I named my first child “Siobhan.” My husband didn’t understand my fascination with this name. It actually went back to my college days.
I had a scholarship that required me to work on campus to earn part of it. In those days, the concept of work as a philosophy was trendy. It wasn’t so much the work itself, but the idea that work made you a better person, and it was an equalizer between those whose families were wealthy and could pay full tuition and those of us on scholarship. All first-year students were required to take their turns waiting tables in the dining hall, for example, at a time when we had sit-down dinners served family style. We waiters lined up holding our trays with bowls of mashed potatoes and platters of roast beef in a gravy that separated into oily prism colors like oil slick on black asphalt. The dining director then gave the signal, and we would be off to our assigned tables.
Work was also supposed to help us understand its contrast with leisure, which occupied much of the time of those who were privileged. I was not one of them.
My work-study job was in the college library. I was assigned to hand write postcards to remind people that they had overdue books. Each Tuesday and Thursday I reported to Mrs. Terwilliger for four hours. She would hand me a typewritten list of offenders along with a stack of postcards. I got through as many names as possible during my shift. My handwriting was quite clear in those days and my attention span was sharp. There were few things to distract me as I followed the outline for each card with the title of the book, the Dewey Decimal number, and the due date. Then I addressed the card and put it in the tray to be mailed.
Occasionally, I saw a friend’s name on the list, and I’d write a personal note on the card, though Mrs. Terwilliger frowned on that. It gave me a sense of power to lord the knowledge of their errant ways at the library over my friends, to let them know that I knew they had overdue books. To get back at me, these friends told me to stop by their rooms, pick up the books to return, and return them, since I was going to the library anyway.
Sometimes an overdue book title interested me so much that I would jot the title and classification number down on a scrap piece of paper. When my shift was over, I’d go to the card catalogue to look it up.
The card catalogue—that magnificent invention of order and information—where you could find three cards for each book: one by author, one by title, and one by subject. I felt the heavy drawers slide out on their rails so I could thumb through the cards arranged alphabetically. I inquisitively read the abstracts of the contents of the books typed on the cards.
One person with a number of overdue books was named “Siobhan Merriman.” I was fascinated by this name and pictured a pre-Raphaelite woman wearing flowing robes with waved amber hair and a seed pearl clip casually worn to keep loose tendrils from falling into her eyes.
Her overdue books included the Janson History of Art (a rather banal text, I thought, for someone with such a lyrical name, but then, everyone was reading Janson as the art history bible of its time) and a copy of William Blake’s Songs of Innocence and Songs of Experience (which seemed more in character for the romantic person I envisioned with its vivid colors, swirling lines, and emotive women in draped gowns).
I looked in the college directory to see if I could find this Siobhan to whom week after week I wrote overdue postcards repeating the plea to return the books. Her name was not among the students, but she was listed as an adjunct professor in the English Department.
As the spring semester approached, I decided to enroll in her class on “The Nineteenth Century British Novel.” I felt satisfied that I would finally get to meet her. Then, I received a note in my mail box saying that the class had been cancelled with no explanation.
I stayed on to work in the library over the summer, but as most students were gone from campus, business at the circulation desk was slow, and consequently, there were few overdue notices to write. One Thursday, Mrs. Terwilliger said I could take the afternoon off. I took the unexpected free time to try to track down the elusive Siobhan.
I remembered her address: 23 Blackstone Wood, and decided to look for her. When I found her, I could ask for the books and do my due diligence as library assistant to return them.
I had never been to Blackstone Wood, but knew it was an artists’ colony on the outskirts of town. I planned my trip carefully as I had to first take a bus and then walk three miles down a dirt road. The timing was critical because I wanted to be home before dark.
The local bus was on time, and I had no problem walking the three miles with the exception of black flies biting the back of my neck. I had forgotten to dab the Cutter’s insect repellent behind my ears and on my wrists.
Blackstone Wood was an abandoned Gypsy camp. At the end of the 19th century, my grandmother said that children were disciplined by telling them that if they didn’t behave, their parents would sell them to the Gypsies. Over the years, the Gypsy camp disbanded with some moving on and others melding into the town. The prosperous hardware store owner, Gib Heron, who sold art supplies at the back of his store, it was said, was the grandson of one of them.
