A Living Moment at the Library

by Bill Peak

There's a young woman who comes into the library two or three times a week to use our public computers to access the library's genealogical databases. She always seems to have a smile on her face, always has something nice to say, a joke to share, a bit of friendly news. I can no longer remember when, or under what circumstances, I learned that she works as a waitress in a rather posh restaurant, but the fact stuck with me. It explains the scheduling of her day. Most people her age come in to use the library's computers after work; she comes in before.

As always, of course, I have changed a few of this woman's particulars to protect her identity. The information our patrons share with us at the library is often deeply personal. We take our obligation to protect that information seriously; it is a sacred trust. But though the picture I have painted of this lady may differ slightly from the original, it is, I assure you, true to her character. She has a quintessentially Eastern Shore personality: open, friendly, unassuming and unpretentious, above-board. When the going gets rough, I'm pretty sure she's the sort you could depend on.

But the other day, despite all that surface dependability and even predictability, she said something that caught me completely off guard. I was working the Reference Desk when she came in, and, as I have a hundred times before, I said hello as she passed me by, asked how she was doing. “Thanks,” she said, “I'm better.” Surprised, I asked if she had been unwell. “No,” she replied, “it's the time of year. I'm finding it a little hard on me.” When she saw the perplexed look this brought to my face, she added, “Well, you know, my husband passed away in June and, I don't know, Xmas is just hard I guess.”

Of course I wanted to hold her. I wanted to get up, come around from behind the desk and give her a big hug. But, truth be told, I don't really know her that well. I didn't want to embarrass her, so I just tried to sound sympathetic. “Oh I'm so sorry,” I said, “I had no idea.” And, fortunately, she must have heard something in the way I said what I said that made her realize it was heartfelt, for she responded, “Yes, I know. I don't tell most people.”

I don't tell most people. We all have secrets, don't we? We all walk around with our fair share of worries and losses, doubts and disappointments. And, if we are wise, we don't tell most people. But every now and then something happens, for whatever reason a channel opens up—sometimes between complete strangers—and despite our natural reticence, we share something of ourselves. This was such a moment, such an encounter. I hope I said the right thing. I hope I did the right thing.

All of us, of course, are, from time to time, presented with moments like this that unexpectedly demand something deep and personal from us. Such moments are rare; you mustn't force them. But when they do occur, I don't think we should avoid them either. However embarrassing, however awkward, I believe it's important we embrace, if not each other, at least the moment itself; we must be open to its possibilities, the possibilities within the person before us, the possibilities within ourselves. Libraries—predicated as they are on a belief in the common good, a shared trust—are, I believe, conducive to such moments. Certainly I am struck by how often they occur here. I thank the good people of Talbot County for permitting me to work in so hallowed a place.