Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Sudden Angels Part 3: A Voice from the Closet Floor

If you're lucky, you meet a sensational person at some point in your life.  I mean larger-than-life sensational.  Unforgettable.  Someone who picks you up and turns you around before you ever know your feet are off the floor.

Florence Parry Heide, legendary children's author, was that person for me.

It was 1988 and I had moved to Racine, Wisconsin, and mentioned to a friend that I was writing picture book manuscripts.  The next thing I knew she'd arranged for me to have coffee at Florence's home in the neighboring town of Kenosha. This was not any house either.  It was a massive Tudor on Lake Michigan.  Florence swept me inside, all smiles and grace and good cheer.  She was the most distinctly defined presence I had ever encountered.  Tall and glorious, with a ringing laugh and conspiratorial tone that made you think you were in a 1940s movie with Jimmy Stewart about to enter on cue.

We sat in front of the fireplace in matching upholstered chairs with coffee and cookies on the ottoman between us.  She zipped through my story, looked me in the eye, and said, "I think you have promise."  She gave me a long list of editors, explained how to go about writing a cover letter, toured me through her office with the walls lined with her books, and assured me I could do this, too.

The woman never lost faith in me.  She was the most relentlessly optimistic person I'd ever met.  There were times when she might be uncertain about the trajectory of her own career, but she'd brush those doubts aside to focus on my projects and her certainty about them.

Her certainty in me lasted twenty years.  This was a woman who was in it for the long haul. 

One time I dissolved in tears over constant rejection and she plainly said, "If you stop sending stories out, I promise you will never be published.  No editor will ever call you."

She was right, of course.

Her letters arrived out of the blue, typed in her signature ee cummings style of random exclamation points, ellipses, capital letters, and flag-flying commas.  She always drew a balloon because she said ideas were floating just above us.  All we had to do was reach up and grab one.

Any time!...!  Go ON!!!  It's Yours!!!  Are you looking up NOW??!

And you did.

She was writing and publishing until her death in 2011 at the age of 92.  She was absolutely unstoppable until the very end.

I don't expect to have that kind of gigantic presence in my life ever again.

But then a month ago, she reappeared.  Or rather a note from her reappeared on my closet floor.  It was a card she'd sent when one of her last books, Princess Hyacinth (The Surprising Tale of a Girl Who Floated) was published.  She enclosed a note.

My mother enclosed this message in her Christmas card nearly forty years ago.  This is exactly the way I feel--at ninety.

So I'm 85.  So I'm old.  So I'm slowing down.  
So what?
For each year that has been added to my life has carried an extra dividend: each day an extra gift of sights and sounds and wonders.
And happenings: the successes of my children, the promise of my grandchildren, who carry in them the seeds of my own past; the endurance of friendships; the changing seasons which each year unfold their miracles of beauty and their promise to return.
Thus is every pain and sorrow and regret cancelled out by the awareness of life's bounty.
And above all I cherish the glorious gift of memory--and the certainty that nothing--nothing--can ever be lost.

On a difficult day when I most needed a reminder, it arrived.  It can be logically explained, of course, given the disarray of my closet, but Florence would be uninterested in that kind of logic.

She'd give me a wink and say, "Just reach up, Karen!!! NOW...W...W!"  

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