The grounds had been transformed to an artists’ community. Some of the original red and yellow painted caravans on massive iron rimmed wheels still stood, but most of the buildings were studio pods. Each pod was clad with curved wooden shingles that were arranged in rounds and overlapped like fish scales. Each roof came to a peak at the top like an elf’s cap. Some had rustic porches with supports from large ash tree limbs. The invasion of emerald ash borers a half century before meant that there was an ample supply of such branches and tree trunks. Some of the pods were elevated like tree houses stilted on ash tree trunks. The landscape was dotted with open summerhouses, also made of this wood, with curved twig benches to welcome a bird sketcher or inspired poet.
I got my bearings and gazed through the dense woods which blocked most light save the sun raying through the leaves. I looked for “23” on the pods, but no numbers were visible. The narrow paths that ribboned between the pods were void of people and littered with leaves and twigs. Conceivably, the painters and potters and writers were working inside. Lamp light came through the windows, which blinked with shadows like eyes watching me. I boldly chose a pod at random and rapped on the door.
A low-spoken man opened the door slightly and asked how he could help. As he opened the door wider, I noticed he was wearing a brown plaid shirt, loose cotton pants with a drawstring, and sandals with socks. His beard jumped when he talked, and a lock of crimped hair fell across his forehead.
“I’m looking for a woman named ‘Siobhan Merriman.’ Does she live near here?”
The man squinted in thought and said he didn’t know her, but a woman named Ophelia, whose pod was kiddy-corner to his might know. He closed the door before I could thank him.
I blinked my eyes to refocus in the dim light and knocked on the door I thought to be Ophelia’s. A barefoot woman holding a gold-haloed baby opened the door.
“Are you Ophelia?” She noticed the hesitation in my voice.
“Yes. Is there something you want?” The baby started trilling his tongue and drooling.
“Thank you. I hope you can help me. I’m looking for a woman named ‘Siobhan Merriman.’ Do you know her?”
The woman bowed her head, and I could see the massive twist of chestnut hair piled high there. She looked at me and then sparked, “Oh, you mean ‘Sha-von,’” she corrected me as I had erroneously said “Si-o-ban.”
“Yes, yes,” I said. “’Sha-von.’ Is she here? Do you know which pod is number 23?”
Ophelia laughed, “Oh, we don’t pay attention to numbers here! She lives at the end of this row on the left, but she isn’t there.”
“Do you know where she went?”
“I don’t know now. I waved to her this morning when I saw her on the road. She was carrying a large satchel. She said she was going to the edge of the woods to forage. This is blackberry season, you know. And dandelions.”
I imagined Siobhan with a crown of dandelions on her head.
“Thank you, Ophelia. Maybe I’ll run into her on my way back.”
I turned and retraced my steps. It was approaching sunset. As I walked along, I looked intently across the way into the thickets and brambles that lined the edge of the woods to see if there might be a woman bent like a willow branch picking blackberries. There was no sign of Siobhan that I could tell.
I thought of Siobhan all weekend. Was she standing on a hill somewhere reaching for the moon, saying “I want, I want” like the figure in the Blake illustration? Or was she combing her hair like Rossetti’s “Lilith” under garlands of roses?
When I arrived at the library the following Tuesday, I put my book bag on the counter. Mrs. Terwilliger entered the office studying a heavy ledger. “While school is out and students are away, we’ll do a thorough inventory of our books. As you know our summer book lending has ebbed, so there aren’t many overdue book notices to write. By the way, remember the Janson book and the Blake collection we’ve been trying to track down for months? Well, it looks like they were returned the end of last week. You can cross them off your list!”
“Did you see the person who brought the books back?”
“No. The books were just dropped in the slot.”
“When did they come back?’
“It must have been Thursday afternoon, I think. Miss Penquest let out a hoot that echoed through the library when she found them in the bin on Friday morning.”
Mrs. Terwilliger turned away from me and took the pencil out of her gray bun. “Now let’s get cracking on this inventory.”
I never met Siobhan Merriman, but I kept looking at the sky to see if any stars pointed her way. I visited England to view the Rossetti paintings at the museum in Birmingham. I saw the Blake collection at the Rosenbach Library in Philadelphia. And when my first child was born, I named her Siobhan, knowing that her soul would be a mystery uniquely hers that I would never be able to fully understand.
Libraries have bookended my life, from my first job at age 10 inventorying books in the school library to serving on an advisory board for the Library of Congress. My career has focused on education. I am currently working on a collection of poems and writing a memoir called “Summers,”