Miss Rumphius by Barbara Cooney
Your House By The Sea
When someone asks me, “What’s your favorite book?” the wheels in my head start spinning. After all, it’s an outrageously loaded question. It’s almost like asking me, “Which is your favorite kid?”
But every time I’m forced to sit down and make some kind of choice, the same few titles spin around, jockeying for position. Most of those are books I connected with as a child, through seemingly endless evenings of leaning against my mother while she read chapters aloud from The Hobbit, or closing my eyes to hear my father’s voice change completely to read an El Ahrairah in the midst of Watership Down.
But the one that meant the most to me, that still means the most to me, is Miss Rumphius.
In only a few dozen pages, that story imparted more beautiful imagery and important life lessons than any other. Miss Rumphius, who I never felt mature or important enough to call Alice, has a life that from childhood to dotage is a guideline to a well lived existence.
Here’s a woman, in what appears to be pre-World War existence, who becomes educated and independent. She travels alone, she cultivates hobbies and academic interests. She is friends with herself and she is endlessly curious about the world around her.
At the same time, in a world of children’s books filled with female characters who either become mothers or have no family of their own, family is important to her. She never expresses any sort of regret over her life choices, but clearly loves her nieces and great-nephews and all the children tangentially related to her. Who even as a child understood the importance of a connection with her family, and who as an elderly woman opens her door to her extended family with grace and love.
That’s only the subtext. That’s only the hidden lessons, taken away from watching her age as the pages turned, year after year of my own life. The text of the story too is instructive. When she listened as a child to her grandfather’s tale of travel and adventure, she told him she would also travel the world, and also live in a house by the sea.
And so she did. But it was her house by the sea, a different sort of home and a different sort of sea than her grandfather chose. And they were her adventures, inspired by but entirely different from the tales her grandfather told.
Which taught me that while imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, you can pay homage to your inspirations in your own way, with your own compass, and having had them lead you in no way diminishes your own successes.
Miss Rumphius’s grandfather told her that it was all well and good to travel and learn and live your live the way your chose, but there was one other thing. “You have to make the world a more beautiful place.”
Now, in the book, Miss Rumphius’s grandfather was a painter. Miss Rumphius grew up to seed an entire countryside with flowers. But I always took this admonition to mean something more flexible, a little deeper.
When I went to art school, I thought I too would make the world a more beautiful place. But going to school in the inner city I saw so many kinds of ugliness — poverty, hunger, addiction. And in that context, I couldn’t help but see that beauty isn’t just in adornments. It’s in removing the ugliness hiding what’s already there.
I’ve devoted much of my adult life to social justice, confident that every time my efforts help a woman fleeing domestic abuse, or a child learn to read a book like Miss Rumphius, the world is slightly more beautiful.
And maybe I’ll never live by the sea, but I will live in a place that I’ve chosen and made mine. And my heart will always be open to my family, ready to love. And most importantly, I will strive always to like myself. To do what makes me happy, and what I know is right, and to cultivate in myself that which I admire in others.
So I cherish my dog-eared, crumbling copy of Miss Rumphius, keeping these lessons close to my heart—
Any home can be your house by the sea. Any adventure can be your adventure. Be true to yourself, and someday, no matter how many years have passed, you will find that you too have made the world a more beautiful place.
Lea Grover is a writer and toddler-wrangler living in Chicago. When she isn’t cultivating an impressive dust bunny collection she waxes philosophic about raising interfaith children, marriage after a terminal cancer diagnosis, and vegetarian cooking. Her work has been featured on the Huffington Post, Scary Mommy, The Daily Mail Online, iVillage Australia, Red Shoes Review, The Dusty Owl Quarterly, and her daughters’ toy refrigerator door. When she isn’t revising her memoir, she can be found singing opera to her children or smeared to the elbow in Townsend pastels. You can follow her blog, Becoming SuperMommy, on Facebook, Pinterest, Google+, and @bcmgsupermommy.
"I gave birth to twins a little more than a year ago, and at the baby showers we received many books: colorful board books, big illustrated books, collections of Sandra Boynton and nursery rhymes and Dr. Seuss, but none multiple times except this one: a board book “Goodnight Moon,” a flimsy “Goodnight Moon,” a large lap book “Goodnight Moon,” and an anthology by the book’s author, Margaret Wise Brown. Of course, I thought. It’s that one that says good night a lot. I figured I’d read it before, just a story of going around the room saying good night to stuff, and I thought it was popular as a gift because it’s so appropriate for bedtime and everybody wants babies to sleep.
But, when I first sat down with the babies, on the bed, nestled into pillows, beginning a sleep routine as recommended by their doctor, I pulled out the big lap book and read it aloud, and by Page 2, it was clear to me that for whatever reason, I had never read this one before. The babies listened in their sleepy baby way, and as the pages turned, I felt a growing excitement — a literary excitement. Not what I expected from this moment. But I was struck and stunned, as I have been before, by a classic sneaking up on me and, in an instant, earning yet again another fan."
The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett
One of my favorite books growing up was The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett. I was a tomboy and spent most of my time playing outdoors with my brothers so I felt a connection to the three children bringing the garden back to life. The messages about the healing power of nature and the importance of friendship still resonate with me to his day.
—Tory Burch (toryburch) is CEO and designer of Tory Burch, an American lifestyle brand known for color, print and eclectic details. Raised in Valley Forge, PA, Tory graduated from the University of Pennsylvania with a degree in art history, then moved to New York to pursue a career in the fashion industry. She launched Tory Burch in 2004 with a small boutique on Elizabeth Street in Manhattan, and since then the brand has grown into a global business with more than 125 freestanding stores and a presence in more than 3,000 department and specialty stores. Tory launched the Tory Burch Foundation in 2009 to support the economic empowerment of women entrepreneurs and their families in the U.S. She lives in New York City with her three sons.
