jen groeber: mama art

4 kids in 3 years: reflections on motherhood, art and life.

The Librarian, the Library and the Words

Part I. My Mother


My mother

It always begins here.

My mother was a librarian.

Let me clarify. My mother was a librarian for about as long as I bagged raw chicken wings for a bar specializing in hot wings when I was eighteen and for about 1/15th of the amount of time I spent as a full-time teacher. And yet it was one of only two paying jobs she had in her life, each lasting only a couple of years. She says those years were some of the best years of her life.

It was 1960, and she was in her early twenties. She’d just moved to California, a newlywed, soon to be a new mother. But in the halcyon interlude after marriage and before giving birth to her first child (who would be severely retarded and forever sickly), for those years she was a librarian.

Madera County Library
Madera, California

I can picture my mother walking in the California sun from the army base to work, up the stone steps into a brick library with a cool interior, where she would wander in her sweater set and circle skirt, reshelving books, checking them out for patrons. If she had spare time and no one was around to catch her, she would type unbelievably long letters home.

Here’s one of those letters and another.


My mother’s letters from 1960

For my mother, working at this first job, growing in this new marriage, all in this utterly foreign land, it was both the picture of simple, boring, redundant life and the possibility of anything to come. She is a story-teller, writing a letter almost every single day, about the “real east coast hoagies” they drove an hour to eat, about the woman at work who “got that cancer cut out” and how she was beginning to feel “whoosey” with being pregnant, but still “no weight gain.”

I wonder if she ever cracked open a book on the Taj Mahal and imagined a love that grandiose and romantic in a land that smelled of spices she couldn’t name. Did she pick up Thomas Hardy and imagine herself as Tess? Did she pour over the stories in the newspapers of the world that was on the verge of combustion? She says my father would complain that the headboard of their bed was covered with books, but when I ask what she read she says she can’t recall.

Part II. My Childhood

After moving back east, after four more children, some miscarriages, exhausting days that still make her shudder at the memory, my mother never worked outside the home again.

But she would take us to the library regularly.

My mod, 70’s childhood library

I remember the children’s room at the library, the early readers, the chapter books, the little filmstrip machine where I could turn the knob to look at each panel of The Little Red Hen while I listened with over-sized adult headphones to a crackly recording of someone reading the story.

Each time we went, I would select a pile of books larger than my arms, piled up past my chin, every Dr. Suess, then Nancy Drew and Bobbsey Twins, or  Madeleine L’Engle and S.E. Hinton I could manage, anything with a Newbery Award medal stamped on the front.

When we’d get up to the checkout desk my mother would look at my stack.

“You know the limit is six books, Jennie. If you get eight, I can only get four,” she’d say in a stern voice.

And I know my siblings must have been with us, too, but to me there was only the shifting balance between my mother and I in the stagnant air-conditioned, 1970’s-era library as I waited. If I got more, she got less.

I remember the ticking of the huge mod clock over the desk. Tick. Tick. And she would always acquiesce.

By middle school I was reading Thomas Hardy’s Tess, crying at the hideous ending I’ve always hated. By high school I was writing about Sylvia Plath, searching for more women poets, for someone like me.

In college I won an award for a story I wrote about my family.

Part III. My Children

Our party one-liner now is that when they offered my husband the job in Massachusetts we had one child. By the end of his first year, we had four (ba-dum-BUM.)

I was in a foreign land, far from my friends, far from my family, with two preemies who needed weekly therapies of various kinds and oh, by the way, I was pregnant.

With no friends, no pre-school parking lot to make friends, a handful of playgrounds where I tried to pick up mutually lonely Mamas (mostly to no avail), the library became a sanctuary. We’d attend every music hour, every story-telling opportunity. I’d go to the children’s librarian who I grew to adore: “What do you have with trucks?”  and “Holiday books?” and “How do I teach a child about Martin Luther King? Leonardo da Vinci? Stephen Hawking? Ella Fitzgerald? Ancient Greece? Mummies?” And on and on.

And each time we leave the library we carry a huge shopping bag fully packed with books.

Library day is always a good day at my house. We get home, set up a pit of blankets and pillows in the living room and they cuddle up, page through the books, read, or beg to be read to.


Reading after the library
November 2013

When I asked what the limit was for checking out books the librarian replied, “I guess 100? I mean, there is only space on the computer for two digits? But there’s probably a way around it…”

There are enough books in my huge, gorgeous, classically modern library for everyone.

My mother loves going to our library with us. She gets upset when she comes to visit and finds that we’ve just gone.

“You know I love libraries, Jennie,” she’ll say petulantly.


Strangely, I have no recollection of my mother ever reading growing up, not to me and not to herself. She always had a stack of books on her nightstand that hardly seemed to change. What with the care of my brother and keeping up with the rest of us, and the care of my father, she never had the time.

