The completion of the Schenectady County Public Library’s expansion is a time for community celebration. The current trend in libraries is toward contraction: cutting staff, hours and resources, due to shrinking budgets. Given this atmosphere, it’s miraculous that the Schenectady County library system has not only retained its vitality but actually grown in such a dramatic way.
There was already much to be proud of. We’ve always had an excellent selection of new books, audio books and DVDs. The programming is extensive and creative. The Friends of the Schenectady County Public Library are among the most active in the state. Their huge book sales and the Whitney Corner add excitement for book lovers. Our “One County, One Book” programming has drawn hundreds of people to events as diverse as an Afghan Culture Festival, an in-house circus and talks by world-class writers who do workshops for local schools while visiting.
A writer friend checked out our library before she decided to move here. She was so impressed by the writers groups, book discussions, free movies and wide selection of foreign films on DVDs that she bought a house in Schenectady. The library is that good.
Like most writers, I haunted libraries from an early age and credit them with fostering my imagination. Fourteen years ago I started to receive grants from Poets & Writers Inc. in Manhattan to give memoir-writing workshops in libraries across New York state, many of them rural.
At that time, Schenectady had been my home for seven years, but I’d never explored west of Cobleskill. Teaching was a new endeavor. I was excited but wary. I pictured my old car breaking down on the way to Erie or Wyoming counties, getting stuck in early snowstorms or being surrounded by fields of mournful-looking cows.
I didn’t really like the word memoir; it sounded like a perfume for a cosmopolitan French woman who owned a Persian cat, someone like Colette. The people I was going to meet would have grown up on dairy farms or in tiny, rooted towns. Their stories would have a texture and beauty unknown to me.
Before coming to Schenectady I was a drifter, with treks from San Francisco to New Orleans, wilderness Alaska, Santa Barbara, Iowa City, and Sabine Pass, Texas, to name some of the high points. It was a story I no longer found satisfying, but I hadn’t yet found another to replace it.
So there I was that first summer, alone and driving to distant New York counties with names like Cattaraugus, Chautauqua and Onondaga. Weathered barns listed in fields as green as those of Ireland; wild flowers lined the two-lane roads. Old Greek Revival farmhouses surrounded by gardens of hollyhocks and gladiolus put me in paradise. I fell in love with the peaceful countryside.
The first workshop was in the Wimodaughsian Free Library in Canisteo in Steuben County. The library was named after a women’s group from the 1890s whose aim was to “improve literary work and social enjoyment of the library.” I could imagine these ladies, dressed in long black skirts, discussing Wharton’s “House of Mirth” and Lily Bart’s fall from grace in New York society.
At that library, a door opened for me to the past, opened by the women — for it was almost entirely older women — who attended the classes in rural areas. That day, one of them told of how her mother had all but forced her off the family dairy farm when she was in her late teens.
“She didn’t want me to lead her life. She felt like a slave with all the work she did and cooking for the men. She wanted me to have a regular life. But once I was off the farm I had no idea what to do or even how to talk with people. It took me years to fit in.”
Another recalled her child self, lying in a freezing bed during the Depression. As she stared into the darkness, she saw a golden ball of light and knew that it was someone or something that had come to watch over her. The librarian, also taking the class, said she had seen the very same thing in her parents’ attic, where she used to go to play dress-up. The room became so quiet we thought we could hear the old wooden building settling one more millimeter into the earth.
At other libraries, I heard about a woman who had grown up in Brooklyn in a German immigrant family. She recalled the hospital across the cobblestone street where little children, dressed entirely in white, were set out in the sun at midday in wheelchairs. Polio. A woman in her 90s remembered attending a home wedding in 1915, when she was 5 years old. The bride, young and reluctant to leave home, sat in her father’s lap and cried after the ceremony while the groom waited patiently in the other room.
Through the summers I heard stories about dairy farming, an occupation so unrelenting you could never take a trip away from it for even a day. There were tales of delivering milk by horse and wagon, crops that have passed out of fashion, maiden aunts who made their way in the world by staying with different relatives while they did the family’s sewing. And the story of a family whose herd of cows contracted tuberculosis — every one of them had to be killed. There were no subsidies then. The family went broke.
Despite the difficult times, a picture began to develop of another era. At best it was a quieter world, where children invented their own theater and grown-ups played the piano on Sunday afternoons. People piled into cars for summer rides and, at the end of the season, canned produce from the garden for the darker season to come. People were connected to one another in a way I’d never known.
The women in the libraries’ writing groups easily grasped the mechanics of writing vivid prose. Their stories kept flowing. Some said writing and sharing their stories changed their lives. Their tales gave me a sense of family life and the sustaining value of community.
In the years that followed, I began to give writing workshops for the Schenectady County Public Library. Through the stories participants wrote I was able to picture life in the Stockade in the 1920s, victory gardens on Goose Hill, the movie theaters that showed Shirley Temple films, the Italian and Polish churches, Rudolph Valentino selling kisses at Proctors, and the dance halls, downtown businesses and opera house that thrived decades earlier.
I heard about how people survived the Depression and World War II by helping each other. Personal stories of triumph and tragedy unfolded: men who did not return from war, children lost to flu, new dresses made by hand, happy marriages, graduations from colleges, lost loves and remembered aunts, uncles and grandparents.
I heard the history of the city through firsthand experience. I’ve also watched it go through a renaissance and new flowering.
I’ve lived in Schenectady for 21 years. I count them the best of my life. Libraries sustained me as a child and have given me exciting work later in life. How lucky I am to be part of such a vibrant community that supports and values its library.
Susannah Risley lives in Schenectady. The Gazette encourages readers to submit material on local issues for the Sunday Opinion section.