By Hilary Weiss Swinson
My grandmother, Norah Fraser, and I had a very special relationship. She was the first person to hold me other than my parents, and she was my first babysitter. Since we all lived in Charlottesville, my grandmother, or “Ga,” as we called her, was as important in the family structure as my parents were.
Ga’s apartment was full of books, with everything from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland to modern fiction, biographies, poetry, and collections of cartoons. Before coming to Charlottesville when my grandfather took a position teaching classics at UVA, Ga had owned her own bookstore in the small town of Alfred, New York. (Called then and now the “Box of Books,” it is currently Alfred’s public library.) She had been a librarian at UVA’s Alderman Library and later at Belfield School (now St. Anne’s-Belfield). She read voraciously, usually having two or three books in progress simultaneously. And she was a book reviewer for the Richmond Times-Dispatch in the 1950s and early ’60s, earning four or five dollars for each review.
In the summer of 1969, I was eleven years old. My three cousins were visiting from New York, and our grandmother took them, my brother, and me to New Dominion as a special treat. Ga had been a friend for many years of New Dominion’s then-owner, C. C. Wells. Each grandchild would be allowed to choose one book.
When we arrived at New Dominion, Ga introduced the five of us, ranging in age from nine to fourteen, to Mr. Wells. All five of us loved to read, so choosing a new book—anything we wanted—was truly a treat. We all took our time perusing the shelves, considering our options.
I ended up with two books in hand, agonizing over which to choose. I finally settled on From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, by E. L. Konigsburg. I was intrigued by the unusually long title, and it had the embossed Newbery Medal sticker on the dust jacket. I knew that meant good things were inside. And the description on the jacket flap of a girl about my age running away from home to the Metropolitan Museum! It became my all-time favorite children’s book.
In the early 1990s, E. L. Konigsburg came to Charlottesville, a guest of the Rare Book School at UVA. There was a book signing, and I was determined to get my copy of my favorite book signed by the author. I waited in line in Newcomb Hall for quite a while, my four-year-old daughter holding my hand (and justifiably whining with boredom) and my one-year-old daughter in a stroller. When I came up to Ms. Konigsburg, I briefly told her the story of my grandmother buying the book for me and how special that made it. She seemed to enjoy our conversation and signed my copy.
I have read this same copy of From the Mixed-Up Files at least fifty times—both to myself and to my two daughters. I hope to read it in a few years to my granddaughter and pass on generations of a love of reading and books.
Hilary Weiss Swinson was born and raised in Charlottesville and is the daughter and granddaughter of UVA professors (drama and classics, respectively). She has worked for her church for eighteen years, edited more than a hundred nonfiction books, and served as editor for several local publications including Albemarle magazine and Virginia Gardening Guide. Hilary’s favorite fiction book is Cold Comfort Farm, by Stella Gibbons, and her favorite nonfiction book is A Girl Named Zippy, by Haven Kimmel. She is currently addicted to British suspense and crime novels.