The first time I held a Nancy Drew book in my hands, I was in our tiny school library. I knelt down low and pulled a yellow-bound book from the bottom shelf. The Secret of the Old Clock. I was only seven years old, and I suppose I hadn’t even been reading books on my own for very long. The idea of genre was only starting to take fuzzy shape in my head.
The word mystery meant nothing to me, but I had some sense that stories could be scary or not scary, and I knew that I wanted scary. This same year, I would startle the librarian by insisting on checking out Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Tell-Tale Heart.” I loved it.
Looking at that atmospheric cover art, Nancy in a dark landscape, a clock lying at her feet and a puzzled, sleuth-y look on her face, I thought I’d found something which fell in the scary category, and I quickly moved to share it with my best friend.
As I tipped the book in her direction, Michelle’s eyes and mouth rounded into identical Os. Neither of us had read a word, but we were both pretty much hooked.
The next year, in third grade, I tried to write a novel. I had been given a small, blank book for my eighth birthday. It occurs to me now that blank books were probably not that easy to come by back in the 80s. I take the shelves of moleskines and Jonathan Adler-designed journals at my local big-box bookstore for granted, but my first blank book had, on its cover, a photograph of a kitten dressed in a lace cap and seated at a desk with a feather pen. A sort of grandma/kitten/author hybrid that disturbs me again, remembering it.
I took that kitten book and decided I would write a story for Michelle. I probably wrote half of a chapter before I started rereading what I had written. Even at eight, I recognized that my words didn’t sound like me. They sounded like Carolyn Keene. I suppose this was something of an achievement for a third-grader, but it didn’t feel like one. I stopped writing and never did give Michelle the book. Though I remember how in fourth grade she became somewhat obsessed with making a photographic calendar of her cat, so she may have appreciated the cover art, at least.
My favorite Nancy Drew book was always The Mystery at Lilac Inn. Or maybe it was The Secret of Lilac Inn? I’m sure I could google it to be sure, but my confusion is telling. One Nancy Drew book can largely stand in for any other, and I don’t remember a single thing about the story. I remember the cover art. I think it was always the cover art that drew me. Nancy crouching behind those lilac bushes. What was it about those lilac bushes? I was a little girl growing up in Texas. I’d never even laid eyes on a lilac. Never smelled that heady perfume.
When my daughter was four she spent a lot of time perched high in a lilac tree. I’m not sure if lilacs are technically trees or shrubs, or maybe there’s no botanical difference? But, this lilac was old, and it was tree-like, and she attended a Waldorf preschool where tree climbing was practically an official subject in itself (I love this about Waldorf schooling. Any philosophy of education that takes tree climbing and painting more seriously than testing has a lot going for it, in my humble, non-expert opinion.)
Our photo albums are full of pictures of Lily, face buried in pinkish-purple blossoms, breathing deeply. I never passed a lilac without asking her to smell, to pose. She always agreed. More than that, she’d dive right in, nearly hyperventilating, oblivious to the buzzing bees. Watching her, pushing my own nose in beside hers, I would sometimes think about Nancy Drew and her lilacs.
It only took that first book, The Secret of the Old Clock, for me to discover that Nancy Drew’s stories weren’t really scary. Reading mysteries, we sometimes know fear. But, by the end, when all the pieces have fitted themselves together, we discover that there was never cause to be afraid. In other words, we might experience fear along the way, but when the last piece is placed in the narrative puzzle fear evaporates.
A girl who once stared at a book cover, as if she might smell perfume seeping through the cardboard, has watched her own daughter float in lilac, swim in lilac, breathe deeply those soft, delicate petals. Between girlhood and motherhood, I was often afraid. But, why? Was there ever, really, any cause for fear?
On most days, the story I am living feels exactly like a mystery. I wonder how and whether the pieces will ever fit together. The unknown tomorrows can be scary. And so, I remind myself that life is, essentially, mystery and not horror. One day the full story will emerge. The image formed by the jigsaw pieces will be clear. And it will be good.