Throughout high school and beyond though, she talked about me writing the story of my family’s history, maybe someday writing a book. When my father died, she asked me to write something for a newsletter for people suffering with his health issues. When Butchie died, she asked me to write his eulogy.

And yet, I have found it is those letters that she wrote, sitting in that library fifty-four years ago, that hold me tight, that bowl me over, that move me to tears every time. I am sometimes a writer, but it is my mother who cherished the words first.


[This was inspired by the WordPress Weekly Challenge on Writerly Reflections and the origin of the word.]

41 comments on “The Librarian, the Library and the Words

  1. Shannon Ellis
    March 25, 2014

    Your writing is so beautiful. I feel like I really understand this glimpse of your mother. My children too love the library. I’m still trying to figure out how to make time to read as a mother. Thank you for this tribute to your family and the library where it all began.

    • jgroeber
      March 25, 2014

      Thank you so much for stopping by. I read to my kids every day. I’m actually bit nuts about it. Because no matter how much I’ve yelled or chased or harangued to finally get them fed and potty’ed and in their pajamas with teeth flossed and brushed, I know that there is total forgiveness in three chapters or three books or whatever it is I read that night. They lay around me on someone’s bed and I read. It’s usually the deepest I breathe all day (because I’m about 15 minutes away from freedom and because it feels like love again.)

  2. rarasaur
    March 25, 2014

    So beautiful. I love that you’ve inherited the cravings of words, and the love of books, and the wonderment of the word…. and it’s so lovely to see it being passed along even further. This was great!

    • jgroeber
      March 25, 2014

      Coming from a lovely wordsmith dinosaur such as yourself, that is the highest praise. Thank you for that.

  3. dvb415
    March 25, 2014

    Wow. Home run, Groeber. Grand slam. GAME-WINNING walk-off grand slam to win the World Series, JG.

    I love your writing and I look forward to every blog posting you make. Thank you.

    • jgroeber
      March 25, 2014

      Ah, you made me SMILE!! What a lovely comment. All that DVB ENERGY just comes shooting across the blogospehre in that comment. What a blast to get me through the morning! Thank you for sharing it with me.

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  5. Sarah Durkee
    March 25, 2014

    At the first sight of every post of yours, a little ungenerous voice in my head that maybe just doesn’t believe in magic’s reliability says “okayyy, worth reading? How good could THIS one be?” And every time, the beauty and the gift of both what you think and how you tell us about it just slays me. Thanks to your mom for whatever she did that helped make you love first life, then words… (Now get outa here, somebody’s crying…) ❤

    • jgroeber
      March 25, 2014

      Seriously? You just made me get the chokey voice. I had to fan my face. And my kids are all hanging off me asking what’s up. Because that is so very lovely. And from the loveliest and most creative word-crafter and idea-handler and child-lover? Aw, get outta here yourself… (But come back soon, too. 😉 )

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  7. kellylmckenzie
    March 25, 2014

    What a treasure you have in those letters typed by your mom. I clicked on the pic and was able to read a bit of the one on the right in which she describes her friend Kay’s delivery. Ouch. And she was to be sent home a day and a half after THAT?Whoa.
    Library time was always special for me too – both when I was growing up and a few years ago with my own two. Except for that time my 4 year old son peed … Wait. What?

    • jgroeber
      March 26, 2014

      If I had a dollar for every time one of my kids had “potty issues” in the library… Ha! And I actually quote a few of my mother’s letters in the aptly named post “My Mother’s Letters.” It’s only about 4 years of letters, but between my parents’ romance and my mother’s loving letters sent to her mother, these are the most unbelievable treasure. The thing about Kay’s delivery I quote at length. It was prophetic. Thank you for stopping by, busy Mama.

  8. giselacarmona
    March 25, 2014

    I always look forward to your posts, Jen, they’re always so full of emotion and beauty and passion for life and family… I believe you are ALWAYS a writer, and a great one! Thanks for sharing this great love of words that has been passed on from your mom on to you and to your kids… 🙂

    • jgroeber
      March 26, 2014

      Thanks so much for stopping by, Gisela. Your comments always radiate such warmth, it’s a pleasure to find you here.

  9. Margie S
    March 25, 2014

    This was beautiful! I love how you credit your mom for your love of and talent for words. I am in awe of your mother’s strength and compassion. It is easy to see where you get your strength. Our librarians rock, too!

    • jgroeber
      March 26, 2014

      WHo doesn’t love a librarian?! We may need a t-shirt or bumper sticker on that. And as much as my mother drives me slightly bonkers, she is my inspiration.

