Michelle Murphy, 51, (right) and her niece Stephanie Fortner, 46, (left) pose in their front yard "Lending Hope Library" Sunday, April 5, 2020.
Michelle Murphy, 51, (right) and her niece Stephanie Fortner, 46, (left) pose in their front yard "Lending Hope Library" Sunday, April 5, 2020. [ JOHN PENDYGRAFT | Times ]

Isolation, frustration inspired action for Gulfport woman

She decided to share her collection of books with those who might need a distraction.
Published Apr. 13, 2020
Updated May 15, 2020
She decided to share her collection of books with those who might need a distraction.

Fred Rogers once said: “When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.'”

An occasional series.

As the days went on, Michelle Murphy helplessly watched connections melt away.

First girls’ weekend with her sister, then her niece's third birthday party, then her daughter’s wedding, then Easter with her children. She couldn’t even go to the beach.

So she sat home with her sister and niece, who call themselves the Golden Girls. Murphy is Dorothy. Her niece, Stephanie, is Rose and her sister Debbie is Blanche. They love each other but have run out of things to say. Seems like there is only one topic these days. Family phone calls are about corona. Talk shows have turned into celebrities-at-home-dwelling-on-corona. Facebook revolves around corona. Corona, corona, corona.

“There's so much negativity that even when I thought, ‘Well, maybe I'll go plant some seeds or work on my flowers,’ my mood was just not there.”

Normally, just the smell of a book was enough to cheer her up, but none of the hundreds in her collection spoke to her.

“They say if you're bored with your own company, there's a problem,” she said. “Suddenly, I realized, I have a real problem.”

Then Murphy saw a television commercial about an air-conditioning company offering a prize to the yard with the best Christmas light decorations. It gave her an idea.

She pulled a box of lights down from the attic. Then she talked her niece into sneaking onto the neighbor’s property - a contractor with mounds of possibilities laying around. They found four white tiles and painted a letter on each one - H.O.P.E.

Murphy decided to lend her beloved books out to the world. There would be a garden of light, and books, and hope.

They brainstormed names.

Then painted a sign.

Lending Hope Library.

“Boom, boom, boom. Yeah, it was all done in one afternoon,” Murphy said. “We were just happy all day, I didn't have one negative thought come to my mind all day long. It was awesome.”

But the quiet returned.

Next day, Murphy was back inside. The sound of unwatched television filled the rooms. She heard a crash in the front yard.

Someone yelled out, “Your stuff just fell over!”

Looking out the window, a stranger stood with two books in her hand. The bookshelf was on the ground. Books were everywhere.

“Lady, that shelf didn’t just fall over,” she thought.

As they picked up together, one of the stranger’s books caught her eye. The Secrets of Midwives.

She gave her one of her own favorites. A House of Sand and Fog.

They exchanged smiles. And kept their distance.

Do you know a Helper? Contact jpendygraft@tampabay.com.

Read other stories in this series:

Butcher John Riesebeck is embracing a family tradition

SPC professor creates 3D-printed face shields for medical workers

Retired teacher turned mask maker finds herself busier and busier

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