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Sense of Place: The Magic Room

Photo by Brent Holmes

In the Sahara West Library is a place where childhoods are shaped, even if they can’t last forever

They enter through a magic door in the wall. Some toddle on legs unsure and edible, it seems — baby fat purling in variegated folds of meringue from vanilla to toast to my own deep chicory. Some stoop to crabwalk through, proud that there is a space where their new growth demands they temporarily revisit a kind of smallness. Others are wheeled in, lolling like latter-day pimps in tricked-out strollers, as their escorts bend to ferry them through the tunnel that lies on the other side of the door. Stubborn ones, my own included, hold up traffic so that they might linger in the enchantment of a structure within a structure, so obviously built to honor their specifications. They stake positions, star-fishing within the frames of kid-sized windows, and look out into the scrim of heat and palo verde below. We are in an exalted place: the story room in the Young People’s Library at the top of Sahara West.

The music is already pumping. Raffi riffing through “Baby Beluga,” his guitar a scratchy joy, warbles from the librarian’s cart. The door and tunnel widen into a palace playroom in pennant colors — royal golds, reds, and blues. A paper crescent moon rises, suspended on moss-colored walls. We settle crisscross applesauce on rounds of carpet printed like highways the little ones cannot yet drive. Unable to contain herself, a pony-tailed 2-year-old breaks from her mother’s embrace to breaststroke among the fins and octopi of a carpeted round stamped ocean blue.

In the height of summer or the raging desert winds of winter and fall, we are the cool. We are the lucky. We have shown up early for our Storytime tickets. Raffi strums, Bababababa … Bababababa … Baby Beluga in the deep blue sea. Swim so wild and you swim so free. Moms bob their heads and puppet-string the hands of their lap-sitters into clapping along. The 2-year-old leaps up. Toddlers shimmy diapered bottoms. My handsome boy in Baby Gap shorts and chunky sandals taps a foot into tendu. His baby brother, ensconced in a yellow onesie, dozes at my chest.

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After having packed diaper bags and animal crackers, wet wipes and baby carrots, Goldfish and Capri Suns in their trifold aluminum packets, we form this circle and swim in the club-stir air of adrenaline. The gloat and glee of having made it is akin to having stood outside the velvet rope on a Saturday night. Except this is a Friday morning, or a Monday, or a Wednesday, any of the countless library mornings in what I’d believed would be an eternally unwinding host of small and joyful daily ministrations in the childhood of my sons. Raffi gives way to the librarian’s reading of Abiyoyo. She takes out her ukulele to accompany Pete Seeger’s story-song.

I could not give my boys my childhood walks to the Chesapeake — the bay bringing me the puffed splendor of jellyfish stranded on the shore, the clumps of seaweed tangled with salt and memories. But I could give them this — these library visits — an amalgam of all the other libraries and vistas I’d known. I could give them books made real by librarians who decorated shelves with standouts from Ezra Jack Keats’ The Snowy Day and Norman Bridwell’s Clifford the Big Red Dog.

These days I enter Sahara West alone. My dancing boy is now full grown and starting a career in e-media, editing the work of a staff of writers. The baby in the onesie is near 6-foot-3 and heading soon to college. I avoid the Young People’s Library at the top of the stairs. I dare not venture past the magic door, knowing I will see them there.