Rack my brains as I might, I cannot remember any doll I owned as a child. Nor can I remember any bike or ball.
But I do recall a book. I can even summon its details -- how the cover looked, how it was creased in one corner. "The Abecedarian Book" was a gift from my aunt, Sister Margaret Mary. (An unusual person, now that I think about it: a nun who, long before the women's movement, was a classical-languages professor and a college dean.)
It was an alphabet book, with a difference. Each page defined a word, from A to Z. But the words weren't predictable things like cat and egg and apple.
They were big, glorious, ambitious words.
A, for example, stood for antediluvian. And so I became an 8-year-old who learned that antediluvian meant very old. I also learned that the roots of this word mean "before the flood." Before Noah's flood, to be precise -- now, that's old.
W was for wanderlust.
X, I think, was for xenophobe.
U was for umbrage.
It probably wasn't a book that every child would love. But it certainly worked for me.
"The Abecedarian Book" is out of print now, and Sister Margaret Mary died years ago. But believe me, her simple gift lives on.
Imagine doing that for a child. Imagine giving something -- nothing expensive, mind you, nothing huge -- that may lead to a life's calling, that may expand a small universe, that may even break open a straitjacket.
Now imagine just a little more. Imagine that the child to whom you give this gift is not one whose life is full of uplifting ideas or enriching activities.
Instead, the child's world is defined by the constant drone of junky TV shows, or a school without resources, or a violent neighborhood.
This is the simple but powerful idea behind the Books for Kids effort that is now going on in Western New York.
The brainchild of former Buffalo News reporter Rose Ciotta, it provided 70,000 books to needy children last year and aims to do at least as well this year.
"The image that sticks with me is of the child taking his book home with him," said Ciotta, who now works at the Philadelphia Inquirer. "He goes to bed reading it, knowing that it belongs just to him."
A lot of people and organizations have to work like crazy to collect, catalog and distribute the books. It's not the purpose of this column to list them here, though I must mention Geraldine Bard and Elizabeth Cappella, two brilliant and dedicated Buffalo State College professors who really make it all happen.
The purpose here is merely to suggest that you can give a gift as meaningful as the one my aunt gave me.
You can sort through your children's no-longer-used books and find the ones that are in excellent shape. You can haul them over to drop-off sites at Wegmans or libraries in Erie County. You can write a check to Books for Kids so that the organizers can buy some new books to give.
You can go out and buy a book that inspired you as a child, and give it to Books for Kids. Or, for a sure winner, donate one of the wonderful Harry Potter books. Maybe some 11-year-old who never liked to read will fall under its spell -- and then want to read lots of other books, too.
You won't know exactly what happens. You have to have a little faith. Like so many messages in bottles, the books you give are launched into an uncertain sea.
But I can tell you that the books do get into the hands of children who need them.
That the book you give may be the only one a child owns. That it's likely to be precious to him or her.
I can tell you that your gift could give a child a few happy hours in a not-very-happy life. That your book could even change a child's life, given a bit of serendipity.
Which, if I remember correctly, was the S word in "The Abecedarian Book."
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