"Oh, I’d love to talk about [BOOK], but I’m not a writer."
That’s OK! This project isn’t about writing well; it’s about remembering how important reading was for ALL of us.
Tune in tomorrow to see a submission from a special guest who is not a writer, though you probably know her name!
Miss Rumphius by Barbara Cooney
Every summer when I was a kid, my family went sailing for two weeks along the coast of Maine. I was a bad sailor’s daughter. I resented the days spent miles offshore. I wanted to explore the archipelagos strung out across the bay like skipping stones, snorkel in the green and rust seaweed for lobsters hiding in the rock shelf. I loved the pine trees and osprey nests on the islands too small to house families, and the weathered general stores, ice cream stands, and lobster shacks on the larger islands north of Castle Bay.
My sister, Kate and I, picked purple sea heather and tucked it into our hair. My father called us princesses of New England.
Kate and I have since grown up and moved to cities far from the craggy coast. Kate lives in Brooklyn and is studying for a Ph.D. in philosophy. She’s also a poet. Over the past year, we have spent days sitting on her blue couch, trying to figure out what we’ll do with our lives. It sounds melodramatic, but when your sister is a philosopher, these are the questions you ask. What is the purpose of life? What makes it meaningful? What is success? How will I pay my student loans?
As a smart woman in a male-dominated field decidedly lacking in poets, Kate says sometimes feels it is her duty to blaze trails. I have no idea what I will do. Be a lawyer? That sounds impressive. Publishing mogul? Maybe we should be professors, high-powered academics carving a place for women’s voices. Late at night, when we are overwhelmed by the future and what success might be, there is another option. “Maybe I’ll just quit grad school and move to Maine,” Kate says.
“Be the Lupine Lady?” I say.
“Yeah. And you move down the road.”
I don’t remember when I first found Barbara Cooney’s Miss Rumphius. My mother says she found it in the public library. I always thought we picked it up on a sailing trip from one of those take-a-book-leave-a-book marina libraries. What I do know is that Alice Rumphius has shaped my philosophy on life more than I often admit.
For those of you who do not know Alice Rumphius, she grew up in a city by the sea with her grandfather, a painter and world traveler who told her stories of his adventures. One conversation between Alice and her grandfather will become a kind of mantra for the story.
When he had finished, Alice would say, “When I grow up, I, too, will go to far-away places. And when I grow old, I, too, will live beside the sea.”
“That’s all very well, little Alice,” said her grandfather, “but there is a third thing you must do.”
“What is that?” asked Alice.
“You must do something to make the world more beautiful,” said her grandfather.
We follow Alice from her grandfather’s lap to another city far from the sea, where she becomes Miss Rumphius, and realizes it’s time to have her own adventures. We follow her to tropical islands, mountaintops, and deserts. We follow Miss Rumphius when she hurts her back climbing from a camel in the Land of the Lotus-Eaters. But part of what is so wonderful about this story is that the process of aging is not tragic. It is expected and welcomed as a natural progression of life.
“What a foolish thing to do!” said Miss Rumphius. “Well, I have certainly seen far-away places. Maybe it’s time to find my place beside the sea.” And it was. And she did.
Miss Rumphius builds a home in a gray house overlooking what is unmistakably the Maine coast. She is old now, and it’s time for her to fulfill her final promise to her grandfather. She must make the world more beautiful.
One morning, by chance of wind, Miss Rumphius finds that the lupines that she had planted the summer before have spread all along the hillside. And she has a wonderful idea.
Miss Rumphius walks all over town, her pockets full of lupine seeds, hair gray now, and they call her the Lupine Lady.
When I was little, and my sister would read this story aloud to me, I fell in love with the illustrations: the familiar blue, purple, and rose-colored blossoms dotting the fields and highways. But Miss Rumphius is more than these charming pictures. Miss Rumphius is a story about how to live a meaningful life and embrace mortality.
When I grow up, I want to write stories. But I worry. I worry that maybe no one will read them. I worry that I should be doing something bigger to make the world better. I worry about growing old and soft and impermanent, and realizing, at the end, that I haven’t done anything at all.
I mean, don’t we all?
This is why Miss Rumphius has stuck with me. This book makes a promise that as long as I do something, however small, to make the world more beautiful, my life will mean something. Perhaps my stories can do that. Or maybe I, too, will plant flowers.
Writing this, I realized—horrified—that I am almost grown up. My family stopped sailing in the summer years ago. My parents are divorced, and my father lives alone on a sailboat moored beside the chain bridge on the Merrimack River, and not in some bay in Maine. The stories of our summers in Maine are tied with that boat. I used to panic about losing this part of my history, but instead, I’ve decided to mark the next part of my adventure.
I am grown up, and it’s time for me to see far-away places. Someday, when I am old, I, too, will live beside the sea.
—Meg Pendoley is a junior at the University of Pennsylvania. She is an English major with a concentration in creative writing and a minor in Spanish. She grew up in a small town in Massachusetts and spent most of her summers sailing off the coast of Maine.
Day Sixteen: Book Stack
Gorgeous stack! Yeah contemps!
The Sensible Nonsense Project tends to focus on “classic” children’s and YA books, but it’s good to remember that there are fantastic new ones continually being added to the canon. Encourage reading any way you can!