#kidlitwomen want change. We want equity, recognition, and as we move forward to achieving our goals, we also want an acknowledgement of the forces that have been standing in our way. So all this month, my colleagues have been posting important and timely messages, making sure that the issues that face women, and in particular, those in children’s books, are in focus every day this month, which is Women’s History Month.
I wish I did not have this story to offer, I am a little embarrassed about how I behaved. I promise you I know better now. Of course, that wisdom came with age, and it is age that is at the heart of this cautionary tale.
The conference was held in Racine, Wisconsin. At the very last minute, most likely after someone more illustrious canceled, I was invited to be the guest illustrator. I was thrilled anyway. Lois Lowry was speaking as well, and at that time I was, heck I still am, a great fan of her work. What’s more, it was a chance to get away, mingle with colleagues on a weekend. Back then, life was a frenzy of balancing work with caring for my three daughters, the youngest just 18 months.
I pulled together some work, and some non-studio, non-mom clothes. That was the easy part. Leaving home in those days, meant lots of other prep, too. There were scheduling negotiations with my husband whose work demands included a great deal of travel, grocery shopping, preparing meals, catching up on laundry, and writing those crucial informational notes to sitters, neighbors, and friends about emergencies arrangements. Finally, tearful goodbyes, and I was off.
In the taxi to the airport, I sat back and took a welcomed breath. For the moment, no one needed me. I felt lighter and looked forward to looking at portfolios and being asked my opinion about work, not snacks.
I wasn’t at the conference long, probably still at the meet and greet, when a woman my age approached me. “My mother wants to meet you,” she said.
I paused. I hope you will understand why, as often over the years I have reviewed that pause, and long ago, forgiven myself. I wanted that conference to be for the worldly me, the artist. My mother. Mom. Motherhood. Those words, for that moment, dragged me back to mothering. The carriage had turned to a pumpkin, and the ball was over.
Or so I had envisioned. And how very wrong, how very mistaken I was.
Mother turned out to be the gracious, hilarious, lovely, and occasionally wickedly funny, Florence Parry Hiede. She was the author of TREEHORN, one of my favorite books. At that time, we shared an editor, Susan Pearson, who told Florence I was going to be in Racine, not far from where she lived.
“I had to meet you,” she told me. And I will be forever grateful that she did.
For the next almost two decades, we were pen pals. Letters from Kenosha were always on Florence's signature blue stationary decorated with a border of simple figure drawings --in red. She always used words like happy or joyous, and never forgot to ask about my kids. Usually, she tucked poem inside. Once she wrote a birthday poem for one of daughters. She celebrated my successes and was sympathetic to my disappointments. Her presence in my life cheered me on, as writer and as a mother. We both hoped we would meet again. But we never did.
In THE SHRINKING OF TREEHORN, Florence wrote about a child who is shrinking.
“I am sitting up,” said Treehorn. “This is as far up as I come. I think I must be shrinking or something.”
“Nobody shrinks,” said Treehorn's father.
I tell you this story about meeting Florence Parry Hiede, even leaving in my pause, my initial reluctance to meet her, because I know how like Treehorn, we women can shrink. How others can do the shrinking for us. I know how we can let our weight, age, education, or even a bad haircut, ect. keep us small. So here’s to moving past all that towards a wisdom and greatness that sometimes comes in lumpy gray packages. It’s okay if you pause before going there. I understand. I did too. But make sure you go.