Manuela from Somerville,New Jersey

Kristy dragged me towards the old building, the big wooden doors splayed open in the late afternoon sunshine. Her straw colored pigtails bounced off her shoulders as she practically bounded into the Ridgefield Park Library.

It was almost September. We’d been in the United States for eight months and I was ten years old. My parents moved kit, kids and caboodle from Romania in 1985. We left the communist country after a five year ordeal during which we were harassed, intimidated and starved, emotionally, intellectually, financially and physically. When we left we were allowed to take four suitcases. Two of them, my parents filled with books.

I remember evenings in Romania. My parents would sneak home an illicit Alexandre Dumas or Dickens. For heaven’s sake, Dickens! The communists considered books dangerous. They didn’t want the masses formulating any opinions or ideas that weren’t pre-digested for them. Needless to say, free public libraries were virtually non-existent. If you wanted to read you had to pay a heavy price. I didn’t realize until much later that my parents were “criminals”. They bought books on the black market, for exorbitant prices, sometimes forgoing food or heat for a good translation of Huckleberry Finn.

Never mind the glorious supermarkets stocked with everything you could possibly desire. I didn’t truly understand what the big fuss about America was until the day I walked into the Ridgefield Park Library. I remember feeling confused. I had finally gotten a decent grasp of the English language and Kristy, my first and best friend kept pointing to the books, saying I could take them home to read. As many as I wanted…for free! I looked at her pigtailed, freckled face, squinting hard, trying to understand.

It wasn’t the words I couldn’t comprehend; it was the concept. Here they were, all those ideas, those worlds I could escape into, out in the open for anyone to merely reach over and pluck like overripe cherries on a laden tree.

It was like going to church for the first time and finding God. A rich pageantry of worlds awaited me in every tempting stack. My old friends, Oliver Twist, Tom Sawyer and the disreputable Huck Finn beckoned to me from their dusty shelf.

We moved from Ridgefield Park not long after, to another town. The first friend I made in my new town was my new library. I comforted myself as I adjusted to my new surroundings by re-reading all of my old favorites and making a few new ones, Nancy Drew, later, Stephen King... I became a binge reader. As my parents followed their American dream from town to town, with each move, as soon as the boxes were unpacked, I headed straight to the library for comfort and companionship.

Years later, I was fortunate enough to work my way through college working part-time with the wonderful staff of the Watchung Library. I got to see the inner working of the library, from helping patrons find a good read to tracking down someone’s missing family tree.

I am now 32 years old. I work at the Bridgewater Library branch of the Somerset County Library System in a public relations capacity. I get to brag about all of the wonderful services libraries provide to their communities. It is my job to make sure everyone knows where the library is and advertise all of the treasures contained within. I still browse the bookshelves everyday looking for new worlds to explore and new friends to meet. And, as always, I’m comforted to know that wherever I may go, Huck Finn awaits.