- The Washington Times - Wednesday, August 19, 2015

When faced with the unenviable task of going through her late mother’s personal effects, Baltimore-area writer Michele Wojciechowski uncovered something she hadn’t seen in over three decades. While rooting through a cabinet over her mother’s refrigerator, she discovered an old paperback copy of “Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein,” adapted and illustrated by Alice and Joel Schick.

The thrill of an unexpected find was quickly tempered by a horrific realization: Ms. Wojciechowski had checked out the book from the nearby Enoch Pratt Free Library Southeast Branch’s Branch when she was 13.

That was in 1981.

“You know that feeling when all the blood seems to drain from your head and you feel a little lightheaded? Or like when you’re on a roller-coaster and your stomach drops?” Ms. Wojciechowski recently told The Washington Times. “That’s what I felt — all at the same time. Completely panicked is more like it.”

But why had no one in nearly 34 years — a timespan that had seen five presidents, the rise of cellphones, advent of the Internet and the decline of physical books due to e-readers — come pounding angrily on Ms. Wojciechowski’s mother’s door, eyes seething with red ink and waving a card catalog index card angrily?

Back in the early ‘80s, Ms. Wojciechowski explained, her local library system kept records only of hardcover books checked out, and would then contact borrowers whose checkouts were overdue.

“At the time, while they gave you return dates for them, their system wasn’t set up to notify you when paperbacks were overdue,” she said. “That’s why I had no idea that the book was still checked out.”

No matter who was at fault, the fact remained the book was very, very, very much outstanding.

Ms. Wojciechowski took her unexpected discovery to her husband, an accountant by trade, who briskly calculated what the ledger-wrecking penalty would be for over three decades’ worth of late fees for the long-lost tome: As the book was 12,436 days overdue, and the library system charged a per-day fee of 20 cents, Ms. Wojciechowski was facing a collective tax of $2,487.

Plus 20 more cents for the day she discovered it.

Ms. Wojciechowski and her husband made a geektastic list of what they could buy in the Baltimore area for that astronomical sum:

⦁ 30 dozen extra-large crabs (average $85/dozen)

⦁ 49 tickets to a Ravens game (upper deck/$50 each)

⦁ 99 tickets to an Orioles game (upper deck/$25 each)

⦁ Enough gas to take 142 one-way trips to Ocean City, Maryland

⦁ 177 Adult Day passes on the harbor Water Taxi ($14 each)

⦁ 415 packs of Berger Cookies ($5.99 each)

⦁ 621 trips through the Harbor Tunnel ($4 per)

⦁ 1,658 medium egg custard snowballs with marshmallows ($1.50 each)

⦁ 8,290 1-ounce bags of Utz potato chips (30 cents each)

With her stomach in knots, perhaps fearing a run for the border — or an extended shopping spree of list items — might be in order, Ms. Wojciechowski went to the website for the Enoch Pratt Free Library’s website.

Much to her relief, the public loaning system had a cap on late fees.

She would owe — in total — $6.

A love of reading

Ms. Wojciechowski’s mother, Beverly, instilled in her daughter an appreciation for the printed word from a young age. In fact, Beverly read aloud to Ms. Wojciechowski while the latter was still in utero — before such a thing was “in style.”

“One of the greatest gifts she gave me was to instill a love of reading that I have to this day,” Ms. Wojciechowski said. “She read to me before I could ever understand what she was saying.”

Ms. Wojciechowski read voraciously as a child, taking in everything from fiction to mysteries to biographies and humor. In her career as a scribe, she has written for Parade, Reader’s Digest, LA Times Magazine and Boys’ Life.

“There’s not much I don’t like to read,” the author, who often goes by the moniker “Wojo,” said. (She maintains a blog, WojosWorld.com.)

Such was her mother’s guidance that Ms. Wojciechowski could even spell out her rather unaccommodating last name by the time she was 18 months old.

“She should have gotten an award [just] for that,” Ms. Wojciechowski said.

In fact, when she married, the writer opted not to take her husband’s surname.

“If I had to learn to spell it in kindergarten, I’m taking it to the grave,” she said.

Incidentally, she has published a humor book entitled “Next Time I Move, They’ll Carry Me Out in a Box.”

Not-so-late fees

With the anxiety quelled upon realizing she owed the library all of six bucks, Ms. Wojciechowski contacted the Southeast Anchor Branch with the news of the long-lost reimagining of the tale of Frankenstein and his monster.

Rather than demand an exorbitant return penalty, the library staff instead had a good laugh. Furthermore, Branch Manager Lynne Distance provided the book borrower with some background info on the item she couldn’t even recall having read the year Ronald Reagan was sworn in as president.

“I was confused when I found it because I couldn’t imagine my younger self checking out a horror book,” Ms. Wojciechowski said. “But she explained that this was one of the first graphic novels ever written for kids. That would explain it, as I was an avid comic book collector at the time. Making the jump to graphic novels wasn’t surprising at all.”

Because Ms. Wojciechowski and Ms. Distance shared such a chuckle over the Lost Ark-like item’s return to the stacks, Ms. Wojciechowski saw an opportunity to spin the odd circumstances into a chance to donate copies of “Next Time I Move, They’ll Carry Me Out in a Box,” which won the 2013 Outstanding Book Award from the American Society of Journalists and Authors, to the library system.

“I was raised Catholic, and let me tell you, I was feeling a ton of guilt at having kept this book out for so long,” she said. Rather than genuflecting to recite $2,487 worth of “Hail Mary”s and “Our Father”s as plenary, “donating copies of my humor book felt like the best penance I could do.”

Ms. Wojciechowski’s family connection to the Highlandtown Branch, the storefront library location that stood before the Southeast Anchor Branch was built, ran deep. When Highlandtown was dedicated by then-mayor William Donald Schaefer on January 16, 1975, Ms. Wojciechowski’s mother, Beverly, was president of the local improvement association.

“She got me out of first grade for a short time and brought me to the dedication ceremony,” the author said of her mother. “I pinned a boutonniere on Mayor Schaefer and said, ‘This is in appreciation for the Highlandtown Library.’”

Beverly would often take advantage of the library’s 20-book limit for adults to get her daughter as much reading material as she desired. The cap for children checkouts was but three.

“She would let me get many out on her card, and I would feel like it was pure heaven,” the adult Ms. Wojciechowski recalls now. “Getting out a lot of books at a time is a habit of mine that continues to this day. Only now, I make sure to return them on time!”

From reader to writer

“Reading has always been such a joy to me and such a big part of my life. I’m sure it influenced my growing up to become a writer and author,” Ms. Wojciechowski explained. “I love learning about people’s stories when I interview them. I got that, partially at least, from reading.”

In a strange way, she said, returning the astray Frankenstein book — and donating her own — to the library brought her own arc as a writer more or less full-circle.

“I never imagined when I was a kid taking out books that one day my book would be there. It’s humbling and feels unreal to me,” she said. “When I think it’s possible that some girl will read my book and one day grow up to become a writer herself, that’s also humbling.”

Even though the tale of Frankenstein’s long sojourn into a kitchen cupboard and subsequent emergence — to say nothing of the far-less-than-expected late fees — ended happily, it is undeniable that it came about as the result of the passing of Ms. Wojciechowski’s mother, Beverly. However, Ms. Wojciechowski smiles at the notion that perhaps her “late mom and dad are getting a kick out of this in the afterlife.”

She also wishes to impart to readers, young and old, the importance of returning borrowed items.

“Other library systems may not be as forgiving as mine was,” she said.

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