Early in their courtship, my parents knew a tiny girl who could not pronounce my mother’s given name, Olivia, and called her Wibby instead. That’s how “Wibby” became my father’s pet name for Mom, the shorthand he used to recall their days of flirtation. Even during hardships, times of deep worry or sorrow, there was always an echo of their early romance passing back and forth between them. Whenever Daddy heard Mom laughing—even from another room, having no idea of what had amused her—he couldn’t help laughing, too. After Mom started a floral business, Dad would help with the big orders by copying every move she made: if Mom added a Shasta daisy to the center right of her arrangement, Dad would add a Shasta daisy to the center right of his. When Dad brought home a mid-life motorcycle, Mom bought a leather jacket and climbed on back.
During the two and a half years that Dad spent sick with cancer, Mom never, ever left his side, and when he died she was lost. Her friends and family, her church groups, her flowerbeds, her sewing projects—none of them could offer much comfort in the face of such cavernous grief.
Wibby had grown up during the Depression on a peanut farm in Lower Alabama, miles from the nearest public library. She attended a two-room schoolhouse with few books. For the first 71 years of her life, she had no feeling at all for stories as a source of pleasure or solace, and I never once saw her read a book. But one day, months after Daddy died, she went to the library to check out Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice because she’d seen the BBC miniseries a dozen times already and had fallen a little bit in love with Mr. Darcy. And that’s how, overnight it seemed, she fell in love with reading, too. Here, in Regency England, was an absorbing world she could immerse herself in, a grand love story she recognized in every conceivable way, though she had never been to England—had, in fact, rarely left Alabama.
After that, it was Emma, and Sense and Sensibility, and the rest of Austen’s novels. Then came other books from the same period, then novels from the Victorian era, and, finally, almost anything. During the last nine years of her life, Mom read comic novels and mysteries, love stories and tragedies, and every knockoff Jane Austen novel she could find. (There is, I was startled to discover, an almost limitless supply of Jane Austen fan fiction.) She read and read and read and read. Sometimes I’d call in the middle of the day and wake her from a sound sleep, and she would explain, unapologetically, “My book was getting so good I just had to stay up all night and finish it.”
As grateful as I am that Mom lived so close to us during her last years, it’s also been very hard to face the many reminders of her absence that daily life has become. So I’ve been trying to think of a memorial our family could make for her, something to serve as a happy token of her time here in the neighborhood. And then I remembered a story I’d heard on NPR about the Little Free Library, a network of small, weather-proof boxes filled with books for neighbors and strangers alike to enjoy. No checkout cards, no due dates, no late fees—just a way to share the pleasures and the consolations of reading. It seemed like exactly the thing to do in my mother’s honor. And thanks to an absurdly generous gift certificate to a local bookstore from our neighbors, the Wibby Memorial Little Free Library has been fully stocked since it opened.
Welcome to Wibby’s Library, everyone. If you’re ever nearby, come get a book, and don’t worry about how long it might be before you can return it. Wibby didn’t pay a lot of attention to due dates, either.
P.S. To learn more about the Little Free Library organization, please visit LittleFreeLibrary.org.