Last week, I reconnected with Miss Rumphius, a lovely book from my childhood. A research project from work took me to YouTube, looking for short, inspirational videos. After a few key word searches, my eyes fell into the illustrations of this richly pigmented picture book. I again became part of Miss Rumphius’s story, left breathless by her colorful adventures and dazzled by the thick, spiky clumps of “blue and purple and rose colored lupines” she plants all over her town at the book’s end.
If you haven’t read it, or simply do not have the time to watch the video, let me tell you a little bit about the plot. The story follows the life of Alice Rumphius, a little girl who lives by the sea. When she is young, she wishes to go to far away places. And when she is old and tired of adventure, she wishes to live by the sea. In addition to these life ambitions, her grandfather challenges her to “do something to make the world more beautiful,” the hardest thing for a person to accomplish. So, Miss Rumphius grows up, moves away from home, becomes a librarian, goes on adventures, and when she is old, she lives by the sea, making the world more beautiful as she plants thousands of lupine seeds around her little town.
Listening to her story after all these years gave me an odd feeling–it felt like both remembering a long-forgotten memory and realizing a long, unspoken prophecy. In my youth, her life inspired me, a Midwesterner who had never seen the sea. She was an ideal I could only hope to aspire to: interesting, wise, and full of colorful stories. Now, I feel a strange affinity with Miss Rumphius, rather than a gape-mouthed awe. I feel like I have lived into bits of her essence. Like her, I have traveled to far off places and become a librarian. I also desire to create beauty for this world through writing, relationships, and cooking. Did this story help to shape me for the life I now live? Did this little piece of art help to mold my tastes and desires? In some ways, I think it did.
But in other ways, I think that this little piece of art was a striking story that helped to reinforce the values and life truths of the men and women who raised me. In quiet, unassuming ways, my family and my neighbors chose to create little artistic moments that startled and re-directed the lazy, predictable flow of small town Midwestern life. My grandmother planted larkspur every year in her garden for humming birds. At the beginning of each summer, we would try to guess where new patches of pink and purple-blue would appear, blown by last year’s winds. Where others saw piles of car parts and buckets of spark plugs, my grandfather saw (and would build) purring, rumbling Model T Fords and classic Roadsters. Our family garden, thanks to the efforts of my father, always had heirloom tomatoes in the summer–beautiful, ruby colored orbs whose taste was so rich, so deep, that each bite became a silken caress.
And there was my neighbor Helen, who would keep seed packets in her car, ready for her to open and scatter whenever she came across an abandoned parking lot or patch of dirt.
She was my own Miss Rumphius. Present in my life before I read this book.