I am working on a digital story series called Summer Reads with some writers (many famous, lucky me) and I’ve asked them to write a memory piece on a book that changed their lives one summer. Then I’m going to film them reading from it. So it will be a sweet little interactive experience when I’m done with it. But my interaction designer and story partner said, ‘just send me exactly what one of the pieces will look like‘ as she is prone to do (being precise and logical). I always forget that she isn’t wired into the pictures that appear in my head. So to that end, I wrote one myself. Enjoy.
I was eleven years old when I read Judy Blume’s ‘Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret.’ It was a book my friends had read before me so I was pretty late to the Blume party and often felt self-conscious at sleepovers when quotes from the book were read out loud with a display of tween pride mixed with a nuanced air of a just blooming (no pun intended) awareness of sex.
But my house wasn’t the kind of house where you’d ever find Judy Blume. No, in my house you might find Steinbeck or Lord of the Rings or Farley Mowat or more commonly, technical manuals on how to make your own kayak, weld, or build a boat engine. Owning a Judy Blume novel would have landed me in some serious trouble in my household and so on my bike I went to the Kitsilano library. I slid the Blume between books on Ancient Egypt (I was after all doing a book report on Sphinxes) and some innocent looking P.D. James mystery books for my mom.
Nothing happened when they scanned the book. No alarms, no ‘Are you old enough for this material young lady?’ from the librarian. I was scot-free and peeled out of there on my scuffed up second-hand Raleigh straight to the beach with my literary contraband. That day under a willow tree at Jericho, I saw my own world, a secret world hidden from my parents and my nine brothers, unfold like a mirror where I could see mood for mood, experience by experience, a character just like me, even with the same name, the same internal struggles and worries and physical doubts I was having that I couldn’t share with anyone in my world.
My father had just died from a long illness and I was adrift in a home with no rules or structure or even a parent. My mom had essentially checked out. When I did get my period that year it was alone in a bathroom with no supplies and no one to tell me what to do and it was terrifying. Judy Blume’s Margaret became my surrogate sister and Judy my surrogate mother. As I flipped the pages hungrily, with french-fry and vinegar-soaked fingers staining each page, I half expected a flock of priests to descend on me from my local Catholic church and rip the book from my pre-adolescent hands but no one busted me and I read the entire book in one uninterrupted day at the beach.
That night at Sharon Bideshi’s sleepover I quoted effortlessly from the book, skimmed scented grape gloss across my lips and posed in my faded hand-me-down Queen t-shirt, and admitted I’d bought a bra by myself that didn’t quite fit. Then we all mimicked the book’s now-famous mantra and exercise ‘we must, we must, we must increase our bust‘ and I peed my pants a little laughing so hard. I’d unhinged myself from my family, the church, and perhaps even childhood. I wasn’t sure exactly where I was but it was a better place that included boys, bras and makeup. And still a little bit of God for good measure.