The Book I Found Under Some Floorboards in My Attic Saved My Soul

One girl thought she'd hit gold. She had no idea how right she was.

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I was 13 or 14. It was summer. We lived in a raggedy house in the thumb of Michigan with no screens on the window in the attic, where my sister and I slept in the same bed. It was so hot and humid up there that tears of sweat dripped down my neck onto what would one day become cleavage. I got bitten on the arm by two mosquitoes at the same time, and while I sat there in front of a fan that did not oscillate, I watched the red bumps rise because I was bored.

While thinking about how I might escape, I leaned sideways, and my hand landed on a floorboard that popped up and almost hit me in the head. When I bent over and looked inside the open space, I could not believe my eyes: There was gold in there! I picked up a handful of shiny gold cubes, and I knew there had to be millions of dollars’ worth. I ran to the bottom stair and yelled, “Mama—I found gold up here under the floor!”

Back up the stairs I dashed, but my siblings almost knocked me back down as they ran right by me. When Mama, who had heard me through a floor vent, opened the door and stuck her head in, she simply said, “Chile, that’s insulation. Now put it all back.”

I thought we were going to be free. That we would be able to move out of this dump and we would all have our own rooms with air-conditioning. I thought I had made a real discovery.

When I reached inside to toss the fake gold back, my hand touched what felt like a book. I pulled it out. It was old and small: Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations. I wondered whom were they supposed to be familiar to, because I’d never heard of this book. What I did know, thanks to Ms. Rattray, my seventh-grade English teacher, was the correct way to use quotation marks. And since I was bored, I decided to see what was inside this little book. (Don’t miss the best lines from 30 of the most quotable books ever written.)

On the top left- and right-hand corners of each page was a word or phrase. I opened it to “comfort” and then “comfort and despair,” and then farther down was “comfortable.” Dang. I had just found out what a thesaurus was, and I could already tell that this was going to be more interesting. (Skip the thesaurus and check out these fancy words that make you sound smarter.)

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I remember “Doubt.” “Peace.” “Endurance.” “Fate.” “Hope and Hopeful.” “Honor and Honorable.” “Light.” How many connotations there were for “light” alone! I’d never thought about it any other way except as a lamp or daylight. “Love” had so many pages, and I spent a great deal of time reading about it, since I’d never felt it. Phew. “Passion.” “Patience.” “Self-Control.” “Security.” “Woman.” “Wishes.” “Woebegone.”

I skipped to see whether there was a word that started with z that might reflect some kind of emotion I could recognize: “Zeal.”

It helped to find out that Mr. Bartlett didn’t feel all these emotions himself. He had gathered up quotations from thousands of other people.

I was relieved to discover that some people were not afraid to express how they felt and what they thought. Including their fears. I couldn’t believe that people had so many compelling thoughts and feelings about things that were already starting to plague me. I realized I was lonely. That I didn’t know whom to talk to about the world and my role in it. What was the point of living? I found myself shoplifting to eat something I wouldn’t have to share, even though I knew stealing was wrong. I wanted to know why so many black people were poor. I wanted to get on a bus and an airplane. I wanted to know what a kiss felt like. What winning felt like. What was it going to take for us to get a front porch with steps? A toilet that flushed? Electricity every day? I wanted to know what it was like to go on a vacation. What was I supposed to do with promises that people didn’t keep? I wanted to know whom to tell when my heart hurt and I cried and didn’t understand why.

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I found solace in these pages. Answers to questions I didn’t even know I was asking. I had discovered that I was not alone in some of the things I felt and thought: What’s grief feel like? And what causes it? How’s it feel to be in love? How do you know when you feel remorseful? What makes me lie? What do you do with your fears? What is the value and power of dreams?

I often thought about things I didn’t feel I could talk to anybody about because I didn’t know how to articulate them. This book of passages, phrases, and proverbs helped me acknowledge that I didn’t need to feel ashamed or embarrassed, because other people had thought about a lot of the things I did—and not always in the same way:

“I am not tragically colored. There is no great sorrow dammed up in my soul, nor lurking behind my eyes … I do not weep at the world—I am too busy sharpening my oyster knife.” Zora Neale Hurston, “How It Feels to Be Colored Me,” 1928.

In ninth grade, I got my first job, as a page at our local library. I often hid in the dumbwaiter or the ladies room, where I would cross my legs so no one would see me sitting in the stall, and I would read. It was at this library that I realized how some of those emotions I’d felt while reading Bartlett’s came to life in the characters I had started discovering in novels.

When I left home to go away to college, Bartlett’s came with me. Over the years, I’ve kept my original copy, and to this day I often refer to it. I have bought a few of the newer editions, but the first one is the one that liberated me, that helped me see more than my young mind and heart were able to understand.

Discovering Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations under those floorboards was, indeed, gold.

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