My grandmother, Nanie, fed me books as often and as easily as she fed me fried chicken and gravy. I remember the day she gave me Heidi. It was a small hardback book with a green cover, the green of a young lima bean, just the right size for a child's hand. It wasn't so heavy that I had trouble holding it, but it was just big enough that I felt I was a big girl to be reading it. I entered a world that I would never forget. The sound of wind through the trees, up on the mountain with grandfather. I could feel the soft safety of Heidi's eiderdown bed. So warm, so secure.
I grew up on an eight hundred acre farm in Louisiana. When I lay in bed at night the only things I could hear were my sister's breathing, my father's snoring, the sounds of crickets and frogs, and breezes blowing through the Loblolly pines. If a car drove anywhere near our land, my whole family would run to the kitchen, look out the window, and watch as my father walked down to see what was happening. "What is it, Daddy? What is it?"
Later, when I was grown, I left Louisiana, and moved to big cities Up North. There I used to lay awake, unable to sleep, my whole body shaken by the unceasing noise of cars, cabs, fire trucks, and ambulances. In the small farm town of Alexandria, Louisiana, where I grew up, if you heard an ambulance, you stopped what you were doing, made the sign of the cross, and prayed for the person or people who were in trouble. In the big cities, the sirens bleated their sad, scary lashes into the night. Where were the sounds of the mountain?
I would turn on my side and think of Heidi in her cozy bed. The sounds that she heard were the voices of the old man who gave her a home and whose heart she won, the voice of Peter, the goat herding boy, the sounds of the goats and the bells that tinkled on their collars, and always the sound of the wind up on a mountain, blowing through the trees. How awful it was for her to be torn from this beautiful world and thrust into the loud grayness of Frankfurt, Germany.
How I wept, reading as a girl, when Heidi was taken to the large industrial city to be the companion of Clara, the young girl who had been paralyzed by a fall and who was confined to a wheelchair. Heidi, so strong from all the goat milk, sun, and hiking, missed her grandfather and the mountain horribly. As she cared for Clara, though, she made a new friend who, in turn, taught Heidi how to read.
As a child, and as a young adult, I saw the story from Heidi's point of view. It had been easy for me to identify with Heidi. I had been a healthy, strong young girl. Later, though, I was forced to do something that books can teach us to do-namely to see the world not just from another person's point of view, but from the point of view of a person totally different from ourselves.
A few years ago, after being a reader and a writer for many years, I contracted Lyme disease, and before I knew what to call it, it had invaded my body. I had trouble walking, standing, and my feet could not tell me where I was in space. Whether I liked it or not, I had to use a wheelchair. I ceased being Heidi, and saw the world from Clara's point of view. Whether I liked it or not.
One day as I lay in bed, trying to breathe through the pain, trying not to go crazy, I thought of Heidi--her sturdiness, her own illness. And then her own resilience. I was so dejected by that point that I had stopped reading. But one afternoon, I reached over, let my hand feel along the bedside table until my hand pulled out a book. I don't even remember what the book was. But I know this: when I started reading, the pain fell away, and I was somewhere else. I heard the sound of the wind blowing through the trees on the top of the mountain, the sound of my sister breathing, of my father snoring.
Worlds can be made. Worlds can fall apart. When either happens, it's good to have a book nearby.
P.S. I hardly ever need a wheelchair anymore. I almost always need a book.
Causes Rebecca Wells Supports
Lyme Disease Foundation