

Years ago in a second-hand bookstore in New Orleans, where I had just signed a check for some books I couldn’t afford, the proprietor took one look at my signature and went into a kind of Creole ecstasy.

Thursday, June 21, 2001

Years ago in a second-hand bookstore in New Orleans, where I had just signed a check for some books I couldn’t afford, the proprietor took one look at my signature and went into a kind of Creole ecstasy.

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&uot;Of course,&uot; he said, &uot;I wondered why you seemed so familiar. Cruikshank! He’s my best customer. And you look alike. You like the same kind of books. You say the same things about them. How are you related?&uot;

It was a question I couldn’t answer. So far as I know I have no relatives in New Orleans.

The bookstore owner wasn’t satisfied. He insisted that I take a chair in his office and wait until he could call the &uot;other&uot; Cruikshank. It developed however, that my unknown relative was off doing some fancy fishing. Yes, I was disappointed. I’ll probably never meet him now.

I’m not surprised about his feeling for books, though. It’s a family weakness. My Grandfather Cruikshank, who came over with this family from Scotland when he was a baby, had something like two years of formal education. Back in the 1840s schools were likely to be few and far between.

His handwriting, though, was so elegant that neighbors brought wedding, baptismal and confirmation certificates to him to inscribe with their names; he was a mathematical genius.

The house in which my grandparents lived was not large. The steps leading to the upstairs were narrow and crooked. You climbed them at your own risk because every stair was piled high with books.

It was in the house that I first encountered Ibsen. At the ripe old age of 10 I read his play &uot;Ghosts.&uot; I can tell you right now it was a great disappointment. I love ghost stories and thought I’d found one. Was I ever stunned! It took me another 10 years to find out what the play was about.

No one in the family ever paid much attention to the books my cousins and I read. My girl cousins had to sneak around a bit to read &uot;True Confessions.&uot; I found those boring. Though I was equally sneaky in seeking out &uot;True Detective&uot; magazines.

One of the reasons summer vacations had such a strong appeal to me was that I could read as many books as I liked. During the school year problems in arithmetic went unsolved, English compositions went unwritten, and I couldn’t be bothered memorizing the 13 original colonies, because all this nonsense interfered with my reading.

My parents as usual didn’t see things quite my way. So I was allowed to go to the library only on Friday nights and to read only over weekends.

I remember one devastating Friday evening when the weather was so bad that I wasn’t allowed out. What seemed so unfair about it to me was that -&160;as usual – our living room was full of people. My feeling was that if the weather didn’t keep them at home it shouldn’t keep me at home.

What made it all such a tragedy was that I was entirely out of books. I’d read all of the books in the house, many of them several times. I craved a book I hadn’t read. After some searching about I found one. A tiny, leather-bound vest pocket edition of Shakespeare’s &uot;Measure for Measure.&uot;

I was nine years old at this time. So, as you can imagine, the play gave me pause for thought, just as a year later &uot;Ghosts&uot; gave me pause for thought.

&uot;What does ‘getting the cow by calf’ mean?&uot; I asked, thereby bringing the entire conversation of the adults to a sudden and impressive halt.

People talked much more about death then than they do now and much less about sex. I don’t think my father, to whom I put the question, exactly wanted me dead, but it must have crossed his mind.

&uot;If you’re not old enough to understand the book,&uot; he said, &uot;You’re too young to read it.&uot;

Much more avamt garde in the matter of rearing children than my father, my mother at once protested. &uot;When a child asks a question that question should be answered.&uot;

&uot;All right,&uot; my father said coldly, aware of everyone in the room breathlessly waiting for his reaction, &uot;You answer her.&uot;

My mother regarded me affectionately, &uot;Honey,&uot; she said, &uot;Getting the cow with calf simply means getting the cow with calf.&uot;

Parents like mine. I’m convinced, are the reason we have sex education in the public schools.

My father was the eldest of six children. My grandfather was a blue collar worker. He insisted on being paid in silver dollars, no checks for him. He brought the silver dollars home, arranged them neatly in the hanging clock.

First the rent was paid. Then money was set aside for whatever food needed to be purchased.

&uot;After that,&uot; my father told me, &uot;We bought books. If there was anything left over after the books we bought clothes. The Cruikshank kids were the best read and the worst dressed kids in the neighborhood.&uot;

Love Cruikshank is an Albert Lea resident. Her column appears Thursdays.