I was brought up during an era when milk was delivered to the door. It came in thick, oblong bottles with gently rounded corners, a stubby neck, and a paper lid that was removed with a tiny tab.
When the milk was all gone (glug, glug, glug), the glass bottles were washed and put in a metal box suspended between the outside and inside walls of the house. The box had a small door in the hall that was locked after the bottles were inserted, and a metal outside door that opened onto a path leading to the backdoor. When the milkman came, he could deliver or pick up the bottles through this hole in the wall.
Lily of the valley and lilacs grew along this path. It’s my guess that they have always been my favorite flowers because they bring back such pleasant memories of my childhood. One of those memories is of Mr. Biggie, our milkman. I date the decline and fall of civilization to the day that the first architect drew the first blueprint of a house without including a delivery door for milk.
The Reuben household back then consisted of two parents and five children. Every year before Christmas, my mother drew up a list of our teachers and carefully decided who would get what. Mr. Berger got a wool muffler. Miss Winters got nylon stockings. Mrs. Sutton got a silk scarf. Although he was clearly not a teacher, even Mr. Biggie made the list. As with the others, he was never given anything as impersonal as money. It had to be something useful, like warm socks or white undershirts. Mr. Biggie could not exactly be categorized as a friend, but he was an inextricable part of the inner workings of our home. On cold days, he was invited in for coffee; on hot days, for a cool drink.
One afternoon when my mother was off doing mother-things, Mr. Biggie and I sat in our breakfast nook over two glasses of lemonade. It was then that he told me about The Robe. All these years later, he is in my mind because last night I saw a movie version of The Robe on TV.
I was brought up Jewish, which means that I was taught about Moses dividing the Red Sea, Lot’s wife becoming a pillar of salt, and thirteen year old boys receiving fountain pens on their Bar Mitzvahs. Christianity was not big on my reading list. I knew nothing about Last Suppers, Judas Iscariot, or Romans nailing Jesus to the cross. The Robe, by Lloyd D. Douglas, described those events against a thrilling background of clashing swords and racing chariots. Its characters included Marcellus, a Roman centurion who wins Christ’s robe in a game of dice at the foot of the cross and then suffers agonies of guilt for having ordered his crucifixion; Demetrius, a Greek slave who converts to Christianity and ultimately becomes Marcellus’ friend; and beautiful Diana who, though promised in marriage to the evil emperor Caligula, is in love with Marcellus and will follow him anywhere ... even to a martyr’s death.
The Robe had everything. Religion. Loyalty. Violence. Sex. I read it; I loved it; and I think back fondly on Mr. Biggie’s eagerness to share his enthusiasm about the book with me. He was not trying to convert me; doing so would never have crossed his mind. Instead, on a hot day over a cool glass of lemonade, he and the daughter of a customer were taking out a few minutes to exchange thoughts and talk about their beliefs.
My friends and I did a lot of that back then. I went to church with them. They came to synagogue with me. I helped them to decorate their Christmas trees. They joined us at Friday night dinners when my father recited the blessings over the bread. It was an innocent time. Ideas were rife; new and old ones spread like kudzu in a southern garden. One day you were a capitalist. Next day you were a communist. Your Great Uncle Ned offered you a job after school in his shop, and bang, you were a capitalist again. Monday you wanted to be a jet pilot. Tuesday a missionary. Wednesday an atheist. Thursday, you would decide to be brain surgeon or Broadway star. Friday, you scorned your parents because they had ordered a new sofa while people where starving in China. Saturday you were angry with them because they wouldn’t buy you a new car.
Yet over, under, and around the intellectual tumult of growing up, there were always certain immutable axioms. You made your bed every morning. You helped with the dishes every night. If you needed money, you babysat or went to work for Great Uncle Ned. You mowed lawns, raked leaves, typed envelopes. You endured adoring grandparents, and went to the nursing home to visit senile Aunt Gwyn. You didn’t steal, cheat on tests, or lie about anything major. You cleaned behind your ears, thought your thoughts, suffered just about every mandatory adolescent anxiety, and grew up none the worse for having been subjected to arbitrary, extraneous, or unacceptable ideas. In fact, you grew up better, because you had learned to think and to make up your own mind. To have a mind that you could make up.
To my great dismay, I recently read that residents in places such as York, Pennsylvania and Zeeland, Michigan had tried to get J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter books removed from their libraries and banned from their schools. Their ludicrous allegation is that the series promotes witchcraft.
How silly. How sad.
If Mr. Biggie were alive today, he would love Harry Potter. We would have chatted about Harry’s adventures at our kitchen table. After reading the books, he would not have felt obliged to experiment in sorcery. Just as, after I read The Robe, I did not feel compelled to convert to Christianity. I also read the Communist Manifesto without becoming a communist and Watership Down without becoming a rabbit.
Books are an odyssey and an adventure. If we are lucky, there are people in our lives with whom we can share the adventure … preferably over a refreshing glass of lemonade.
If we are really, really lucky, we have a Mr. Biggie.
Shelly Reuben is an Edgar-nominated author, private detective, and fire investigator. For more about her books, visit: shellyreuben.com.