      • Margie S
        March 27, 2014

        Got librarians? Hug a librarian; Librarians Dewey better –
        I am sure you can come up with much better tag lines:)

  10. Amy Reese
    March 25, 2014

    Another beautiful post, Jen. Wow, your mom was gorgeous. My mother also took me and my siblings to the library. And she read so much, she would read when she walked, as she stood in line, but never wanted to write a book. Just read. She always wanted me to write a book. My dad, an English teacher, never seemed to read very much. Isn’t that funny?

    • jgroeber
      March 26, 2014

      Wasn’t she just gorgeous. And ironically, she couldn’t stand how “skinny” she was. She actually refers to herself as “old bag of bones Bobbie” because she was so tiny (even pregnant!) It’s so funny that your father never seemed to read. It’s like the cobbler’s children… no shoes! Too funny! And who ever thought they “could write” before today when we can self-publish etc. It always seemed so very fancy.

  11. unfetteredbs
    March 26, 2014


    • jgroeber
      March 26, 2014

      Thank you for that, and thank you for stopping by.

  12. bikerchick57
    March 26, 2014

    This is a wonderful tribute to your mom, family, reading and the library. What great memories and I find it humorous that your mom gets her nose out of joint when you go to the library without her. 🙂

    • jgroeber
      March 26, 2014

      My mother is so funny about going to the library with us! Also, about not sharing her fried clams when she comes to Massachusetts. Which is understandable. 😉

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  16. evelyneholingue
    March 26, 2014

    Lovely piece and since I live near Yosemite and know Madera fairly well, I had to stop by and say hello.

    • jgroeber
      March 26, 2014

      Oh, my mother will appreciate that. I told her last night I’d print out a picture of the “old” library for her to see. She hasn’t seen it since they left in 1965. Enjoy your beautiful home, and thank you for coming by.

  17. kellyinrepeat
    March 26, 2014

    Beautiful last line. Something will be lost, won’t it, when our words will no longer be found in folded heaps, tucked away in boxes and books, but instead only on computer screens? I love this post.

    • jgroeber
      March 26, 2014

      I worry that paper will disappear in our children’s lives. I actually considered taking the blog after a year and making it into a book to sit on an actual shelf, get dusty, fade and eventually crumble into dust. It may be a romantic notion, but I just don’t trust the cloud. I mean, I trust the actual ones in the sky, but not the one in the ether. Thank you so much for stopping by. I loved your last post. Really.

      • kellyinrepeat
        March 26, 2014

        Funny. I did have Quinn’s caringbridge blog published into a little book… I just needed to hold that 104 day hospital stay in my hands somehow. I wish that I hadn’t done that blog in that space, but on here instead. Maybe life would have pole vaulted into a different direction. Or maybe the universe is waiting for something bigger altogether.

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  20. Miki Rodriguez
    March 31, 2014

    I’m so glad to know your mom is still active and close to you and the kids. And…I’m so sad about Butchie…you’ve written a beautiful gift for your mom. Please tell her I say hi.

    • jgroeber
      April 10, 2014

      Ah, how lovely is this comment? (And how lame am I to take this long to respond?) I shared a picture of the library with my Mom and she couldn’t help but complain, “But that’s not the awning, Jennie. And the trees were different.” But Mom! This is a picture from, like, 1929! It’s still your library!
      Oh, Bobbie never seems to change. Ha!
      And so now I’m wondering where your blog is, filled with your amazing words of wisdom, your inspiring artwork, your powerful life story? Hmm…

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  22. Molly Connor
    April 1, 2014

    From the first post that Kristin shared on FB I’ve loved your writing, Jen, and now I follow Mama Art. I saved this one to savor, after reading the first few lines last week. I was a librarian for 30 wonderful years, 11 of them at your “mod 70s library”! Loved the photo! It’s heartening to read your feelings about words, books and the work l loved. Thank you! And now I’m going to read the post about your mom’s letters.

    • jgroeber
      April 10, 2014

      Yay! I was home this weekend and told my Mom that you followed my blog, and how cool was that? (My Mom has never read it although she does more or less know when I write about her..) At any rate, she replied, “Of course I know Molly C- was the librarian at C- Library!” Too funny. You should know that the library really was (and has become again) a haven and a springboard for me. What an important role you played in so many people’s lives.

  23. doublewhirler
    July 5, 2014

    This is so beautiful, so poignant. My mother was a children’s librarian and it was a calling for her. To instill the love of reading and opening up of new worlds and horizons…just as your mother did for you. Thank you for this beautiful post!

    • jgroeber
      July 7, 2014

      Oh, thank you for coming to visit. And yes, there’s something about those librarians and all they teach. I think they have no idea the true power of the words they’ve given us all. Cheers to your Mom (and if she happens to be the librarian in one of the libraries I and my four rascals frequent, tell her I said I’m sorry.) 😉

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